His art defined how we see gods

Precious Oleographs
Last Updated 29 January 2013, 16:17 IST

Enter the place and the deja vu of a temple engulfs you. For a second, it difficult to believe that it is an art gallery. What else could have been the outcome when 80 oleographs of Raja Ravi Varma adorn the walls in the form of an exhibition ‘The Divine Deities’?

Displayed at Ojas Art, these oleographs are exquisite pieces of printing that were produced in the 19th century press of artist Raja Ravi Varma and are embellished with elegant zardosi work, which is done by women in South India. For those who are not acquainted with oleographs, imagine a print textured to resemble an oil painting. Such as the glossy calenders of deities that almost every household used to have once.

The image of Goddess Lakshmi mounted on a lotus with gold coins raining from her palms, Goddess Saraswati in playing veena and Natraj (Shiva incarnate) is what comes to the mind. But ever wondered why we imagine our deities in these forms only?

This is the result of Raja Ravi Varma’s vision which acquired an identity in print and became popular among the common masses during the Mughal era.

“As a kid, whenever we were told to close our eyes and pray, I saw the image of Saraswati holding a veena and found the same image everywhere I went, be it temples or houses,” says Anubhav Nath, curator of the exhibition.

“But once I saw a different photograph of Lord Krishna at my friend’s place and I asked my grandfather why Lakshmi and Saraswati are the same in all images while Lord Krishna is portrayed different.” He shares the incident with Metrolife explaining how and why he first got inquisitive and acquainted with Raja Ravi Varma’s work and biography.

“My grandfather was a huge collector of Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographs and would show us all whenever he bought a new one. But since as kids we never expect our family to be experts on anything, I did the same.”

However, years later, Anubhav realised the importance of preserving these oleographs but without restoring them.

“Raja Ravi Varma’s art influenced the way we visualise our deities today. His press made his art affordable to commoners through mass production that could be afforded only by the kings or emperors at that time.

The oleographs displayed are old and have different combinations of zari work, silver and gold powder works, zari with pearls etc.

In the early 20th century, some oleographs made their way to Burma (present day Myanmar), where they were further embellished with embroidery and zardosi. These are real collectables, and in the past five years their value has spiralled. Since I do not believe in restoration, the zari work is original and not redone,” shares Anubhav.

The displayed oleographs have a distinct shine of oil with intricate depiction of the Shiv Parivar, Padmini, Mohini, Vasantika, Vishnu and other characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The artist created a trend with the peculiar use of fabric, and his oleographs still resonate the aesthetics of those times and reflect the fashion trends of that era. An example is a bridal kanjeevaram saree which is till date the same as Raja Ravi Varma painted it to adorn Goddess Lakshmi.

(Published 29 January 2013, 16:17 IST)

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