Damerla Ramarao-Revivalist of Andhra art

‘Perantam-[Baby Shower]’ by Damerla Ramarao

Damerla Ramarao-Revivalist of Andhra Art

Those were the days of Swadeshi Movements in India. People of the country united to fight against British to get independence from the English ruling. As every group of the society chipping their bit to contribute to those quit India movements, artists too took to indirect fight holding their brush and chisel. Artists of Telugu land were no different and joined the Independence movements to fight in their own way. One of the names to remember of that time is Damerla Ramarao. He was born on 8th March 1897 at Rajuhmundry. He lived only for 28 years and passed away on 6th February 1925. His name became popular amongst those period artists. He established an art school at Rajuhmundry. His focus was on composing the art of Telugu Culture, and the life styles. He developed a style different from the existing style around in the country at that time. He worked profound and extensive and produced 26 sketch books, 250 pencil drawings, 129 water colour paintings, 34 big oil paintings within his short life itself. He spent most of his time creating art works. All his paintings and drawings are preserved in a museum at Rajuhmundry as Damerla Ramarao art gallery available on view for visitors.

Rajuhmundry was an active centre of Literature, Music and theatre arts by 1908. The citizens of that town responded to the Swadeshi movement call of Gandhiji. One of the responses of that was to establish Nationalistic schools in India while keeping out the British education. Rajuhmundry too established such Jateeya Kalasala while giving importance for Fine Arts. Gadicherla Ramamurthy was teaching drawing and painting in that school. Ramarao was his nephew. Ramarao’ foundation of art and drawing was laid by his uncle at that time and this activity later became one of his cherished activities while keeping out his studies and play away from him. A.S.Ram arrived to this town from Bangalore to paint the theatre props at that time. Mr.Ram studied Paintng in Madras school of art and learnt the art of theatre screen setting art at Bombay. Ramarao adored Mr.Ram’s paintings. He was also flipping through the great Masters’ Turner, Constable like artists Landscape paintings. He left behind all other interests and slowly preferred to draw and paint alone. That became a reason for his father’s anxiety. Sir.O.J. Couldray was the principal of Arts College there. He recognized the creativity and passion for painting in Ramarao. He himself was an artist. He took Ramarao along with him to many important places like Ajanta Ellora and taught him the intricacies of drawing skills. Till the day Ramarao was only doing the copy work looking into the magazines to draw and paint. He learnt to look around to understand the surrounding environment and objects and to translate them to drawing and painting with the guidance of Sir Couldray. Ramarao also learnt through his tutoring to respect our Culture and the beauty embedded in our Indian practices. That continued ever and when he went to study in J.J.School of art, Ramarao was wearing our Indian costume of Dhoti, Uttareeyam and Tilak on forhead, even though other Indian students were wearing western costumes. Couldray convinced Ramarao’s father and he too shouldered some expenses to send Ramarao for art education at J.J.School of art Bombay. Principal of that college was impressed with his work and Ramarao was given the admission directly into 3rd year of 5 years diploma course. He completed his education in 1920 with Distinction and received his certificate. Ramarao married Satyavani in 1919.

Ramarao’s hard work along with discipline, passion brought him many awards and prizes when he was studying at Bombay itself. He received Waddington prize, Griffith prize, Bombay government prize, Mayo gold prize, and so many. His name slowly travelled up to Delhi. British architect of New Delhi Mr.Lethian asked him to do a mural for parliament Bhavan when the building would come for construction. But Ramarao left this world by that time when that mural was to happen. When he was studying in J.J.School, he had few good friends and one of them was Ravishankar Raval from Gujarat who became a big name in the days to come. He went to Gujarat along with them in the summer of 1918 and made paintings on the surroundings there. He named Kathiawad as “Athens of India”. Once again after completing his studies at Bombay he went to Gujarat, stayed at friend’s place and made many drawings and paintings. He made portraits of Bhavanagar royal family on that family’s request. Rabindranath Tagore visited Bhavanagar during those days to deliver a talk. Ramarao drew a portrait of Tagore and showed it for his signature. Tagore thoroughly appreciated his work and advised him to come to Bengal and meet artists around and see their work. That travel to Bengal had thoughtfully helped Ramarao on his journey of future art practices and fixing his goals. He was offered a post of Vice-Principal of Lucknow College of art but Ramarao refused and went back to Rajuhmundry to fulfill his passion for establishing an art school to represent Andhra art and culture.

Ramarao established “Andhra Society of Indian Arts” in 1922 in his home town Rajuhmundry and wanted to revive the art of Telugu land. His sister Buchhi Krishnamma, his wife Satyavani and his friends Varada Venkataratnam and many other friends helped him in organizing and taking forward this institution. Aims of this institute were to establish a style of Andhra art that would represent Telugu people’ Culture and traditions. That should be different from the styles of eastern style of Bengal’ wash technique or western style of J.J.School of art. It should represent it’s own style and language. Ramarao painted many pictures making his wife as his model. She was a tall and lean lady. That made few to think that he was painting in the styles of Abanindranath Tagore but that is not true. Ramarao’ style is different. It is something like realistic image but not the eye deceiving real image like photographic style. Images appear with sudden shift to water colour like transparency and with flat background. Most of the figures appear sober and soft engrossed in their work. He had a skilful hand drawing fine lines and rendered with appealing pleasant colours. Whether he was painting a landscape, Mythological stories, day to day life incidents or people around, he would catch the surroundings and atmosphere very aesthetically. He painted few stories of Budhha’s life where we can recognize the lines and colours of Ajanta Ellora style. Whatever the composition he chose he experimented and painted 2 to 3 times in differing compositions. Whatever the subject he chose it was representing Telugu people, life styles and traditions and culture. For Ramarao it was certainly the Revivalism but that should revive the Telugu art and culture but not the revivalist methods of following other groups of Indian artists at places like Bengal.

Ramarao organized National art exhibitions at Rajuhmundry in 1923 and 1924. His paintings on Krishnaleela had been exhibited in Delhi and London. He continued to receive many awards and prizes. He and his friends have sent paintings to Canada in 1924 for an international exhibition. But he passed away before those paintings reached back. He went to Nallamalai forests of Tirupati in 1925 January for sketching and painting. On his return he was infected with smallpox. He could not recover from that disease and passed away. By that time his name became popular on reaching many corners of India. Many condolence meetings were held at many places of India. The Art institute he initiated at Rajuhmundry was taken care and took forward by his friend Varada Venkataratnam till 1960’. His life was very short but he made his art to live for ages while establishing a specific style as art of Andhra and Telugu people.

M.Balamani 27th March 2020

[This is a translation of my original article published in Sopathi Sunday Magazine of Navatelangana news paper on 1st March 2020]

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