It has been 125 years since that epochal print. Wind back to July 12, 1894, Mumbai. The day Raja Ravi Varma’s Shakuntala Janm was born as a lithograph, duly announced by an advertisement in the Bombay Gazette, priced at six rupees. Two days later, the master’s Laxmi and Saraswathi lithographs came into existence, priced two rupees each.
Perhaps no other popular art initiative has unleashed such an impact. Raja Ravi Varma’s lithographs ushered in nothing short of a revolution in Indian art — and in the Indian psyche.
More likely than not, today, when we visualise Goddess Lakshmi or Saraswathi, it is as he pictured them in his paintings.
The paintings didn’t create a mass impact, tucked away as they were in aristocratic homes. But the lithographs flooded the market, and soon, they found a way into almost every pooja altar.
The reach has been spotted all the way to Japan, on matchbox labels, calendar images, etc.
Unlike the paintings, these prints engaged people… they adorned it, they emblazoned it on their products and in their homes…they made it their own.
For those unaware of it, a lithograph is a print created using limestone, applying ink on the limestone, etching the mirror image of the painting on it, and printing with the ink-laden limestone on paper.
Handmade, precise, laborious — this was done colour by colour, using a set of limestone slabs, called the master lithostones, one for each colour.
A single lithograph could take as many as 32 master lithostones, if the paintings had extremely complex colour compositions. Lithography was invented by Aloys Senefelder, a German, in the late 18th Century.
Owning a legacy
Of the 132 Raja Ravi Varma lithographs in existence, Bengaluru-based lawyer Ganesh V Shivaswamy has a whopping 126 of them in his collection. That’s quite something, as it’s tough to source an undamaged lithograph, retaining pristine colour. For Ganesh though, it is like, “I need to get the remaining six.”
This obsession with Ravi Varma’s art began when he was a 13-year-old. Like many other families, his family had Ravi Varma lithographs of Lakshmi and Saraswati. When his aunt took the Saraswati and his mother the Laxmi lithograph, his mother wanted to have the Saraswati too, which prompted Ganesh to look for it, scouring antique shops… It’s a journey that continues and has become valuable in terms of art, and otherwise.
When the lithograph printing press went out of operation following a fire that devastated it, Raja Ravi Varma’s original lithographs started becoming collector’s items, though prints of these lithographic prints continue to flood the market and floor the world. Incidentally, Ravi Varma himself got to see just a few of these lithographs. “Most Ravi Varma lithographs were printed by The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press after Ravi Varma passed away,” informs Ganesh. But the lithographs ensured that Ravi Varma’s name and art live on.
History in the making
Since there has been no documentation, we have no idea how many seen and unseen lithographs were lost and how many survived when in 1973 the press burnt down. “Presumably a lot was lost,” says Ganesh, who is now working on a book on the print legacy of Raja Ravi Varma. Ganesh’s book in the making promises very interesting bits of information. “It will be a book a lawyer would write about an art legacy — a bit inquisitive, adversarial, analytical,” he remarks. Here is a spoiler... Do you know who posed for Laxmi? It was Rajibai Mulgaonkar of Goa, a Kalavanth Devadasi.
“Raja Ravi Varma is one unique artist with whom, both his painting and prints have generated spectacular legacies,” Ganesh points out. Artists like Rembrandt did execute both paintings and etchings, but the volumes of his etchings did not merit a legacy, less as they were in numbers. With Ravi Varma, the two legacies are substantial, and so stand comparison.
Oil paintings and lithographs are two distinctly different media, and the paintings are naturally more spectacular… if they have stayed undamaged. But in terms of social impact, the lithographs have had far too much impact than his paintings. Paintings were always for the aristocratic class and the royals, such as those of Travancore, Baroda and Mysore — more for the Mysore and Baroda royals; he was actually thrown out of Travancore, which is why he began to travel, says Ganesh.
In 1894, Raja Ravi Varma’s younger brother Raja Varma started the press with a partner Govardhan Das Khatau Makhanji, who subsequently exited the partnership in 1898. In 1903, the press was sold to Fritz Schleicher, a German, who ran it till 1935 when he passed away, bequeathing it to his daughter Laurie, who passed it on to her son Robert. In 1973, the press burnt down.
Since the lithographs were printed using stones soaked in dyes, the first set of prints created were far more beautiful, and there were beautiful wash colours, transparent like water colour. A particular form of limestone sourced in Germany, greyish in colour, called the American limestone, was used in the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press. Some of the lithographs were printed using seven colours, but some took up to 32 shades and as many master lithostones, to take shape.
Is there a simple way one can identify an original lithograph print? Apparently, size is one marker.
The original lithographs came in specific dimensions, such as 14 by 10 inches, 20 by 28 or 20 by 14 inches, never in the standard A4-like sizes of the modern day. Secondly, if you were to take a look at the oleograph’s back face, the faded aged look will be apparent. Third, the lithograph papers are much thicker than regular paper. Finally, if you are able to magnify the image sufficiently, you can see the impression of the stone grains created by the lithographic stones. You can also see stipple effect, the dotted effect that you won’t find in a painting. If you see a checked effect, like a graph, then it’s not an original lithograph.
So far, we have never substantially acknowledged the people who ran the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press. As Ganesh puts it, “Let’s finally acknowledge them, at least now. It is important that we do it; they built a momentous brand.”