Of royal canvas
Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings continue to hold their own a hundred years after his death, finds Vimla Patil
Raja Ravi Varma was one of the first artists of India to make international news. He was from a royal lineage of Kerala and learnt the skill of portrait painting in oil on canvas from his British and German contemporaries. He made a name for himself long before the modern, contemporary art movement such as the Progressive Artists’ Movement was initiated in India and artists like Gaitonde, Husain, Souza, Ara and Raza became famous in post-Independence India.
Though the works of these artists continue to sell at sky-high prices in India and the West, Raja Ravi Varma continues to hold his regal aura. With the collection of his works in the Baroda Palace Museum and other prestigious institutions and rich mansions, Raja Ravi Varma continues to be one of the most ‘wanted’ artists of India 100 years after his death. This year, his works — which are coveted by the world’s leading art collectors and museums — may be available to lesser admirers through oleographs which will be on show in various art galleries.
Ravi Varma was born near the erstwhile state of Travancore in modern Kerala in 1848 in a family of poets, scholars and art lovers. With the family’s religious leanings, Ravi Varma became familiar with the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat from a young age and wanted to paint the heroes and heroines of these tomes because of his artistic leanings. Seeing his interest, the Maharaja Ayilam Tirunal of Travancore initiated his exposure to European art and the technique of using oil paints for his paintings of early landscapes.
Ravi Varma, with his genius for art, quickly became a master of the techniques and progressively used it to create paintings of Indian deities and scenes from the epics with which he was familiar due to his upbringing. “He was the first Indo-Western artist to picturise Indian deities in a breathtaking, colourful manner and his paintings appealed to all — the rich and the middle class — immediately. His portrayal of Indian gods and goddesses as well as epic tales became a household craze with common people buying prints and decorating them for worship,” says Shruti Singh, an ardent art collector.
By 1892, Ravi Varma came in contact with the industrialist Goverdhandas Khatau Makhanji and set up the first lithographic press in south Mumbai. At this press, machines were imported from Germany and operated by German technicians. Some of the first oleographs of his works were produced here. Among these were the ‘Coronation of Rama’, the ‘Birth of Shakuntala’, ‘Saraswati’ and ‘Mahalakshmi’.
However, this prosperous project suffered when the big plague swept through Bombay and Poona in the colonial era. The press shut down in 1898 and later reopened in Karla near Lonavala in the Sahyadri Hills in 1899. Ravi Varma was unfortunate again when his health failed and he sold the press to German technicians in 1901, giving them the copyright to produce oleographs of his 89 paintings.
The Germans continued to produce these until 1930s — till war clouds began to hover over Europe. Ravi Varma died in 1906 and two admirers Anant Shivaji Desai and AK Joshi bought over the rights to print works from the Baroda and Mysore and other collections. These came out with the stamp of AK Joshi for sale in the market.
Today, Ravi Varma prints can be sourced in various stages of perfection depending upon where and when they were created and what processes were employed in making them. There are many oleographs decorated with gold beads, threads and semi precious stones because this was the fashion among well-to-do upper middle class families in India from the 20s to the 40s. But the original paintings continue to fascinate art lovers and are on display in some of the rich homes of India and mainly in the Baroda and Mysore Palace museums. The oleographs are the next best thing for art lovers and can be bought from art galleries and dealers — particularly this year, as they will be on show in many cities.
More than a hundred years of his death in 1906, Raja Ravi Varma continues to fascinate art lovers with his genius and his paintings and oleographs are popular among collectors.