It is believed that the eloquent description of the heroine in Indulekha, the first modern novel in Malayalam literature by O. Chandu Menon, published in 1889, had ignited the imagination of legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. Now, the product of that spark, which Ravi Varma poured onto canvas with his masterly strokes and a delicate interplay of lights and shadows, has emerged in public domain.
Though the famous painting ‘Reclining Lady’ is believed to have been modelled on Indulekha, the new oil painting of Indulekha, owned by Sasikala Parakkal and her husband Madhusudhana Menon, Irinjalakuda, has the woman holding a letter addressing her lover Madhavan, the hero of the novel, as ‘Dear Madhavan ….’ dated 1892. The 19th century painting with an over-the-top sense of symmetry and keen attention to micro-details, which was recently restored by Madhan S. of the Heritage Conservation and Research Academy, will go under the hammer at an art gallery in Mumbai in September.
Ms. Parakkal, sister of former Communist Party of India (CPI) MLA Meenakshi Thampan, said the painting was presented to her during her childhood by her late father K.K. Thampan with a message to take care of it for ‘as long as she can.’ The painting was presented to her father by Bhaskara Varma, grandson of Mangala Bayi of the Thampuratti Kilimanoor royal family, sister of Raja Ravi Varma.
“It was historian M.G. Sashibhushan, an authority on the history of the Travancore royal family, who first pointed out the authenticity of the painting in 2003. S. Hemachandran, former Director of the Archaeology Department, later acknowledged its genuineness.
Carbon dating in Lithuania
“Carbon dating done in Lithuania put the age of the painting approximately to the period of Raja Ravi Varma,” said Ms. Parakkal. “We are elderly people and have limitations in safeguarding it. So we decided to auction the painting, which was insured for about ₹15 crore,” said Ms. Parakkal.
“Our main challenge during the time of restoration was the previous conservation of the painting done by an artist,” said Mr. Madhan, who has restored 21 paintings of Ravi Varma so far. “The previous effort did not follow the ethics of conservation. The gold bangle in the left hand was hidden by applying colours. We had to first remove the previous restoration and then bring back the original painting through modern scientific conservation methods,” said Mr. Madhan.
According to the novel, which took shape in a vortex of social upheavals in the 19th century, Indulekha was a woman of awe-inspiring beauty, high intellect, artistic talent, and adept in English and Sanskrit. The novel is clear about asserting women’s rights. It equally portrays the class and caste distinctions prevalent at that time in Kerala.