Raja Ravi Varma: Portrait of an Artist
SURBHI GANDHI January 8, 2015
“If there was ever a painter who could claim to have completely changed the way popular Indian imagination pictured its gods, goddesses, myths and legends, then it was that charismatic Keralite Raja Ravi Varma.”
For patrons of Indian Art, the name Raja Ravi Varma has been familiar for more than a century. Born to the ruling family of Kilimanoor in 1848, a small estate in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, this aristocratic painter became a cultural icon whose popularity acquired a pan-Indian sweep. With no immediate tradition which could inspire and help him to evolve, Raja Ravi Varma broke new ground and left behind a brilliant legacy of academic realism.
Ravi Varma’s paintings were a vision of civilization of the classical times, the mythical Golden Age, when Hindus were said to be at the peak of their prowess-supreme and pure, both politically and culturally. Other than using oil paints and creating portraits seeped in realism, Ravi Varma’s style of painting played a foundational role in defining the Indian imagery in the preceding decades. His rendition of the characters from Indian mythology decisively shaped the Indian visual culture; the voluptuous heroine with long dark hair and defined features complemented the muscular heroes depicted with chiselled bodies and intent expressions. Ravi Varma's “Saraswati” and “Lakshmi” became the two most popular prints of the goddess renditions ever produced in India.
A modern artist among traditionalists, he tried to inculcate modern techniques into traditional subjects. He was one of the first artists to introduce oleography, which is essentially a method of reproducing an oil painting on paper in such a manner that the exact colours and brushstroke textures are duplicated.
The suggestion of printing oleographs was given to Ravi Varma by Sir T. Madhava Rao, former Dewan of Travancore, in a letter in the 1880s which read: “There are many friends who are desirous of possessing your works. It would be hardly possible for you, with only a pair of hands, to meet such a large demand. Send, therefore, a few of your select works to Europe and have them oleographed. You will thereby not only extend your reputation, but will be doing a real service to the country.”
The arrival of Raja Ravi Varma's oleographs into the scene coincided with the construction of new cultural elite-the arbiters of middle class taste, which is one of the myriad reasons he is the greatest artist India has seen till today.