Forgotten by time, 20th century Andhra Art Renaissance nurtured local styles and produced prolific female artists

Sai Priya Kodidala

In this series, The Telugu Archive founder Sai Priya Kodidala traces Telugu socio-political history through literature and art. Read more from the series here.


In 1934, Oswald Couldrey, a cultured Englishman and former principal of Rajahmundry Arts College, wrote a scathing review of the Exhibition of Modern Indian Art at the Burlington Galleries in London. He was disappointed by the lack of representation of South Indian art, specifically Andhra art. The exhibition, which housed 150 paintings from Delhi, Punjab and Central India and another 100 paintings from Bengal, managed to secure only a mere 15 paintings from Madras Presidency. Couldrey, an artist and poet himself, justifiably expressed his annoyance at this:

"€¦ why in the name of all the gods of art was nothing shown of the work of the Andhra School, which Rama Rao founded in his native Rajahmundry, and which still holds annual exhibitions there? Why was there nothing of Varada Venkataratnam's or Satyanarayana of Coconada or Y Subba Rao, or of the talented ladies of the Damerla family? And what again of the other group of Adivi Bapiraju and his fellows, who blossomed at Masulipatnam? I have seen photographs enough of the work of all these painters to be sure that twice as much wall as those 15 so-called pictures occupied could have easily filled with Andhra work alone, and well up to the standard of the rest of the room. And could not a loan have been obtained of Rama Rao's own masterpieces from the Damerla House? At this distance I can only ask these questions and express a grieved astonishment."

The Andhra Art Renaissance movement emerged on the banks of the Godavari, with Rajahmundry at its centre. At around the same time, schools of art had already been established at Bombay and Madras, with the Bengal School of Art at the forefront. The Andhra Art movement, led by Damerla Rama Rao, a protégé of Oswald Couldrey, nurtured indigenous art, giving rise to homegrown artists such as Varada Venkataratnam, C Bhashyakarla Rao and Chamakura Satyanarayana. The first women artists of modern Andhra emerged from his own family: Damerla Satyavani and Digumarthy Butchikrishnamma. However, the Damerlas remain virtually absent from public memory in present times.

Siddartha Ragodayam by Damerla Rama Rao

'Siddartha Ragodayam' by Damerla Rama Rao

A cover for Bharathi, by Damerla Rama Rao

A cover for the journal Bharathi, by Damerla Rama Rao

The quest for a unique identity

At the turn of the 20th century, nationalism gained currency across the subcontinent. Closer home, the quest for and process of defining an Andhra cultural identity were in a state of churning. The urge to assert a unique identity drove cultural production, including literature and art €" especially in the Northern Circars (then part of the Madras Presidency). It is well known that the Telugus later went on to carve a linguistic state of their own (to be further divided into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in recent times).

Even as part of the Madras Presidency, Rajahmundry €" the birthplace of the first Telugu epic, Nannaya's Andhra Mahabharatamu €" retained its importance as the religious and cultural capital of the Telugu regions. Around 1911, Oswald Couldrey discovered Damerla Rama Rao's latent genius. Couldrey, who maintained an undiminishing love for Indian arts and culture, introduced him to the Western style of painting. He frequently took Rama Rao for live studies to the countryside. These included trips to the Ajanta and Ellora caves, to study the murals and sculptures, which left a lasting impact on Rama Rao.

Between 1916-1920, at the behest of Couldrey, Rama Rao received training at the prestigious JJ School of Art in Bombay. In this city, he was influenced by Gladstone Solomon, whose Western academic training was in direct conflict with the orientalism of the Bengal School of Art. In later years, he spent time teaching at the institute and travelling from the West to East, before he returned to Rajahmundry in 1922.

He envisioned a distinct Andhra style, emulating academic figure drawing while reinforcing the local talent for decorative murals, inspired by the frescoes of Ajanta and Lepakshi. For instance, his 'Siddhartha Ragodayam', inspired by the Ajanta murals, retains the prominence of academic figure drawing. Rama Rao's live studies also followed a Late European Renaissance style of portrayal. Unusually bold for conservative Rajahmundry, he and his wife Satyavani painted frontal nudes, which often put them at the receiving end of social outrage.

A work by Satyavani, from 1933

A work by Satyavani, from 1933

A cover for Gruha Lakshmi, by Satyavani

A cover for Gruha Lakshmi, by Satyavani

With the help of his wife, sister and friends, Rama Rao started the Andhra Society for Indian Art at Rajahmundry in 1923, to produce and teach art which was both swadeshi and modern. In the following years, his work was exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley and the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto. Even as his art received  acclaim, he passed away at 28, after contracting smallpox. This set back the Andhra art movement within three years of its conception.

The fleeting influence of the Damerla women

Rama Rao's influence produced two prolific female artists: his partner, Damerla Satyavani, and sister Digumarthy Butchikrishnamma. His untimely death, however, did not stop the duo from pursuing art, despite not receiving formal art education.

After her husband's death, Satyavani, who was 17 at the time, devoted herself to art. She often travelled around Rajahmundry, studying nature and sketching. Her work is largely shadowed by her husband's influence and technique. However, it is noteworthy that she offered a rare portrayal of the contexts and private spaces inhabited by elite Brahmin women.

Determined to curate her husband's work which was stuck in legal cases, she struggled to bring it under a gallery. With Varada Venkataratnam's help, she eventually established the Damerla Rama Rao Art Gallery in Rajahmundry. Upon the encouragement of a school inspector, she gained a diploma in drawing and started teaching art at the local government school until her retirement.

On the other hand, Rama Rao's sister Digumarthy Butchikrishnamma actively participated in both the freedom movement and the Andhra art movement. She participated in the former with her husband Digumarthy Hanumantha Rao. Butchikrishnamma's art was influenced by her patriotism. In 'Nooluthiyita' (Spinning of the Yarn), Butchikrishnamma portrays a household woman using the charkha, much like the women she mobilised for the charkha movement in Rajahmundry. Derived from her own life experiences as a freedom fighter, nationalism and mythology stand out as prominent themes in her art. Unfortunately, she gave it up after the death of her husband, a year after Rama Rao's death. She dedicated herself to social work at the Kasturba Ashram in Rajahmundry.

The women's magazine Gruha Lakshmi, and monthly journals such as Bharathi and Andhra Bhoomi, featured the duo's works on their cover pages. Though both Satyavani and Butchikrishnamma largely derived their painting styles from Rama Rao, they still retained a uniqueness in their portrayal of women-oriented themes, full of nativity. Though they enjoyed popularity during their time, their work does not seem to have captured mainstream attention. It remains largely undocumented, due to the lack of interest and patronage.

The need for a self-perception of Andhra identity, both biographical and cultural, is still alive in the Telugu population. It is not difficult to share Couldrey's disappointment at the lack of recognition suffered by the Damerlas. The Damerla Art Gallery in Rajahmundry, as it stands, is in need of some serious attention. The short-lived history of the Andhra Art Renaissance is, however, akin to a neglected rustic sword, when it should be seen as a crown jewel.

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