Ravi Varma: Art for All Times

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    Few great artists would have had an impact on popular Indian culture as Raja Ravi Varma did. Many don't even realise how this 19th century artist, broke barriers to permeate into the most unlikely places- calendar art, mythological plays, films…almost defining how we perceive the images of our gods! Ravi Varma was not just an extraordinarily talented artist, he was also a genius. He realised early that art was to be shared - and while his works got him great riches from the well-heeled, it was his ability to take his art to the masses, that made his works iconic. He did this in a novel way.

    Raja Ravi Varma, was born in 1848 in the Kilimanoor family, which served as high nobility in the Travancore state. He was a prodigy. At the age of seven, he had started showing a great talent for painting and by fourteen he moved to the capital, Thiruvananthapuram to formally learn art. It was through trial and error, that he learnt the nuances of oil painting, which was a new medium then. By the time he was in his early 20s Ravi Varma’s fame had spread far in his circles - the Royal courts of India. A man with modern sensibilities, Ravi Varma was quick to combine European aesthetics with Indian sensibilities. No wonder then that royalty and British officials began to commission art works from him.

    Apart from portraits, Ravi Varma also made a number of paintings depicting scenes from Hindu epics and mythology. His paintings, now famous, include Lakshmi, Saraswati, Arjuna and Subhadra, Shri Rama vanquishing the sea, Harishchandra in distress, Nala and Damayanti among others.

    Through the decades of the 1870s-1880s Ravi Varma travelled across India capturing the most powerful images on canvas but an event in 1890 would change how Ravi Varma saw his own art.

    In 1890, a public exhibition of Ravi Varma’s paintings was held in Baroda. On display were fourteen of his paintings, based on Hindu religious themes, which had been commissioned by his greatest patron, Maharaja Sir Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda. The exhibition created a sensation among the general public. E.M.J. Venniyoor, Ravi Varma’s first biographer, writes:

    They (the paintings) were publicly exposed for some days and immense crowds of people assembled from all parts of Bombay Presidency to see the paintings. They produced quite a sensation for the period, for it was for the first time that the subjects from the great Indian epics had been depicted on the canvas so truthfully and touchingly. Hundreds and thousands of their photographs were sold all across India’.

    The huge demand for affordable copies of his works made Ravi Varma think about establishing a Chromolithographic press of his own. Ten years earlier, T Madhava Rao, the former Dewan of Travancore and Ravi Varma’s earliest patron had encouraged Ravi Varma to send his works to Europe to be oleographed. T Madhava Rao wrote to him

    ‘You will thereby, not only extend your reputation but do a great service to the country’.

    Lithography or the process of making prints from metal plates or flat stone surfaces had been invented in 1796 CE by Aloys Senefelder of Prague and colour lithography was popular in Europe by the middle of the 19th century. In India, large number of lithographic presses were started in the period between 1820 and 1850. The lithographic presses were popular, not so much for pictures but for printing texts. The reason being that the lithographic press was suitable for printing in any language, irrespective of the script. This revolutionized the printing industry as it made printing, script-neutral.

    The lithographic press was suitable for printing in any language, irrespective of the script

    Ravi Varma’s interest in the press grew as did his belief that the act of founding his own lithographic press would serve a national cause. This has to be seen in the broader national and societal context. At the turn of the 19th century, India was seeing rapid industrialization. This led to the emergence of a nascent middle class population in urban India. Influenced by liberal and critical thinking, the middle class was coming to terms with the fact of what it meant to be an Indian. Thinkers and nationalist leaders were trying to create a pan-Indian identity with a shared image of ‘Indianness’ which cut across regions, caste, and other identities. Ravi Varma’s works, with their pan-Indian appeal perfectly matched the aspirations of the population.

    In 1894, Ravi Varma had started his lithographic press in partnership with Goverdhandas Khatau Makanji, from the famous mill-owning Khatau family of Bombay. It was located in Ghatkopar, which was in those days located just outside the Bombay city and was known as ‘Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press’. The first print of this press was that of his painting ‘The Birth of Shakuntala’. This was followed by prints of other mythological scenes. The prints were lapped up by people who framed these pictures in their prayer or puja room. For the first time, people across India worshipped a common image of gods, and it shaped their imagination of what their gods looked like.

    For the first time, people across India worshipped a common image of gods

    Another factor, which worked in Ravi Varma’s favour was that by 1900s, there was a large network of traders and merchants who distributed and sold these prints across India. This ensured that the Ravi Varma prints reached picture merchants and framing shops from Punjab and Bengal to Travancore in the South. The name of the artist ‘Ravi Varma’ appeared below each print, thereby making the artist the ‘First Indian mass brand name’ according to several scholars who have studied Indian markets at the turn of the 20th century.

    But becoming a brand name also had its downsides for the artist. The sheer popularity of Ravi Varma’s works and led to large scale copying and plagiarism from other printing presses. Many printing presses went a step ahead, trying to use names similar to his -the ‘Ravi Udaya Press’ and ‘Ravi Vijaya Press’ were started in Ghatkopar, close to his own press. Ravi Varma was so concerned with this large scale copying of his works that he requested the noted Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale to pass a bill against plagiarism but nothing came of it.

    Ironically, though Ravi Varma’s paintings were being lapped up and copied en masse, the printing press venture was a failure. He lost a lot of money running the press. Born into an aristocratic family, Ravi Varma was not very good at managing money.

    Over the next few years he lost so much of money in the press that in 1899, the press was shifted to the village of Malavali in Lonavala. Here too it kept draining money. In 1901, Ravi Varma sold the press to Fritz Schleicher, his printing technician from Germany. Schleicher also bought the rights to Ravi Varma’s images and kept printing Ravi Varma’s prints and catering to the Hindu middle class.

    Raja Ravi Varma passed away in 1906 at the age of 58. A year after his death, noted journalist Ramananda Chatterjee wrote a tribute to the artist in his magazine, Modern Review, (1907)

    “With the exception of his style, everything else in his pictures is Indian. But his foreign style, as far as we have been able to observe, does not detract from the usefulness of his paintings for enjoyment and instruction and the influence that makes for nationality. From Himalayas to Cape Camorin, however much our language, dress, manners and customs may differ, the social organization and the national character are much the same everywhere. This is due to no small extent to the influence of our national epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Ravi Varma’s pictures taken from these epics, appeal to all Hindus, , at any rate, throughout India’.

    Even after the artist’s death, the Ravi Varma Press continued to make prints of Hindu gods… over time it also ventured beyond, sometimes courting controversy. In 1911, the Bombay Government invoked the Press Act and banned the image ‘Ashtabhuja Devi’. All copies of this picture were confiscated by the Government. The official explanation reproduced in the book 'Photos of The Gods: Printed image and the Political Struggle in India' authored by Christopher Pinney states -

    The Hindu goddess called Asthabhuja Devi is depicted riding a lion and furiously attacking two butchers who have just decapitated a cow, printed at Ravi Varma Press Karla and elsewhere, contains visible representation like to incite to acts of violence and bring into hatred and contempt certain classes of Her Majesty’s subjects in British India …. ‘

    Similarly, those following the recent Gau Rakshak controversy, may relate to the 1915 image from the Ravi Varma press - ‘Chaurasi Devatauvali Gay’ , campaigning against cow slaughter, which ironically has become prominent again, almost 100 years later. The press thrived till 1940s and then went into decline.

    A large fire in 1973 damaged and destroyed most of the original lithographs. Today, even the press building does not exist at Malavali.

    Ravi Varma’s prints not only took gods into every Indian household but also influenced a new medium. One of the employees, making lithographs at the Malavali press, was a man named D.G Phalke. He would later produce India’s first movie ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and go on to become immortalized as the father of the Indian film industry. Numerous scholars who have studied the works of Dadasaheb Phalke believe that his film imagery was heavily influenced by works of Ravi Varma and this influence has continued…as can be seen in today’s popular mythological serials on Indian Television.

    From the age when the first lithographic press emerged to the time when we have satellite and high powered internet cables live streaming content - the legacy of Raja Ravi Varma lives on. Few artists, across the world, can boast of having had this impact or influence…over a hundred years

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