Portrait of Seth Lachman Das, CIE
Ravi Varma grew up in an environment rich with the arts. Travancore, as a state had always patronised the arts, be it music, painting or sculpture, and his proximity to the royal family ensured that he was exposed to these forms from a young age. His talent as a draughtsman was also spotted at the young age of thirteen by the Maharaja, who had been presented with drawings by Ravi Varma and was impressed with what he saw. He instructed the boy to live in the Palace and learn from the other artists working in the court at the time.
The court artists had recently been introduced to two novel concepts: canvas and oil paint, both alien to the artists of South India, and both critical to the European academic style that was favored at the time. However, as they were still learning how to make optimal use of these magical mediums, there was a fair amount of caution and jealousy that existed amongst the artists. None were willing to be generous with time or knowledge and the young Ravi Varma lacked a mentor within the Palace who would develop his talent further. Until he met Arumughom Pillai, an apprentice who 'offered to initiate the young man into the intricacies of oils and new techniques...' (Parsram Mangharam, Raja Ravi Varma The Painter Prince 1848 - 1906, Bangalore, 2003, p. 18.) Surprisingly, he met the same resistance from visiting European artists, who grudgingly allowed Ravi Varma to only watch them at work, but would not agree to formal lessons in Academic Realism.
However, through sheer determination, a natural talent for painting and endless practice, Ravi Varma mastered the art of working in oil. As described by art critic Sri E.M.J Venniyoor, 'The struggle at self-instruction lasted nine years. By the simple expedient of trial and error Ravi Varma learnt the technique of mixing colours. He could evoke a likeness without effort, could compose and construct with a sense of balance, and for the first time in the annals of India art, mastered and introduced the principle of perspective...' (Parsram Mangharam, Raja Ravi Varma The Painter Prince 1848 - 1906, Bangalore, 2003, p. 18.) His hard work paid off and he became a favorite with the Maharaja who was immensely pleased with his work.
Ravi Varma's favorite subject was the female figure, whether she was the classical heroine from various mythological stories, numerous incarnations of goddesses from the Hindu pantheon or women from his social community or the Palace at large. Scenes from Hindu mythology were also extremely popular with him as he spent many hours reading the epics and other classical literature.
By the early 1870s Ravi Varma was well on his way as a professional artist and he began actively entering works into exhibitions. The Governor's Gold Medal he won in 1873 for Nair Lady at the Toilet and for Shakuntala's Love Letter To Dushyantha done in 1876 proved to be a stepping stone to international recognition as well as a fair amount of positive press praising the young artist.
Once his primary patron and supporter the Maharaja of Travancore passed away in 1880, Ravi Varma began traveling around the country a lot more, accepting commissions and invitations from various royal families including Baroda, Poona, and Mysore. The frequency and ease of his travels was also aided with the new railway lines. His focus remained portraiture and mythological scenes, as is seen by the number of works done in various palaces around the country. His partner for all his travels for the next several years would be his brother C. Raja Raja Varma, who was an artist as well as a writer. He documented much of the brothers' journeys, excerpts of which are included on the following pages, and '...provided valuable insight into the lives of the two brothers, their routine, the temples they never failed to pray at, the demands made on their time, energy, emotions... and their deep and abiding interest in other art forms...' (Parsram Mangharam, Raja Ravi Varma The Painter Prince 1848 - 1906, Bangalore, 2003, p. 24.)
Ravi Varma developed a distinct pictorial language for himself that was firmly rooted in the academic traditions of the West which he successfully adapted to suit his distinctly Indian subjects. His style was revolutionary in India, as it broke away from all previous painting traditions including wash painting, murals and miniature paintings. His mastery over oil painting allowed him to manipulate and mould the medium with amazing results. Under his brush, the flat surface of the canvas suddenly came to life with a sculptural three-dimensional quality which he exploited to communicate the sheer luxury and sumptuousness of his subjects lifestyles.
Property from the Descendants of the Distinguished Seth Lachman Das of Mathura, CIE
NATIONAL ART TREASURE-NON EXPORTABLE ITEM
(Please refer to our Conditions of Sale at the back of the catalogue)
Oil on canvas
70 x 50 in. (177.8 x 127 cm.)
Signed and dated 'Ravi Varma / 1896' lower left
This lot also includes two medals originally owned by the Family and depicted on the subject in the portrait. Complete details are stated below.
Seth Lachman Das had two heirs: Damodar Dasji who married Chanda Bai and Dwarka Dasji who married Chironja Bai. The following generation were Mathura Dasji (s/o Damodar Dasji who married Anjana Bai) and Gopal Dasji (s/o Dwaraka Dasji who married Gulab Bai). As there were no heirs from the last two male members, Seth's Estate, including paintings, were to be administered by the Court of the Wards of Her Majesty's Government in India.
The Estate then passed to Seth Bhagwandas (born 21st February 1921). He was the adopted son of Gulab Bai and Gopal Dasji, and he took control of the Estate from the Court of Wards in 1944.
Seth Bhagwandas lives in Mumbai and has gifted this painting to Seth Vijay Jain, the only son from his first marriage, who is based between Kanpur and the ancestral home in Mathura.
Raja Ravi Varma - Painter of Colonial India, Rupika Chawla, Ahmedabad, 2010, p. 64, illustrated.
For an image of the original reference photograph from which the current work was painted see The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma, edited by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, 2005, p. 246, pl. 10, fig A.
'A painting such as this has four dimensions... the three you see and the story behind the artwork - that is the fourth.'
The current painting is a portrait of Seth Lachman Das, an extremely well known banker and businessman from the city of Mathura, located on the banks of the Yamuna. As is documented in Ravi Varma's brother, C. Raja Raja Varma's diary, Ravi Varma and his brother traveled extensively in Northern India in early 1895, a year before the current painting was completed, including visits to Rajasthan, Mathura and Agra.
'Ravi Varma, as the guardian of the minor Maharaja Martanda Varma of Travancore, made an extensive continental tour of the whole of India in company with his Princely ward. Tour started from Trivandrum on 18th November 1894, lasting over five months, visited all the important and interesting cities of North India... They traveled 7,300 miles by road, rail and water. (Parsram Mangharam, 'Raja Ravi Varma - Family & Life Significant Dates', Raja Ravi Varma The Painter Prince 1848 - 1906, Bangalore, 2003, p. 273.)
C. Raja Raja Varma's diaries are the most informative and useful primary source of material that give tremendous insight into the life and times of the painter and his brother as they traveled around the country, documenting their travels through both paintings and extensive writings. Their trip to Mathura where they were hosted by Seth Lachman Das himself, is also documented in great detail in A Narrative of the Tour of Upper India of His Highness Prince Martanda Varma of Travancore:
'In a single night we were transported from the romantic land of Rajasthan to the classic city of Mathura (or Muttra as the word is generally spelt) on the banks of the Jamuna. What Jerusalem is to the Christians, and mecca to the Moslems, even that is Mathura to the Hindus; it is the birth-place of their favourite demi-god and prophet Krishna. His wonderful life, which exhibited the foibles of men, with occasional flashes of a super-human power, has held spell-bound Hindus of every shade of opinion...The birth place of such a hero must of necessity possess a more than ordinary attraction for the pilgrim. Our visit, therefore, promised to be one of an exceedingly interesting nature.
Our kind host, Seth Lachman Das, C.I.E. with his well-known hospitality, had placed at our disposal his beautiful "Jumnabagh" overlooking the river. In one corner of this pretty garden of fruit trees, fountains and ferneries, stood a very picturesque little cenotaph, partly hidden by a thick mass of foliage...
At 7 o'clock in the evening the Seth, accompanied by his chief Karbari and attendants, paid a visit to His Highness the Prince. A conversation of about twenty minutes was followed by the inevitable garlands and "pan supari" which terminated the visit.' (C. Raja Raja Varma, A Narrative of the Tour of Upper India of His Highness Prince Martanda Varma of Travancore, 1896, p. 43.)
Seth Lachman Das and his family were extremely well regarded in Northern India. Apart from being a very successful businessman himself, his uncles had also cultivated tremendous favour with the British because of the their family's investments in several diverse projects and their generous support of various charitable causes. They co-sponsored several infrastructure projects with the British, such as the Mathura and Hathras Light Railway, despite being aware that it would not yield the most financially rewarding returns. They supported William Muir's Central College in Allahabad, 'with a subscription of Rs. 2,500' and donated extensively to the famine relief efforts in 1874. The family 'headed the list with a donation of Rs. 7,100.' (F.S. Growse, Mathura District Memoir, New Delhi, 1993, p. 16.)
The British came to trust them and relied heavily upon the family, which made them extremely influential as is evidenced by the fact that his promissory notes were even honoured by the Bank of England. (The only other person in India to have this unique position was the Nizam of Hyderabad.) Seth Lachman Das's uncle, Gobind Das, was awarded the Companion of the Star of India in 1877 and other important awards from the British followed through the subsequent decades, including the Companion of the Indian Empire for Seth Lachman Das himself. These achievements and investments enabled the family to establish themselves as pre-eminent citizens who would be invaluable to the British.
Raja Raja Varma's diary documents some of this family history:
'Seth Lachman as is the head of a large banking firm of Northern India, having branch offices in almost all the important towns. His grandfather, Maniram, who was a Jain by religion and a comparatively poor man, had a subordinate post under Gokul Das Parakh, the founder of the firm and treasurer to the Maharaja Sindia (sic). Having had no issue and having been on bad terms with his brother he bequeathed at the time of his death all his wealth to Maniram, of whom he was extremely fond. Maniram left three sons, the famous Seth Lakmichand, Radha Krishen and Govind Das, of which the first two each had a son, Raghunath Das, and Seth Lachman Das, respectively. On the death of Lakmichand, his son Raghunath Das, not possessing his father's business faculties, the affair of the firm were managed jointly by Lakmichand's two brothers, but the cruel hand of death removed them all one after another, leaving our friend Seth Lachman Das the sole surviving heir to the magnificent fortune. His non-sectarian charities, hospitality, and goodness of heart have won him a Companionship of the Indian Empire, and a seat in the Lieutenant Governor's Council at Allahabad... The Seth keeps a princely establishment, with a military guard at his gate, servants in livery, horses and carriages...'(C. Raja Raja Varma, A Narrative of the Tour of Upper India of His Highness Prince Martanda Varma of Travancore, 1896, pp. 43-44.)
One of the more infamous stories of Seth Lachman Das's family is their unfortunate tryst with the Taj Mahal. In 1831, the East India Company, under the Governor General Lord William Bentinck decided to auction the Taj Mahal. Rather than value it for its architectural and historical relevance, its value was determined based on the price of the raw materials used in the construction. The precious stones and gems were to be sent back to London for sale there and the rest disposed locally. Seth Lachman Das's uncle Seth Laxmichand made a successful bid of seven lakh rupees at the time for the marble used in the building. Fortunately, good sense prevailed on the Assembly members in London who recognised the historical and architectural importance of the building and nullified the sale. Despite the unfortunate incident with the Taj Mahal, Seth Lachman Das did, in fact, have a home in Agra that Ravi Varma stayed in after his visit to Mathura. As Raja Varma says in his travelogue:
'...the train which left Mathura at 6 in the morning landed us right in the heart of Agra, with the stately, but age-stricken Jama Masjid towering on the one hand, and the red sandstond battlements of Akbar's fort on the other. We occupied Seth Lachman Das "Kothi" on the verge of the Jumna with the beautiful mausoleum of Itmad-ud-Daula, gleaming between the green leaves of the mango and the cypress beyond the turbid mass of water rolling to join the Ganges. '(C. Raja Raja Varma, A Narrative of the Tour of Upper India of His Highness Prince Martanda Varma of Travancore, 1896, p. 49.)
The current work is a larger than life-size portrait of Seth Lachman Das, seated on what appears to be a semi-open balcony in his home in Mathura, with the town and the Yamuna river visible in the background.
He sits imposingly on a comfortable armchair, with a relaxed yet regal air about him, looking confidently at the viewer. Unlike most portraits that were done in an interior setting, the current work offers a view of the river Yamuna and the town of Mathura. The balcony where he poses is a deliberate blend of East and West which is an intentional choice by the artist, as it only serves to highlight the sitter's revered position within both Indian and British social circles. The design of the pillar suggests a strong local influence, often seen in palatial homes such as his, and is continued in the design of the balcony railing. In stark contrast is the typically Victorian chintz curtain (India exported calico textiles woven in India designed with English motifs). The flowery backdrop lifts the painting and does not allow it to be as heavy as other portraits that are usually painted in dim interiors and have a plain dark background. The hazy sky with pale sunlight drifting in and reflecting off part of the white mosaic floor add to the feeling of airiness.
As is typical with Ravi Varma's portraits, the subject's social standing and merit is often decipherable through the jewelry and clothing he is shown wearing. He wears an elaborate velvet coat heavily embroidered with gold brocade and zardozi work on top of a deep red brocade under layer. The amount of gold thread that would have been used in the embroidery is an automatic testament to his position. The striking coat is complemented with a shiny pair of black formal shoes, showing his familiarity with European styles, and a fuschia pink embroidered topi which jauntily completes the ensemble.
Around his neck he wears several strands of basra pearls, some interspersed with emerald beads, and an impressive larger basra and emerald necklace with a large diamond pendant with a suspended emerald drop. The rings on his right and left hand complement the necklace with their large emerald stones surrounded by diamonds.
His influential standing with the British is proudly displayed around his neck in the form of two medals, the first on a ribbon and the second pinned to his coat. The first is the Victoria Silver medal that was presented to prominent officials within India to commemorate the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1877. (This was probably the medal that was given to his uncle Gobind Das that same year.) It has a portrait of Queen Victoria on the front and engraved 'Empress of India' in English, Devanagari and Persian scripts on the reverse. The second medal is a breast badge that was bestowed upon Lachman Das himself as Companion of the Indian Empire. The badge has a five-petaled red rose with green leaves in-between, inscribed 'VICTORIA IMPERATRIX' around a central engraved profile of Queen Victoria, and 'INDIA' inscribed on the five petals. Both the medals are available to view and will be sold with the painting as commemorative objects.
In his right hand he holds a delicate white handkerchief stained with red kumkum, possibly suggesting he has just completed a puja, which is further reinforced by his prominent tilak mark of the Ramanandi sect of Vaishnavites on his forehead.
One of the most wonderful aspects of Ravi Varma's works is the feeling of tactility and texture that he manages to capture. The viewer can almost feel the heavy drape of the soft plush velvet, the wiry knotty threads of the embroidery, the richness of the red brocade, the subtle sparkle of the diamonds combined with the milky luminescence of the pearls. The same naturalism seen in the bristles of his neatly trimmed handlebar mustache and sideburns and the ruddiness of cheeks, imbue the work with a realism and three-dimensionality that Ravi Varma was rightly famous for.
When creating portraits, Rupika Chawla explains that it was 'standard practice' for the two brothers to 'observe and interact' with the subject for a few days, often doing a few quick sketches or making notes of measurements and other details. (Rupika Chawla, Raja Ravi Varma Painter of Colonial India, Ahmedabad, 2010, p. 316.) Since photography became popular at this time, it was also common for Ravi Varma to work from a photo image.
In the case of the current work, both these methods were used, as is evidenced by their visit to Mathura the previous year where they would have interacted with Seth Lachman Das, as well as the photograph of Seth Lachman Das published in the diary of C. Raja Raja Varma and reproduced here. As can be seen in the photo, the clothes, jewellery and accessories, down to the handkerchief in his right hand, are identical to the painting, as is the confident and relaxed pose of the subject. The only aspect of the photograph that Ravi Varma has changed is the background. Given the superb location of the house with its magnificent view of the Yamuna at dusk, it probably made for a far more interesting backdrop than the typical interior setting that he had in the majority of his portraits.
It is exceptionally rare to encounter works by Raja Ravi Varma that have remained within the family that had originally commissioned the works, and therefore have such a clear and direct line of provenance. Furthermore, the work is of exceptional scale and depicts a historically important figure that further reinforces the art historical importance of the painting.