Raja Ravi Varma Greatest Artist of Modern India
NO OTHER Indian artist blazed as many trails as Raja Ravi Varma. He was the first Indian to master perspective, the first to use human models to depict Hindu gods and goddesses, the first to make his work available not just to the rich but to ordinary people too. The immense popularity of his work also made this deeply pious aristocrat the first Indian artist to become well known — before him painters were largely anonymous.
Raja Ravi Varma was born in 1848 into the royal house of Kilimanoor, 25 miles from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala state. The Kilimanoor princes were renowned for their cultural accomplishments, and Ravi Varma’s artistic talents blossomed early: by the time he was 14, he had secured the patronage of the maharaja of Travancore. The maharaja, an avid art lover, got Ravi Varma to move to Trivandrum, set up a studio for him, and supplied him with books on European art. Here, in the capital, he could also mingle with court painters, including at least one artist who visited from Europe.
Western painting fascinated Ravi Varma: he instinctively sympathized with its vigorous realism, so different from the stylized, contemplative Indian tradition. He also preferred oil paints, then new in India, to tempera, the traditional Indian medium. Though Ravi Varma had to teach himself the techniques of oil painting, by the early 1870s he was mixing oils perfectly, and his portraits show a remarkable ability to depict a variety of skin tones and fabrics. Moreover, says one biographer, while European artists could only transcribe the likeness of Indians, Ravi Varma could portray character as well. Delighted by the young man’s skill, the maharaja awarded him the Vira Sringhala (Bangle of Valour), Travancore’s highest decoration, the first time a painter had been so honoured. Ravi Varma’s career gradually took off. For the next three decades he was in great demand, with everyone from businessmen to maharajas vying to commission him. One 1888 commission by the….
… the maharaja of Baroda for 14 paintings fetched Ravi Varma Rs 50,000, an astronomical sum for the time. Ravi Varma exhibited his canvases abroad too, but didn’t accompany them — like many devout Hindus of his day, he considered it a sacrilege to cross the ocean. Even so, he won several medals at international exhibitions, including one at Vienna and two at Chicago. And he was awarded so many prizes in India that at one stage he announced that he’d no longer take part in competitions so that other artists would have a chance!
A meticulous artist who researched his subjects thoroughly, Ravi Varma travelled widely in India, usually accompanied by his younger brother Raja Raja Varma, himself a fine landscape painter. Both brothers had a keen eye for detail, Ravi filling scores of sketch-books, while Raja kept detailed diaries of their travels. The two men were extremely close and worked together: Raja Varma often gave the finishing touches to Ravi’s works, filling in the backgrounds.
The subjects for which Ravi Varma is best known — Hindu gods and goddesses and scenes from India’s great epics — were natural themes for a profoundly religious man who was also a master of portraiture. In a radical break with Indian tradition, Ravi Varma used human models to give shape to his vision of the gods. And by portraying deities such as Krishna, Lakshmi and Saraswati as sublimely beautiful human beings in everyday attire, he made the gods seem divine yet approachable. So popular were these paintings that, ever since, Hindus have visualized their gods very much the way Ravi Varma depicted them.
Ravi Varma’s paintings of the epics, too, became part of the Indian imagination. Indeed, some of our mental images of these tales have been shaped by chance happenings in Ravi Varma’s studio. Once, while painting the abduction incident in the Ramayana where the demon king Ravana maims Jatayu, the good eagle, Ravi Varma asked his teenaged niece, Kunjootty, to model as Sita. As a number of other children watched, giggling, Kunjootty felt embarrassed and covered her face, Ravi Varma chose the moment to sketch away furiously. That’s why, it seems, Sita has her face covered in the painting, explained Ravi Varma’s niece, Kochomana Thampuratti, aged 94 when I met her in 1992 (she was a small child when this painting — Ravana Abducts Sita, shown on left — was done and remembers the event also because it’s one of the many legends at Kilimanoor Palace).
In his paintings, Ravi Varma idealized women, often making his subjects more stately and graceful than they actually were. Indeed, at one time, telling an Indian woman that she looked like a Ravi Varma painting was the ultimate compliment. Though he painted women of many communities and classes, Ravi Varma had a special fondness for depicting the sari-clad women of Bombay where he lived for many years. He found the sari — then not worn in Kerala and many other parts of India — with its striking colours and graceful folds especially appealing, and it’s often said that the popularity of Ravi Varma’s paintings helped make the sari the national dress for all Indian women.
A workaholic, Ravi Varma rose at 4 every morning. After bathing and performing his elaborate religious rituals, he would begin painting at first light. He laboured long hours and often got up at night to sketch his dreams. Ravi Varma’s professionalism, in fact, was only one aspect of a thoroughly modern outlook. For instance, when he became head of the Kilimanoor clan, he encouraged his kinsmen to work for a living — something the nobility didn’t have to do — and to disregard conventions that prohibited them from mingling freely with people of lower castes.
However, like all aristocrats, Ravi Varma, a dark medium-built man with a regal air, lived well. He entertained lavishly and spent large sums renovating Kilimanoor Palace or buying land. He had a passion for elephants, and once, hearing that the Travancore government was going to shoot a temple elephant that had ‘gone insane,’ bought the animal and took it to Kilimanoor. He named the elephant Ayyappan — after one of the sons of the Lord Shiva — and soon befriended him. A few months later, there was panic in the palace compound when Ayyappan suddenly broke loose. But Ravi Varma, carrying two large bunches of bananas, calmly walked up to Ayyappan and pacified him. (In fact Ravi Varma’s last few paintings, drawn in a more Impressionistic style, are about elephants.)
Ravi Varma also loved children, and they in turn adored him. Niece Kochomana Thampuratti, who was eight when Ravi Varma died, remembers vying with her little cousins for a chance to pull the punkah for their uncle, as he sat in the drawing room of Kilimanoor Palace talking to his many visitors.
Besides portraits, and portrait-based compositions, Varma now embarked on honing an oeuvre for theatrical compositions based on Indian myths and legends. ” Nala Damayanti”, ” Shantanu and Matsyagandha”, ” Shantanu and Ganga”, “Radha and Madhava”, ” Kamsa Maya”, “Shrikrishna and Devaki”, ” Arjuna and Subhadra”, ” Draupadi Vastraharan”, ” Harischandra and Taramati”, “Vishwamitra and Menaka”, ” Seetaswayamvaram”, ” Young Bharat and a Lion Cub”, ” The Birth of Sri Krishna”, ‘ Keechaka and Sairanthri’ took new forms under his skillful brush.
With oil paints applied thickly, Ravi Varma created lustrous, impasted jewellery, brocaded textures, and subtle shades of complexions. Though several folk and traditional art forms of India since time immemorial subsisted as illustrations for religious narratives, yet, illusionist paintings as a medium for story telling was Ravi Varma’s invention. He cleverly picked the particularly touching stories and moments from the Sanskrit classics. Though often considered as lacking in overall congruity, by the sheer mastery of painting beautiful areas and expressions, his compositions would enchant the beholder no end.
Ravi Varma was convinced that mass reproduction of Raja ravi varma paintings would initiate millions of Indians to real Art, and in 1894 he set up an oleography press called the Ravi Varma Pictures Depot. For photo-litho transfers, the Pictures Depot relied on Phalke’s Engraving & Printing whose proprietor, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, became famous as dadasaheb of Indian Cinema a few years later.
In 1894 and 1888, Ravi Varma and his younger brother C.Raja Raja Varma took a tour around India, in search of images and landscapes for inspiration. On his return from the second tour, Ravi Varma painted a batch of pictures especially for reproduction at his new press, the Picture Depot. The aristocratic orientalism in his imagery was now replaced by a little more folkish, more iconic and more marketable forms, and also seen was a crises of gender identity of contemporaneous European forms.
The Calendar-Art thus brought-forth by Ravi Varma has been the origin of lakhs of gaudy god-pictures by ultramodern litho presses for decades. Raja Ravi Varma died of diabetes on October 2, 1906, in his Kilimanoor Palace home overflowing with friends, relatives, dignitaries and the media. Yet, the rich heritage of the fragrance of his paintings continues to charm and influence the art of India.
In 1894, keen to make his work more widely available, Ravi Varma imported and established a colour press in Bombay (it was later moved to the nearby Lonavla hill resort) and began publishing prints. The masses loved them, especially his gods and goddesses. They were — and still are — widely copied and re-copied by commercial artists and even today millions of Indians, some who may never think of attributing them to Ravi Varma, hang these imitations in their homes, temples and shops. (These, often garish, reproductions have no doubt coloured critical opinion on the artist.)
Although at first Ravi Varma’s press made a tidy profit, after a few years it ran into many problems. Ravi Varma — who would never touch money with his hands — was no businessman. In 1901 he had to sell the press. He lost a lot of money in the venture, but never really regretted it — he had succeeded in promoting among ordinary people a love for his art.
In 1904, his brother Raja Raja Varma fell ill and died. So shattered was Ravi Varma that he stopped accepting commissions and only completed his pending work. Soon he too was ailing and in 1906, at age 58, he passed away.
At the time of his death, Ravi Varma was indisputably India’s best known and most honoured artist. But within a few years, critical opinion turned against him. Critics and artists, some even jealous of his great success, accused him of being a sentimentalist, a mere illustrator, an unimaginative copier of European techniques and thus not Indian enough. Some even criticized him for using oils, then seen as a “colonial” medium! However, the Indian public never once rejected him. In recent years, critics too have begun to reassess him as an old master who pioneered in India the best form of fine art and based his ideas and themes on the deepest of Indian traditions. Today Ravi Varma paintings are in great demand at auctions, and fetch higher prices than for any Indian painter.
“Ravi Varma was a master of colour,” says Baburao Sadwelkar, a veteran Bombay artist and former Director of Art for the state of Maharashtra. “Even today, the colours in most of his paintings have not faded or changed. Moreover, his ability to portray costumes, jewellery and Indian skin tones remains unsurpassed. Indeed, his vision of our classical past has influenced not only artists but writers and film-makers too.” Adds noted contemporary painter A. Ramachandran, who was chairman of the Kerala Fine Arts Academy, “Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist to look at painting in a grand, universal sense — an Asian Rembrandt.”
Raja Ravi Varma passed away on 2nd October 1906. Tributes Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, connoisseur of Indian art, most aptly encompasses the personality of RaviVarma in a single sentence. It is rare to come across in these days, men like him, artists like him, lovers of India like him.
An artist who is credited with bringing about a momentous turn in the art of India, Raja RaviVarma inexorably influenced future generations of artists from different streams. He was the first artist to cast the Indian Gods and mythological characters in natural earthy surroundings a depiction adopted not only by the Indian “calendar-art”- spawning ubiquitous images of Gods and Goddesses, but also by literature and later by the Indian film industry- affecting their dress and form even today. His dazzling oil paintings of India’s ancient glory delighted turn-of-the-century India and his mass reproductions through oleography reached out to the Indian populace in an unprecedented scale.
Raja Ravi Varma “A Painter among Princes” & Prince among Painters