A symposium at the Taj Mahal Hotel earlier this week celebrated the 168th birth anniversary of the legendary 19th-century Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma. 

The words of Rupika Chawla — India’s foremost authority on Varma’s work and author of the book Ravi Varma and Princely India — at this delightful evening resonated with a meaning never before felt more profoundly. “Ravi Varma holds a place in our psyches in more ways than we know,” Chawla said in her keynote address.

At a time when the world was beginning to undermine Varma as the “commissioned” princely artist, embracing his artistry in popular culture as nothing more than calendar art, Chawla’s book evoked a renewed interest in Varma as someone who, unlike the royal painters of the time, was breaking new grounds  and creating a pan-Indian sweep with his in-depth pauranic knowledge. The book is a product of meticulous research that spanned over seven years, using archival material, letters, newspaper clippings and discussions with experts.

Painting during the time of Varma was largely traditional and mostly restricted to shastraic or scriptural norms. They were two dimensional or linear. Varma’s works were realistic, giving a third dimension. Those were the times when the actual sari was still evolving and Varma’s most celebrated painting, Lakshmi, which now hangs in the Lakshmi Villa Palace of Baroda, provided the first glimpse of the modern-day sari. Chawla explains: “He did not want to paint Lakshmi in a regional sari because in Varma’s mind, whose Lakshmi was she anyway? She was everyone’s Lakshmi. So she could not be in a traditional Lakshmi sari. This is the first time you saw the image of a sari the way we wear it today.” Clearly, Lakshmi became one of the most popular prints ever produced in India.

A Ravi Varma print is perhaps the most readily available of popular artworks in the Indian market today. Most art galleries all around the country have access to them. On my first visit to Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art four years back, I myself had picked up a Varma print, titled A Woman Holding a Fruit. But how many of us, as we appreciate Varma’s modernist approach, really know what it took the princely family-born who married in the Royal family of Travancore and was commissioned by royalty throughout India, to democratise art? 

True, his paintings were expensive even in those days but Varma was also a visionary in that sense. He started his printing press in Bombay in 1894 to churn out oleographs or chromolithographs of his paintings. By commencing the Ravi Varma lithographic press, he made pictorial representations of his paintings available to the common man.  The arrival of his oleographs into the scene coincided with the birth of a new cultural elite, the arbiters of middle-class taste. Ironically, it is these lithographs that have reduced him to a mere calendar artist as most people have no access to his original paintings.

Come July, the Raja Ravi Varma Foundation in Bangalore will display a rare collection of his lithographs for the first time, which will include 131 lithographs and other associated artworks.

An estimate suggests that there are around 134 paintings by Varma which were made into serial lithographs by the press. Come July, the Raja Ravi Varma Foundation in Bangalore will display a rare collection of his lithographs for the first time,  which will include 131 lithographs, other associated artworks, poster exhibits of the Varma Press, original letter heads and litho stones. “Over the century, many of these lithographs, themes of which are exceedingly rare, have been lost. Therefore bringing almost the entire collection under one display makes the exhibition historic. It must be noted that many of the lithographs, especially the ones from the paintings at the Jagan Mohan Palace at Mysore were all printed after the lifetime of the artist. Therefore, this display of lithographs was never seen by the artist himself and has never been in a comprehensive display since. Ravi Varma spent the latter part of his life trying to make art accessible by making lithographs, making  it available to the common man. The foundation in a way takes on from where Ravi Varma left off,” Ganesh Shivaswamy, the honorary secretary of the foundation, tells Guardian 20.

The Mischief of Krishna: a rare litho retrieved from an oblivious dealer. Shivaswamy, also an art curator, has been collecting Varma’s lithographs for the past two-and-a-half decades now, said, “What started as satiating a curiosity became a full-fledged drive to safeguard his legacy and that of the other artists. The swanky antique shops were not for me — it was the thrill of the chase. My quest to collect the lithographs took me on a journey into the villages of Tamil Nadu and other states down south. The original paintings have often been used to make calendars, posters, etc. Business houses, which would make money out of these lithographs, for them, the original paintings were just a ‘by-product’. Once they used the painting for a calendar, it was generally never re-used as it lacked novelty. As I travelled, I noticed that when they needed space, these paintings were simply burnt! For a culture buff like me, you can imagine my anguish and trauma to witness destruction of such heritage. I remember having rescued a rare lithograph from an oblivious dealer, titled The Mischief of Krishna. When I became a litigating lawyer, collecting became my escape from the tension and pressure of the profession. I created the first online catalogue of Ravi Varma lithographs in the year 2006. Now, with the establishment of the foundation, I feel it is the perfect platform, not only to showcase the collection but also bring back for viewing our cultural heritage.”

Back in the 19th century, Varma had set the visual language for India. From match-box labels, tin sweets boxes, religious and political posters, mythological series, the invention of lithography and its mass circulation had turned into weapons of anti-Imperialist propaganda. The most interesting way in which the powers of mass lithographs were consumed in pre-independence India was with the collapse of the sacred into the political. Away from the glare of colonial censorship, sacred images and mythological events that formed an important part of the popular iconography gave out subliminal exhortations to overthrow the British Raj. For instance, a caged parrot released by a woman (Ram’s mother in some versions) came to be symbolically associated with the incarceration of colonial India.  

Explaining the art of lithography that Varma had pioneered, Shivaswamy says, “Forget the colour printers which exist today, forget all your photo enhancing and modulating software, forget colour photography, forget offset printing —  how do you think pictures with varied colours were being printed in the 19th century? The only way was to take lithograph stones, etch the outlines for each colour on individual stones (sometimes up to 16 stones) manually! Then stamp them in perfect alignment on a sheet of paper to get one lithograph.”

Contrary to common belief,  that Varma’s mass-produced chromolithographs were the starting point of his downfall  as an artist, Chawla clears the air of misunderstanding in her book, where she writes, “Tanjore painters were great admirers of Ravi Varma. Whatever oleographs came out, most of them were used by Tanjore painters. They were absorbing his oleograph images into their glass paintings. But since Tanjore paintings were using a different medium and not oils, it was impossible to put in all the figures and do the same complexity as a Ravi Varma oil painting. Even the Chettiyars of Kerala and Tamil Nadu had a real passion for Varma’s oleographs.”

Gitanjali Maini, the CEO of the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, hopes that the artist Jay Varma, who is one of the trustees of the foundation and the great grandson of Ravi Varma, will be able to fill in the shoes of the great painter. The reason behind choosing Bangalore to display the rare lithographs out of Shivaswamy’s private collection ahead of Kerala (the painter’s home state) is as Maini puts it: “All trustees live here. Ravi Varma wanted to retire in Bangalore. He even lived on Link Road, Malleswaram, for some time. He passed away before he realised his dream.”

 “Originals, we cannot bring as they are too fragile for movement and will be stationed in its rescued home in Hastha Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal. However, all exhibits of the products of Manipal and the Ravi Varma press will be available at the show. We cannot do a lithographic show without showing what the press looked like. The curatorial notes that accompany each lithograph will, in all, make this a very spectacular learning experience for viewers,” adds Maini.

A five-week exhibition, titled Raja Ravi Verma — Royal lithography and Legacy opens on 8 July at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore


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