The boy with no name stands to stiff attention. He wears a crimson turban, his left hand holds a sword in its scabbard, and his neck and chest are freighted with jewels. His eyes, clear but dead, betray no emotion as they look directly at his painter. The canvas surface, stretched in a plain wooden frame, is speckled with white; at least in a photograph, the painting appears to have triumphed over the ravages of both time and fungus.
Click here to view a selection of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings.
In February, this painting arrived at the studio of Rupika Chawla, a noted conservator and art historian, and a particular expert in the canon of Raja Ravi Varma, whose stock has galloped upwards over the last decade and a half. The art dealer who brought in the canvas wanted to confirm whether it was by Ravi Varma, and Chawla agreed to examine it. As per her practice, she promised no written certificate of authenticity; she would only explain the reasons for her conclusion.
Over a few days, as she scrutinized the painting, Chawla decided it wasn’t Ravi Varma’s work. “The surface did not have the same finish and quality as his paint surfaces do,” she says. “He had a way of understanding the skeletal structure of his subjects, which came through in the folds and attire of what they wore.” Mostly, she says, she worked on instinct, which she has been honing ever since she restored her first Ravi Varma in the 1980s.
Keen eye: Rupika Chawla at her studio in New Delhi. Of the ‘innumerable’ paintings she has examined over the years, she says, ‘just a handful have been real Ravi Varmas’. Amit Agrawal / Mint
Thus, when the dealer returned, she told him what she thought. “I asked him to pay by cheque, and he asked for a receipt, which was natural,” she says. On a bill numbered 096, she acknowledged receipt of her fee for the “authentication of an oil on canvas painting which was not an original.” Her receipt didn’t even mention Ravi Varma, she points out.
Chawla had nearly forgotten about the incident until, some months later, she started to receive calls from dealers and gallery owners about a purported Ravi Varma and an accompanying certificate signed by her. In June, for instance, Manu Dosaj, owner of Gallerie Alternatives in Gurgaon, conscientiously sent Chawla an email, telling her about being offered the painting with her “receipt of restoration” and asking her to “throw some light on this.”
Chawla’s response was appropriately horrified. “FAKE! FAKE! FAKE! Not only is the painting fake but my BILL has been fiddled with and turned into an authentication certificate,” she wrote back to Dosaj. “Don’t touch it!” When she received more such calls and emails, Chawla filed an FIR in mid-August; the matter is still under police investigation.
The “certificate”, it transpired, was merely Chawla’s receipt in Photoshopped form. Erasing the latter part of her statement, somebody had written, in a cursive painstakingly shaped to resemble Chawla’s, that the painting was “of Raja Ravi Verma (sic).” For good measure, a description followed: “The paint (sic) is a standing Maharaja in yellow dress with a sword. A broch (sic) on his red pagdi. Nackles (sic) and pearl in neck.” Wryly recounting these words, Chawla says: “If nothing else, I think my spelling is better than that.”
The forged certificate makes the painting of the boy with no name the latest exemplar of a wave of fake Ravi Varmas, which has built alongside his rising value in the art market. Not many Ravi Varmas make it into auction; of the few that have, data collected by ArtTactic, a London-based research firm, shows steep rises in sale prices over the last decade. This paucity is, experts say, a reflection of how uncertain authenticity can be. Out of the “innumerable” Chawla has examined over the years, “just a handful have been real Ravi Varmas,” she says.
The nature of Ravi Varma’s life and work makes his paintings intriguing to assess. More than any other artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he travelled across India in search of patrons, painting prolifically for them. A. Ramachandran, a Delhi-based artist and a Ravi Varma expert, estimates a body of roughly 2,000 works, commissioned by clients in Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Rajasthan and what were then known as Bombay and Baroda. If a painting were to emerge in, say, Jaipur, claiming to be a Ravi Varma original, the claim can’t be dismissed outright.
Genuine fake? A photo of the purported Ravi Varma painting, which was accompanied by a forged certificate of authentication.
Copies of Ravi Varma’s works began to surface even during his lifetime. One of the foremost copyists, in fact, was Ravi Varma himself: A client would fall in love with a particular painting and pay him to execute a copy. Ravi Varma’s immediate family—his brother, sister and nephew—would, out of admiration, mimic his style. When Ravi Varma set up his lithographic press, selling thousands of prints of his works, sundry other artists in Kerala and across India sought to capitalize on that popularity by painting like him.
Provenance, therefore, is crucial, and since 1993, the incentive to manufacture that provenance has grown. In that year, Chawla and Ramachandran curated the first major Ravi Varma exhibition in Delhi, pulling his reputation out of the calendar-art department to which critics had consigned him. “Nobody even wanted to buy Ravi Varmas before that exhibition,” Ramachandran recalls.
Immediately after, though, a painting was sold for Rs 5 lakh, and other Ravi Varma paintings—and countless fakes —started to crawl out of attics and warehouses. Recently, Ramachandran says, a Ravi Varma work exchanged hands privately for Rs 6 crore. “And imagine how much it would have earned if it had gone on auction,” he says. “The buyer consulted me on his purchase, and I told him: ‘Buy it, because tomorrow it will cost even more.’” If a fake can be sold even for Rs 1 crore, that’s a payday massive enough to justify the risk of getting caught.
Some fakes are created from scratch and then artificially aged, by crumpling the canvas, or “burying it in the earth for two days, or hanging it in the kitchen,” Ramachandran says. These fakes are poorly fabricated; Chawla has no doubt that methods will get more sophisticated, but right now, basic errors are rife. “Somebody brought me a painting once,” Ramachandran says, “and I told them: ‘There was no camel canvas in Ravi Varma’s time. We started using that only a few years ago.’”
Lacking this knack for fraudulence, con men turn instead to Ravi Varma’s descendants, hoping to gain a measure of reflected credibility. This can involve persuading family members with little knowledge of art to part with any faux-Ravi Varmas they may have. It can also involve pleading with or bribing these members to authenticate fakes. This sort of provenance from the family is invaluable: Ravi Varma often gifted his relatives unsigned paintings, which were then handed down the generations.
Rukmini Varma, a Bangalore-based artist and Ravi Varma’s great great granddaughter, has been thus approached so often that she now offers few assessments of specific works, wary that her words could be twisted into a statement of authentication. Her caution issues in large part from an incident last year, when the owner of a painting of Shakuntala writing a letter—a scene from a play by poet Kalidasa, and a pet Ravi Varma theme—approached Varma for her opinion.
“I saw a photo, and I knew this wasn’t an original,” Varma says. “The drapery was all wrong—the folds of the sari were stiff, and the shading on the face was very flat.” When these defects were pointed out to him, the owner tried another tack. “He said: ‘Would you please say it is a Ravi Varma, to help me?’ I refused,” Varma says. “Then I just stopped taking such calls.”
The fakery can occasionally get ludicrous. Author Shreekumar Varma, Ravi Varma’s great great grandson, was once shown a painting attributed to Ravi Varma and dated to 1907, the year after the artist died.
But it worries Varma that, while “the smart people in the family stay away from touts and agents, there are tons of penniless members of the family” who may be swayed by the promise of a cut from a successful sale.
Varma has been approached many times to validate a painting, and he does so “instinctively, even though I’m not equipped to do it professionally.” He knows how astonishingly influential even a word of confirmation can be. “If I go to even some nondescript art shop on East Coast Road”—a slim highway leading out of Chennai, where Varma resides—“and mention selling a Ravi Varma, within minutes somebody in Delhi would have heard about it and called me to follow up,” he says. “That’s how strong the network is.”
This vast landscape of fakes—of Ravi Varma, but also of other artists’ works—has had a curious chilling effect on the few experts who can pronounce conclusive judgements on paintings. “I did authentication for quite a while after that 1993 exhibition, but then I stopped,” Ramachandran says. “It just became a very risky thing to do.”
Like Chawla, Ramachandran now only provides reasons for his opinion, and not an official certificate. This prudence is understandable, but it may, in a way, feed the flood of fakes if there are no written, reliable assessments to be had at all.
There will be more boys with no name, looking earnestly at their painter—but it will be harder to ascertain who that painter is in the first place.