This is a painting by Raja Ravi Varma of Shungrasoobyer Avergal (1836-1904) who was the Dewan of Travancore. 'Ravi Varma had for long been familiar with the Travancore royal court, having been taken there by his uncle Raja Raja Varma Koil Thampuran at the age of fourteen. It was here where he met and grew to know some of Travancore's most influential people of that period. Sir T. Madhava Row, the forceful Dewan of Travancore from 1858 to 1872 was one such personality. He recognised Ravi Varma's abilities and invited him to the investiture of Sayajirao lll of Baroda in 1880 when he moved there as the Dewan. Madava Row secured for Ravi Varma commissions to make portraits and mythological paintings for Baroda, Indore and other places that continued for many years.
During his tenure as Dewan of Travancore, Madhava Row had the opportunity to observe the competent and quiet Shungrasoobyer Avergal (1836 - 1904) who belonged to the Travancore State Service. Impressed by his style of functioning Madava Row used him for several high profile appointments in Travancore. The encounter between Avergal and Ravi Varma was inevitable since they both belonged to the rarefied court milieu at Trivandrum and since both knew Madava Row well.' (Rupika Chawla, 'Ravi Varma - The Sprawling World of a Genius', Classical and Modern Indian Art, auction catalogue, Pundole's, Mumbai, 2016, p. 29)
Avergal was a fervent admirer of Ravi Varma. The artist and patron spent many spirited hours in conversation with each other, exchanging several letters debating the possibility of opening a museum in Trivandrum, a cause very close to Ravi Varma's heart. He was very keen for his paintings to be accessible to an audience more diverse than just the elite few that visited the hallowed halls of the various palaces in which his paintings hung. In addition, he was also happy to select other talented artists from around the state, so that all artists were well represented.
In one of his letters to Avergal written in August 1895, Ravi Varma elaborates on why it is so important to have a good museum within the state. 'The historical importance of pictures is difficult to overestimate. They throw as much light on the men and manners of a period as any amount of written record [s] ... I think it is a matter of great historical importance to reproduce the portraits of ancient Maharajas, Diwans and Residents as can be done with the help of the materials now available. Mr. Grigg had suggested to me the necessity of preserving the likeness of the eminent personages of Travancore.' (Eds. Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, Raja Ravi Varma Portrait of an Artist The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma, New Delhi, 2005, p. 210)
It is entirely plausible that Ravi Varma painted the current portrait around this time as a way of showing Avergal exactly what was to be gained by creating a visual diary to document the important milestones of the period. It is apparent that his proposal did meet with some acceptance, as another letter, written by Ravi Varma to Avergal fifteen months later lists the paintings which could potentially be commissioned for the 'Picture Gallery at Trivandrum.'
This could also partly explain the absence of a signature on the work. It has been said by scholars that Ravi Varma often didn't sign works done for close friends and family. Since he was working very closely with Avergal, both as his patron for Radha in the Moonlight, and on his beloved museum project, the two had a strong bond, and it is without doubt that Avergal had a deep respect for Ravi Varma's skills as an artist.
The portrait itself is done in his characteristic realist style, with great attention to the details of Avergal's surroundings and clothing. As is typical with Ravi Varma's portraits, the subject's social standing and merit is often decipherable through the jewellery and clothing they wear. Avergal is seated in a book-lined library befitting a man of his education and status. His clothes are an elegant blend of the traditional dhoti and headdress combined with a tailored black coat, showing his familiarity and ease with European styles and fabrics. His important role within the Government and his influential position with the British is shown through the medal he has pinned to his jacket and the pocket-watch chain partially visible on his coat. The gold zardozi work on his cap and the zari border of his dhoti and scarf subtly hints that he is a man of reasonable means, as does the glitter of gold at his ears and his wrists.
Light and shadow are used beautifully to communicate the different textures and moods of the painting. The heavy drapes and the sober line of books are in contrast to the lighter fabric of the white dhoti that is crisply ironed and starched, emphasising the particular nature of the sitter and the overall formal tones of the painting.