Pages of a Mind: Raja Ravi Varma, Life and Expressions – A Review Part II

By Monica Arora

This is the concluding part of the review of Pages of a Mind: Raja Ravi Varma, Life and Expressions launched at The Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai to co-incide with the exhibition from 22 February till 30 April 2016, highlighting the life and times of the prolific artist.

Farah Siddique in her essay ‘Raja Ravi Varma: Life and Expressions’ elucidates how ‘Princely states from different regions of India sought Ravi Varma’s services and he was invited to Bhavnagar, Pudukottai, Mysore, Bikaner and Jaipur among others to contribute to pictorial art history in their states…Ravi Varma painted diverse features of men and women he came across in his journeys across India in his mythological narratives. Voluptuous, broad-hipped and full bosomed women with long dark hair, muscular men with gleaming chiseled bodies and the meticulous attention to gestures and emphasized details such as silk and brocaded surface of garments and robes, lustrous jewellery, strings of pearls, arrangement of furniture, rich upholstery and dangling tassels heightened the rhythm of the naturalistic compositions. The carefully constructed expressions of the protagonists, the subtle shades of light, delicate shadows and the technical mastery of the painting brought a never seen tactile quality to his theatrical compositions.’

‘Lady Playing the Veena’; Oil on Canvas

If a cartographer were to trace his travels on a map of India, it would be easy to fathom how growing economies and kingdoms representing modern tastes owing to European exposure, were driving artistic inclination and aesthetics and thus, fresh paintings were being commissioned to keep pace with discerning tastes.

‘Lady making garland’; Oil on Canvas

Raja Ravi Varma’s attention to detail is legendary and accordingly, Vaishnavi Ramanathan writes in her piece ‘Ravi Varma and his patrons’: ‘Writings on Ravi Varma emphasise the particular attention that he paid to the kind of frame that was used for his work, sometimes even choosing the frame and adding it to the cost of the project. An extension of this was to envision a spatial frame for his work in the form of a gallery where his works could be displayed…While Tanjore paintings literally used precious stones and gold foil, Ravi Varma’s painting captured with documentary accuracy, using pigment, the jewels worn by his subjects.’

Dr Usha R Balakrishnan in her essay ‘Idealizing the Real, Realizing the Ideal: Jewellery in the Piantings of Raja Ravi Varma’, re-iterates his obsession with details and his penchant for realism by stating: ‘…Ravi Varma’s jewels are “real”…he was evidently able to see, handle, and study in minute details the different regional jewellery styles, designs and crafting techniques, and then replicate them accurately in his paintings…Gods and goddesses were depicted attired in rich robes and beautifully pleated saress, and adorned from head to toe in traditional jewels, all done in raised gesso and covered with gold foil, and studded with precious and semi-precious gems…He worked with oil paints and used impasto, a technique of laying pigment thickly so that it stands out from the surface, to create the effect of real jewels.’

‘Portrait of a Lady; Oil on Canvas

So highly regarded was his work in the world on Indian art in the 19th century that several art colleges were established in the country, including the Colonial Art Institution in Madras and the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay, among others where young students would study fine art, painting, photography, lithography and a host of creative courses. At the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press, initially set up in the vibrant city of Bombay in 1894, it is believed that The Birth of Sakuntala was the first print to have been drawn from the press. The technique deployed for this and following prints of goddeses Saraswati and Standing Lakshni, was knwn as chromolithography, wherein an oleograph or chromolithograph mimics the glossiness of oil colours through the pigments used and is technically compatible with the creation of layered tonal gradations that produce three-dimensional effects on a flat surface. In his quest for achieving the most lifelike and real paintings, Ravi Varma deployed oil colours and often used photographic illusionism in his ouvre that eventually resulted in wider outreach for his work.

Lina Vincent Sunish in her essay ‘From Maharaja to the Masses: Ravi Varma (1848-1906), The Maker of Multiples’, explains how ‘he visualized his themes after meticulous research that included interpretation of classical Indian texts by pandits. Ironically, to explain puranic references to non-Hindus, the prints often carried quotes from popular English poetry – for instance, Keechaka and Sairandhri bears the legend ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with words from Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece.’ Referencing Guha Thakurta’s words in the same essay, the author quotes: ‘he was truly “bi-lingual” – a means by which he was able to fulfill both, the scientific and realistic imperatives of Western knowledge, and the sacred imperatives of what Pinney called the Hindu Scopic regimes.’

Example of a ‘Dressed Lithograph’ featuring the Ram Darbar

Owing to the fact that he was the pioneer in giving a distinct language to Indian art and representation of not just upper royal classes but also humanizing gods and goddesses through his vision and technique, Ravi Varma left an indelible mark on Hindi cinema. Ironically the artist’s association with the pioneer of Hindi cinema, Dada Sahib Phalke was mostly owing to the latter’s interests in the former’s oleographic prints. The final essay in the book by HA Anil Kumar, ‘Culturing Indian Cinema and Interdisciplinary Advents’ states, ‘His works almost became story-boards to the making of camera frames and angles. The characters got codified, because he shaped and gave appearances to Indian popular gods in 20th century, via later films…He also removed class/caste distinction and subaltern specificity among his characters, which suited the pan-Indian audience through Hindi cinema…This is a metaphoric collage of attitudes, appearances and unified differences which still linger large in and define what Bollywood film is…Through his art, Ravi Varma did to Hindi cinema what Gandhi did to Indian politics through his mundane lifestyle: gave an identity and a visibility without which their (cinema and nationalism) very identities were at stake.’

Whilst many art critics and historians shy from crediting his variegated legacy and the influence of his work of art on kitsch art, especially through his posters that continue to be a template for modern designers and storyboard artists, even filmmakers, the heritage of this seminal artist remains one to be studied and understood, especially by those looking to establish a niche in the world of art. As author Elinor Glyn wrote, “Romance is the glamour which turns the dust of everyday life into a golden haze. ” Raja Ravi Varma had that glimmer of romance that could magically imbue his art with that golden halo.