Portrait of an artist

canvas chronicles

Portrait of an artist

Often referred to as the ‘Father of Indian Modern Art’, Raja Ravi Varma (April 29, 1848 — October 2, 1906) was immensely popular in his lifetime. Such was the sway of the largely self-taught painter from Kerala that in 1894, when a set of his works travelled from Baroda to Bombay, lines upon lines of people reportedly filed through the exhibition halls.

In a career spanning three-and-a-half decades, Ravi Varma supposedly created close to 2,000 paintings. He also produced countless editions of oleographs, which adorn millions of Indian homes to this day — either in original form or reworked/fake versions.

Ravi Varma’s reputation was principally built on a series of delicately detailed portraits of the rich and the regal; and his new brand of mythological paintings which were later repeated in his iconic oleographs. He enjoyed royal patronage; and was courted, among others, by the Maharajas of Travancore and Mysore, Baroda and Udaipur. The famous ‘Ravi Varma style’ became a source of inspiration for many artists during and after his time.

While his paintings were principally made for the rich elite, his inexpensive oleographs of Hindu legends reached even the commonest of common people of the country. Rabindranath Tagore was among those who witnessed and recorded this phenomenon: “During my childhood when Ravi Varma’s age arrived in Bengal, reproductions of the European paintings on the walls were promptly replaced with the oleographs of his work”.

Historians have recognised that Ravi Varma’s most interesting innovation lay in the choice of themes; giving gods and goddesses a human face; and physically freezing mythological scenes. “He was adding a new dimension of portrayals of traditional narrative,” observes artist and art critic Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh. “These were ‘flesh and blood’ divinities... The new realistic avatars of the goddesses met with such an overwhelming response that their earlier forms disappeared from public memory.”

Over time, Ravi Varma’s work was also being linked to the notion of nationalism. Sister Nivedita, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, praised him for “the urge to feel and act patriotically and bring painting to the service of Swadeshi and Nationalism.” In 1907, a year after his death, the monthly magazine Modern Review hailed him as “the greatest artist of modern India, a nation builder who showed the moral courage of a gifted ‘high-born’ in taking up the ‘degrading profession of painting’.”

An eventful life

Ravi Varma has been subject to several biographies by noted authors and historians. That he was born into an aristocratic family in the erstwhile Travancore state; showed an early interest in drawing by scribbling on palace walls; and drew the attention of his uncle who recognised his talent, are all part of an oft-repeated narrative.

As interesting was the exceptional bondage and lifelong partnership between Ravi Varma and his youngest brother, C Raja Varma, which was broken only by the latter’s death. Ravi Varma’s marriage to the sister of the Maharani of Travancore in 1866 lasted all of 25 years, but was frequently interrupted by his long absences when the brothers set out on their nationwide trips. 

A major turning point came when Ravi Varma was invited to Baroda in 1881 as a State guest by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad and painted many portraits of the Maharaja and his family. Seven years later, the Varma brothers returned to Baroda to paint 14 Puranic works for the royal family. In the meantime, Ravi Varma’s reputation had soared: as colonial India’s finest Indian artist; as a pioneer in employing human models to illustrate Hindu gods and goddesses; and as a skilful trendsetter who fused European academic techniques with Indian sensibilities.

Historians have vividly described how the artist’s growing interest in painting subjects from Indian mythology resulted in his setting up the Ravi Varma Lithographic Press in Bombay with imported German machinery and German technicians. It is this press (later moved to Lonavla) which produced a wide array of copies of his paintings, primarily of Hindu gods and goddesses, and reached the homes of tens of thousands of Indian homes. In due course, however, its operations became financially unwieldy, forcing Ravi Varma to sell the press to his trusted German technician Fritz Schleicher. (The press continued successfully until a devastating fire destroyed the whole factory in 1972).

Ravi Varma continued to receive royal patronage and travelled widely, but suffered a great personal tragedy when his brother, confidante and fellow traveller died in 1904. It was, according to many, a blow from which the famed artist never really recovered. One version says that Ravi Varma had planned to accept sanyasa when he turned 60 in 1908. But he did not survive to see that happen. A worsening diabetes took its toll and the painter of many gods and goddesses succumbed on October 2, 1906, aged 58 years, drawing curtains to an eventful life.

A cultural icon

It is interesting to see how more than 110 years after his death, Ravi Varma’s name remains active in public memory or discourse. For millions of his present-day admirers, Raja Ravi Varma is, and will always be, an undisputed cultural icon. “His work has this special quality of timelessness,” says Bharani Thirumal Rukmini Bayi Varma, his great-great-granddaughter, and the driving force behind the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.

Ravi Varma’s works feature in important events and exhibits even today. Books and novels on his life and art are routinely dished out by publishers. An occasional film too comes by. Fakes of his work appear; and disputes on authenticity of his paintings reach the courts for settlement.

Chroniclers have recorded that Ravi Varma’s popularity did dip following his death. The works of the erstwhile ‘Painter Prince’ had already begun gathering not-so-respectful titles like ‘bazaar art’ and ‘Indian kitsch’. In the 1950s, growing interest in modern art affected his reputation further. But Ravi Varma bounced back into public domain, especially after a major exhibition of his works was curated by painter A Ramachandran and art conservator Rupika Chawla at the National Museum, New Delhi in 1993.

Last year, an exhibition titled ‘Raja Ravi Varma: Royal Lithography and Legacy’ was organised by the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bengaluru. The show, which ran for six weeks, attracted unprecedented viewership. “Forget the opening night when it was a virtual chock-a-block of cheering fans of Ravi Varma; even on other days, hundreds of visitors thronged the galleries of NGMA,” recalls Ganesh Shivaswamy, a trustee of the Foundation and curator of the show. 

In the art market, Ravi Varma is an undisputed star. For the discerning collector, it is often said, there is no greater thrill than a chance to own a canvas by Ravi Varma. “In 1979, the Indian government declared Ravi Varma to be a National Art Treasure and prevented the export of his paintings from India,” observes international auction house, Sotheby’s. “So it is incredibly rare for his works to ever come up at auction internationally.”

Last month, the highlight of Sotheby’s New York auction (March 16, 2017) was his Untitled (Damayanti). The 28¾ x 20¾ inch oil on canvas showed the protagonist princess in a glimmering sari, pining in the moonlight for her lover. Ravi Varma, who was known to combine the classic Indian mythology with European realism, supposedly used a photograph of a European performance of The Feast of Roses, L’inamorata (1900) to re-imagine a scene from the Sanskrit play. The painting came with an estimate of 500,000 — 700,000 USD, but went under the hammer for a staggering USD 1,692,500, or Rs 11.9 crore.

Exactly a year ago, another oil painting by Ravi Varma, Untitled (Portrait of a Young Woman in Russet and Crimson Sari) had sold for $586,000 in Sotheby’s auction (New York / March 15, 2016), almost doubling its high estimate. In November 2016, at Pundole’s art auction in Mumbai, Ravi Varma’s ‘Radha in the Moonlight’ (1890 / 57 ½ x 41 ½ inch) sold for no less than Rs 20 crore!

Share of criticism

While there has never been a dearth of die-hard admirers, Ravi Varma’s art has also had its share of criticism and controversy during his lifetime and thereafter. He was even taken to Bombay court and tried on charges of obscenity, for offending public morality and hurting the religious and cultural sentiments of people by painting Indian mythological characters in allegedly indecent ways. The artist fought the case successfully and was eventually absolved of the charges. (Ketan Mehta’s feature film, Rang Rasiya (2014), re-enacts the court case).

Beyond the courts, Ravi Varma faced derisive critics on the question of aesthetics. Historian and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy reportedly accused that his work was nothing more than a “superficial study of Indian life... too mannered, too Hindu, too literal, too melodramatic.” For artist M F Husain, Ravi Varma’s prints were “the worst kind of calendar art”, and the goddesses, “Italian women in saris”.

Several historians feel that printing of oleographs was Ravi Varma’s real undoing. They say that it ensured his quick slide from neoclassical to kitsch; and eventually led to his downfall, both financially and creatively. “In many ways, this one move towards mass production both made and unmade ‘the modern’ artist,” observes academic Tapti Guha-Thakurta.

“While it turned his model of Indian art into a mass phenomenon (the staple of a new popular picture trade), it also signalled Ravi Varma’s fall from grace — his banishment from the canons of ‘high art’ and ‘modernity’ in Indian art history. The first of our new creed of modern Indian artists was lost to the mass market, largely a victim of his own success...”

Master painter’s influence...

Ravi Varma remains one of Indian art’s most intriguing figures to inspire contemporary artists, photographers and filmmakers. “The impact of Ravi Varma upon what is contemporary Indian art is immense,” says Deepanjana Pal, author of ‘The Painter: A Life Of Ravi Varma’. “His influence on the kitsch style is obvious, and artists like Pushpamala N have referenced him directly in a lot of their work.” 

Bengaluru-based Pushpamala, whose works have been described as ‘performance photography’ has, among others, reworked three Ravi Varma popular paintings (Lady In The Moonlight, Lakshmi and Returning From The Tank), posing herself as the main protagonist. In one of his works, American artist and photographer Waswo X Waswo too has replaced a Ravi Varma’s Lakshmi with his own suit-clad self.

His Karnataka connection

Ravi Varma’s connection with the Mysore State (now Karnataka) had started way back in 1870. As a young man of 22, he is said to have undertaken a pilgrimage to Kollur Mookambika Temple to perform a long 41-day propitiation and seek the blessings of the goddess for his artistic journey.

Later on, Ravi Varma’s connection with Mysore State was strengthened when his art was highly appreciated by the Mysore Maharaja and other royals. In 1885, he was invited by Maharaja Chamarajendra Wodeyar to produce portraits of the royal family.  He was treated with exceptional kindness and respect by the Maharaja and his staff. Almost two decades later, he was commissioned to paint nine mythological paintings for the Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore.

Just a year before his death, Ravi Varma had accompanied the Maharaja of Mysore and the Prince of Wales to witness the famous Khedda in the forests. Among his very last paintings were those made on Khedda operations; one of the paintings shows huge tents of the royal entourage with a motor car in the foreground.

Back to the present

On a bright and sunny afternoon last month, this writer visited Thiruvananthapuram’s Sree Chitra Gallery which houses, among others, a collection of more than 40 original paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. Set amidst swaying trees and green lawns, the gallery is quite welcoming, but has few visitors. The general condition of the paintings is quite okay, but the congested and rather insipid display definitely begs overhauling. There are no information boards; even basic facts such as the medium, size and dates of paintings are absent.

In 2005, a team of specialists supposedly came from the National Museum, New Delhi and undertook the restoration of 43 Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. The restoration team’s suggestion to maintain better micro-climatic conditions in the gallery has apparently not been acted upon. The superintendent of the gallery is friendly, but confesses to space and other constraints. Non-Malayalis are likely to face problems conversing with the gallery staff. But it is here that one gets to see a range of Ravi Varma’s brightly coloured paintings with a low-priced entry ticket. 

Later, sipping tea in the adjoining canteen, Nemom Pushparaj, vice-chairman of Kerala Lalithakala Academy, has his take on the artist. “It is easy to criticise Ravi Varma’s art, but one must understand that he lived in a totally different era,” says Pushparaj, who has authored a biography on Ravi Varma in Malayalam. “Instead of enjoying their riches and whiling away their time, Ravi Varma and his brother Raja Varma chose to dedicate their lives to art... Looking at the vast array of works and conditions in which they were produced and disseminated, I feel that their contribution to Indian art is immense. Ravi Varma suffered personal tragedies, humiliation and financial trauma, yet his commitment to art never diminished. He needs to be seen and appreciated for his energy, artistic vision and insight, by us, as well as future generations.” 

Open to interpretations

Ravi Varma is, however, not an undisputed hero in Thiruvananthapuram today. “Artworks must be open to multiple interpretations,” says noted contemporary artist N N Rimzon. “They must provoke an intellectual thought or trigger a spiritual experience in the viewer and not be static objects. Ravi Varma’s works do not do that. They are all too obvious, too simplistic, and even boring. He was a good portrait artist, but when one looks at the complete body of work, you do not get the feeling that he evolved like, for instance, a miniature artist did, by using traditional motifs and ideas, but presenting them in a wonderfully evolved aesthetic.”

Artist A S Sajith, currently the principal of the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram, seems to agree. “There are two sides to Ravi Varma,” observes Sajith. “One has to respect how liberated he was for his times, and also for his entrepreneurial spirit. The fact that he persisted with his art and was a pioneer in some ways has to be acknowledged and admired. But when it comes to his paintings, one cannot be as generous. When we apply clinical standards and objectively evaluate his work (as we would do for any other artist), Ravi Varma falls short in many ways. He did not fully explore the immense possibilities that were available to him, but stuck to a kind of formulaic and mechanical way of making art. That is why one clearly feels a lack of depth and understanding in his work.

After seeing a few works, one can become disinterested, rather than feeling thrilled.” So, what would Sajith tell his students about Ravi Varma? “I would like my students to study and understand Ravi Varma honestly, without any preconceptions; and form their own ideas and impressions without getting swayed by popular sentiments.” And what about conserving Ravi Varma’s works? “I am all for preserving his works for posterity,” says Sajith emphatically. “Irrespective of one’s opinion on his aesthetics and creativeness, it is vital that all his existing works must be well-maintained and made available to students as well as researchers and academics. There are still many aspects of his work which are to be studied and researched.”

Tracing the roots

Kilimanoor is a small and quiet village about 45 km from Thiruvananthapuram; and the birthplace of Ravi Varma. Biju Rama Varma, a descendant of Raja Ravi Varma’s family and secretary of the Kilimanoor Palace Trust, looks after the palace which includes a spacious hall which was once Ravi Varma’s studio. “This place is very sacred for us,” he says reverentially. “In this very hall over 100 images were painted by the master. His spirit still lingers here.” Strange as it may seem, there is not a single original painting of Ravi Varma in sight.  “All his original works from the palace were donated to Sree Chitra Gallery.”

An accomplished classical musician, 48-year-old Biju is a long-term resident of the Kilimanoor palace. “I have had extraordinary experiences watching visitors who come from all parts of the country, particularly Maharashtra and Gujarat. Many of them stand in silence with closed eyes and folded hands, as if they’ve entered a temple. I have seen Maharashtrian families collecting small portions of soil and even fallen leaves here. They tell me that those collections would be placed in their puja rooms along with other idols for worship. Such is their devotion!”

Biju is happy that Ravi Varma’s paintings have been declared as national treasures, but feels that more could be done. “Even the British took notice and awarded Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal way back in 1904. We, the Ravi Varma family, plan to petition the central government to recognise his extraordinary contribution to Indian art and bestow the prestigious Bharat Ratna on him.”

Before bidding goodbye, Biju takes this writer on a mini tour of the palace and its surrounding areas explaining the historical significance. The last stop is the modest memorial of Raja Ravi Varma, set up not long ago in the very place where the painter was cremated in 1906. Tucked away in a corner, and away from the main building, the granite cenotaph is speckled with fallen leaves. Standing before it, I wonder how the legacy of Ravi Varma would pan out in the coming years — particularly when a recharged ‘religious’ and ‘nationalistic’ fervour seems slowly but surely taking centre stage in public discourse these days.

Ravi Varma in today’s times

There are several organisations and institutions working to promote Raja Ravi Varma’s work. Among them is one set up by Kilimanoor’s Biju Rama Varma and his family members. “The Raja Ravi Varma International Foundation for Art and Culture (RIFAC) wants to be the umbrella organisation to promote Ravi Varma and his art. In the long term, we feel that this palace should house a permanent art gallery, which was one of his unfulfilled dreams. Also, we have a vision that this palace and surroundings should create a Santiniketan kind of artists’ village and atmosphere where not only painters and artists, but also scholars, researchers, musicians and performers should come and let out their creative juices.”

In Bengaluru, the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation was established in 2015 by Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi Varma, the great-great-grand daughter of Raja Ravi Varma, along with gallerist Gitanjali Maini, lawyer Ganesh Shivaswamy, and visual artist Jay Varma. The motto of the foundation is Knowledge, Appreciation and Preservation. It has plans to enter diversified areas such as promotion research; art authentication; and international cooperation.

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