The Great Master of Indian Deities and Forest Belles
Call him a poet, a scholar or a visionary but it is Raja Ravi Varma’s body of art that has left an indelible mark upon generations of Indians and Europeans of the Indo-British Era, and has even reached out to a global audience in recent times. It is hard to find anyone even vaguely interested in art who has not been exposed to the Ravi Varma aesthetic, which combines European academic techniques – especially of the Venetian Masters – with Indian mythology, epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), folklore and a ‘romanticised’ depiction of Hindu deities.
It has been pointed out by such renowned art critic and historians as Geeta Kapur (Padma Shri awardee), Gulammohammed Sheikh (Padma Bhushan awardee) and, more recently, Chaitanya Sambrani and Deepanjana Pal, that the Raja Ravi Varma School, in particular, epitomises the earlier era of Indian art that idealised tradition and nationalism. His works from the Indian epic poetry and the Puranas (religious texts composed in Sanskrit) have received profound acclaim. His aesthetic has appealed not just to the royal families of Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat, where he had his studios, but also defined the artistic tastes among the common people — whether it is a barber shop or tea house, one is bound to see a facsimile of a Raja Ravi Varma painting of the deities, play out in the calendar art that graces the walls of the hoi-polloi.
Early Personal Life
Born in 1848 at Kilimanoor Palace in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (present-day Kerala) into an aristocratic family, he was the eldest son of Ezhumavil Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad and Uma Ambabayi Thampuratty. He was born M. R. Ry. Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran of Kilimanoor.
Varma inherited his artistic side from his mother Uma Ambabayi Thampuratty, who belonged to the baronial family that ruled the Kilimanoor feudal estate within the kingdom of Travancore. She was a poet and writer of some talent, and her work Parvati Swayamvaram was published by Varma after her death.
At 18, the young Ravi Varma married 12-year-old Bhageerthi Bayi of the Royal House of Mavelikkara and the young couple were blessed with five children – two sons and three daughters. Notably, it was Rama Varma (born in 1879), who carried forward his father’s artistic legacy and joined the Sir JJ School of Arts in Mumbai.
Varma’s artistic journey
At the young age of 13, Varma and his brother Raja Raja Varma, who also painted and supported their itinerant lives, were allowed to visit the Royal Library by Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, the then Maharaja of Travancore. It is a well-documented fact that Ravi Varma learnt the oil painting technique from a reluctant Dutch master Theodore Jenson. His guru was reluctant because at the time, oil painting and academic realism was a professional secret guarded by generations of Italian painters who mastered the techniques of evoking three-dimensionality on a flat surface through the patient ‘modelling’ of form and the use of three-point perspective (foreground, middle ground and background) that was known to the West and not practiced by Eastern painters. The tenets of ‘academic realism’ and trompe l’oeil (French for ‘deceive the eye’) were, indeed, aspects that the Eastern school of painting had not mastered or approached.
Varma, who had previously learnt the basics of watercolour painting from Ramaswami Naidu, the then court artist of Travancore, and mastered the oil painting technique just by observing Jenson at work. Subsequently, Varma went on to be promoted by Edgar Thurston, a British administrator who facilitated his travel and helped him garner projects not just in India but also in the West. The artist hit early fame with an international exhibition in Vienna in 1873, which was followed by his paintings being sent to the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 and him being awarded three gold medals.
In 1888, the Royal Gaekwad family of Baroda (Vadodara) commissioned Varma to create 14 paintings on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The epics had come alive. But the original paintings remained in the private collections of royalty and the nobility.
Ravi Varma is known for his invention of the Indian odalisque – an exotic, attractive woman, usually of Turkish origin, made famous by such masters as French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix and Italian Renaissance painter Titian. Varma’s non-religious portraits of women captured them as shy damsels in their boudoirs in sarees. Besides this, he often modelled Hindu goddesses on his idea of the beautiful Indian women, whom he considered divine and beautiful. This practice was common during his times. Ravi Varma is particularly noted for his paintings depicting episodes from the story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, and Nala and Damayanti (from the Mahabharata). He is also known for his dramatic representations of ‘Decent of the Ganga’ and ‘Jatayu Vadha’, a graphic rendition of Ravana slaying Jatayu, the mythological bird that was sent by Lord Rama to rescue Goddess Sita. Varma is also famed for his depictions of goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati.
Ravi Varma’s appeal and popularity led to a huge demand and he, along with T Madhava Rao, the then Dewan of Travancore, felt that it was nearly impossible for the former to cater to the huge demand of the common people as well as the royalty that lay before him. It was this desire to reach out to the general populace that led Varma and his brother, with Rao’s assistance, to form the oleographic/ lithographic printing press in Ghatkopar, Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in 1894. The press later shifted to Malavli near Lonavala, Maharashtra, in 1899. The oleographs produced by the press were mostly of Hindu gods and goddesses in scenes adapted mainly from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas. These oleographs were very popular and continued to be printed in thousands for many years, even after Varma’s demise in 1906.
Influence on Modern and Contemporary Painters
Ravi Varma left behind a legacy that numerous artists like MV Dhurandar and other painters in Kerala and Maharashtra turned into what came to be known as the ‘Ravi Varma School’ of painting. Many artists have made tributes to Ravi Varma, including noted contemporary painter Atul Dodiya. However, not all acknowledgement of Varma’s legacy was laudatory. There has been important critical analysis of his works as well.
Post-modernist feminist artist Nalini Malani’s 2003 installation and video work titled ‘Unity in Diversity’ references and ‘subverts’ Varma’s famous ‘Galaxy of Musicians’ (1889) of different women playing music together in harmony, meant to represent India’s ethnic diversity. Artist Pushpamala N also evokes elaborate recreations of Ravi Varma’s work in her photographic tableaux that introduce a sharp comment on patriarchy or take a humorous jab at the idea of hyper-masculinity.
Whatever the case may be, whether laudatory or critical, Raja Ravi Varma continues to be an important artistic figure historically and generations of artists have benefited from his legacy. His artworks continue to be restored, preserved and auctioned at record-breaking prices.