If William Shakespeare is 400 years old to English literature, than Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) is 100 years to India’s visual language – painting. Ravi Varma as we all know is credited for the makeover of the imagination of Indian gods, goddess, myths and legends. Till Ravi Varma arrived, the Indian art was nonfigurative, without any direct representation of the reality. Gods were never depicted in form of man or woman but Ravi Varma 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.
Soon all over India, in all classes’ houses in the end of 19th century were highlighted with Ravi Varma’s paintings, which were the natural renderies that deities Lakshmi, Krishna, Hanuman, Ram, Saraswati and Shiv got their exclusive identities. His personal interest in dramatics persuaded major theatre and films, increasing his tricky contact.
Since the past decade, Ravi Varma’s imagery has been shown up to western landscapes, northern costumes, southern jewellery with sensitive naturalism.
In the 19th century the oil-on-canvas painting was new to india and Ravi Varma’s style – the European realism was unusual. But when he mastered both the techniques, there was no stopping him and it is believed in his 30 years duration of career, he painted over 2000 canvases. His connection with the rulers of Travancore ensured him network that lead to a muddle of commissions from Audh, Pudukottai and Bhavnagar to Mysore, Baroda and Hyderabad. He was much sought artist cum painted for his portraits and theme paintings from Hindu myths and Sanskrit literature.
Ravi Varma was relentlessly criticised in early 20th century by Sisiter Nivedita, Sri Aurobindo and recently by Tyeb Mehta, Hussain and Akbar Padamsee. Never any kind of biography or study on Ravi Varma existed, that lacuna has now been meticulously filled by Rupika Chawla, a known in art circles as a restorer of damaged paintings.
Her book “Raja Ravi Varma – Painter of Colonial India” is well researched and deeply written by Rupika who has done a much required historical task by restoring the artist himself. In the process, she has buried out the attribution of virtually each of the painting with it’s socio-politically biography of its subject – either historical or mythological. She has also exhibited the must for modern significant carry out to furnish itself with the basic familiarity of synthetic paints sold since early 19th century in the tin tubes, creating a new flawlessness to the surface, which were called by many as ghoul pictures in Ravi Varma’s paintings, is likely to lead to an all new awareness in his work.
Adding to the many illuminating anecdotes and contexts from sources such as accounts of his patrons, colleagues, friends and the very important the diaries kept by his brother Raja Raja Varma who was his pupil cum partner in all of his commissions and enterprises that was undertaken by Ravi Varma. In addition Raja Raja Varma has to be acknowledged for instituting the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press ( now in Lonavla) where Ravi Varma’s all collection produced printed images of Kali ( from Calcutta) were shifted to.
The book highlights the fact that Ravi Varma who was the first to relocate the domination of the wandering and small European painters who came to India to paint coronation scenes, descriptions of princes, the promising Indian influential to civil servants and businessmen. This book is not merely Ravi Varma’s biography, it is difficult as it covers in its spacious clear drapes of social, cultural and political life in colonial India – particularly in supremacy of the native princes and it also attempts to emphasize the up-and-coming energy between technology and the colonised society jumped by feudal values that was hopeful to modernity, freedom, and democracy such as the comings of the railways, mechanically produced art, the double faced politics of culture and nationalism that all came into focus in this engrossing sequence of events of a painterly humanity.
In his paintings, Ravi Varma idealized women, often making them more 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, Ravi Varma had a special fondness for depicting the sari-clad women of Bombay where he lived for many years. He found the sari (which was not worn in Kerala and other parts of India with colourful appealing folds) and it’s often said that the popularity of Ravi Varma’s paintings helped make the sari the national dress for all Indian women.
The disappointment in the book is about the debate on Ravi Varma as a modernist, which is just minor. But on the whole, the author Rupika Chawla has effectively raised from the dead the Ravi Varma from Killimanur as the painter king.
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