A royal palette

A royal palette

Jasmine Shah Varma

In a discussion on the greatest Indian portraitists from early 20th century the names of Raja Ravi Varma, Dhurandhar and Pithawala among some others crop up. One more name of significance that henceforth will be taken is Vamanrao Pandit (1882 – 1941). Son of a renowned scholar of Sanskrit and prime minister of Porbandar Rao Bahadur Dr Sir Shankarao P Pandit, Vamanrao was born with the skill for portraiture, which was later honed by no lesser tutors than two of the most celebrated artists of Europe Philip de Laszlo and John Singer Sargent.

After all these years Vamanrao resurfaces in the most buoyant times for Indian contemporary art due to the efforts of his grandson, art collector and promoter, Jai Bhandarkar. He has a collection of Vamanrao’s paintings of European personalities and the Indian royal and aristocrats that will be exhibited in December 2005 at Hacienda Gallery. A larger event is planned for next year before which he hopes to trace more of his grandfather’s works from private collections.

Little was known of this highly accomplished artist who has painted noted personalities including Sir Dorab Tata, Sudhira Devi (Gayatri Devi’s paternal aunt), Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, Sir Ibrahim Rahimtullah, Sayaji Rao Gaekwar, Tukoji Rao Holkar and his sisters Pandita Kshama Row and Lady Bhadrabai Madgavkar. He was popular among Maharajas from 60 states across India including those from Junagadh, Gwalior, Kashmir, Cooch Behar, Rajkot, Chota Udaipur, Mysore and Kutch. Speaking of Vamanrao in the context of art of the late 19th century, Mortimer Chatterjee, art dealor says, “Technique wise and academically speaking Vamanrao is a hugely important artist. We have to bear in mind the importance of academic realism in the late 19th and early 20th century in India as well as Western countries. Vamanrao is not known in the art market today because he did not paint mythological themes or touch the popular imagination. He did unique commercial projects catering to a select audience. He was a society salon painter.” Bhandarkar adds, “Vamanrao was a meticulous person who maintained a dairy and wrote names and fee rates of most of the people he painted. He charged for a full length portrait Rs 25,000, which was a lot for those times.”

Raja Ravi Varma on the other hand, the more famous portraitist and painter from that time balanced his elite clientele with popular appeal with the paintings on mythological themes that were catered to the masses in the form of oleographs.

Vamarao studied in Europe from the best of the time and that is reflected in his art. After his law education in London he moved to Vienna where Philip de Laszlo was already a recognised portraitist in Europe. He spent five years with de Laszlo travelling extensively throughout Europe visiting influential people. During this time, besides the relation of an apprentice a greater friendship evolved between the two. De Laszlo made a suave portrait of the very handsome Vamanrao dressed as an Indian prince which was exhibited in 1907 and 2004. So far there is no record of Vamanrao’s portrait of de Laszlo, but Bhandarkar has a portrait that Vamanrao made of de Laszlo’s delicate featured wife Lucy. In 1907 Vamanrao moved back to London and joined the Royal Academy under Sargent. In his time in Europe Vamanrao made portraits of Lady Nina Corbet, Baron Arild Rosencrantz, Otto Friedrick and Countess of Bective.

Vamanrao’s style of portraiture has the European academic approach and yet has a distinct style. Vamanrao used a muted colour palette and presented the jewels and pearls of his Indian sitters without overstating them. Their personality was brought out by the depiction of an inner glow on the face and eyes that told the story.

Sharda Dwivedi, historian who places Vamanrao’s paintings “at an extremely high level” in the context of Indian art says, “There are many unsung artists. Vamanrao Pandit has been rediscovered now. His portraiture is as sensitive as say Raja Ravi Varma’s or Dhurandar’s though very different in style. He beautifully managed to get into the soul of the person.”

Published in ‘The Times of India’ 2005