5 women artists

Mangala Bayi : the invisible artist & sibling of Raja Ravi Varma

Mangala Bayi Thampuratty (1866 – 1954) was the first woman artist of the nineteenth century who worked within an atelier or a studio. She was the only sister of one of the most celebrated Indian painters – Raja Ravi Varma. Even as her paintings won considerable applause from the connoisseurs of art, she has remained invisible in artistic discourse.

Women Artists in the Kilimanoor Family

Born into the Kilimanoor royal family, Mangala Bayi had the opportunity to pursue art (though limitedly). She was however, not the first one to do so. Interestingly, Rohininal Thampuratty and her younger sister Moolamnal Kunjikāvu (two female members of the Kilimanoor clan), were the first to learn the intricacies of the art (from two fugitive princes from the Pazhassi Kovilakam). The future generations inherited the artistic tradition from these women.

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A.R Raja Raja Varma, mentored both Raja Ravi Varma and Mangala Bayi

Kunjikavu’s son Rajaraja Varma was the first prominent artist of the royal family. Rajaraja Varma, who introduced his nephew, Raja Ravi Varma, into the world of painting, was also a mentor to Mangala Bayi.

Mangala Bayi : Art in times of Hierarchy

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Mangala Bayi’s growth as an artist was largely inhibited by the times she lived in. Within the conservative environs of Kilimanur, it was not considered ‘proper’ for someone of her stature to have a ‘profession’. Art too, could be pursued as a hobby, but nothing further.

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Image of Painting: Sharat Sunder Rajeev

She trained herself by observing her painter brothers (Ravi Varma and C. Raja Raja Varma) in their studio. R. P. Raja (Ravi Varma’s great grandson), observes the familial restrictions Mangala Bayi was subjected to:

The finer points regarding painting, Mangala Bayi learnt from her elder brothers. A fixed time was given for her to watch them work in their studio in Kilimanur. She would go there and watch them mix the paints and other aspects of the work just as Ravi Varma had done with Theodore Jensen. If she had any doubts, she would ask very politely after receiving permission to speak. She had her own workplace inside the Kilimanur Palace. She would bring the painting to her brothers for their comments, but the periods when the brothers were in Kilimanur were few and far between.

Mangala Bayi and Ravi Varma : The Sibling Ties

Just like her brother Raja Ravi Varma (whose prowess lay in rejuvenation of mythology and lending them a realistic appeal), Mangala Bayi followed the Western academic artistic tradition in creating her portraits. On one occassion, Ravi Varma is said to have mistaken a canvas by his little sister to be his own – such was the similarity in their work!

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In her own words :

“My brother never thought that his learning was complete. He was willing to correct mistakes when they were pointed out. I was taught to paint mostly by my uncle [Raja Raja Varma]. I approached my brother only to clear doubts. Even that became impossible after my marriage, for as goes the custom among us, it was not thought proper for a married woman to go near her brothers. However, one day, when I was returning after my bath, he asked me for my opinion of Tripura Sundari, which he was just painting and stood aside for me just to examine it. He was a famous man at that time, and I wondered if it would be in order to venture an opinion on it. However, I said that if the face were tilted to one side, the picture would be better and this he did and magnanimously conceded that it was so. However, the specific reason to seek my opinion was to find if I was keeping up my interest in painting.”

As told to Balakrishna Nair for his biography on Ravi Varma (written in Malayalam)

It is also believed that Mangala Bayi worked with Ravi Varma on challenging projects & a couple of prestigious private commissions too.

Paintings by Mangala Bayi

Besides depicting domestic and devotional themes in her paintings, Mangala Bai was known for her portraits of women and children.

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Her painting, similar to the theme of Ravi Varma’s ‘Alms Giving’ is also a significant one. While both paintings depict a hierarchy between the alms-seeker and giver, there is a slight warmth in the one by Mangala Bayi. Interestingly, this painting is credited to Raja Ravi Varma!

A legacy of her own:

Even with the social restrictions she faced in pursuing art, she continued to paint till the age of 84. Isn’t that incredible? She painted this full size portrait of Gandhi at that age.

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Courtesy: R.R.V.N.Varma, Thiruvananthapuram,
India | Lakshmi Priya Daniel

The artistic tradition of the royal family of Kilimanoor through its female lineage was gloriously upheld by Mangala Bayi as she further trained women of the family. Amongst her disciples, Bhavani Thampuratty and Malathi Thampuratty from the family emerged as talented artists.

Renowned artist K. R. Ravi Varma (who played a key role in establishing the Raja Ravi Varma School in Kilimanoor) was Mangala Bayi’s son, and was initiated into the world of art by his mother.

Today, several artworks by Mangala Bayi are still in private collections, beyond the reach of art enthusiasts. At the Srichitra Art Gallery (Thiruvananthapuram), one might come across only about 5 paintings by her – but other than that, her art remains lost in obscurity.

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Photo: Sharat Sunder Rajeev

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References:
Signatures of a Collective Self: A Study of Select Contemporary Women Artists from South India | Lakshmi Priya Daniel
Women artists in India: practice and patronage by Gayatri Sinha
Raja Ravi Varma : Painter of Colonial India by Rupika Chawla
Art & the Princess by Sharat Sunder Rajeev | The Hindu

Shilpi Das is a student of English Literature. She is currently engaged in her PhD research on the rediscovery of the 20th century women painters of India.

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