Saturday, April 10, 2010

REVIEW: Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma
Rupika Chawla
Rs 3,950
Pp 360
ISBN: 978-81-89995-08-9
Coffee Table

Ravi Varma (1848–1906) was closely connected with the erstwhile royal house of Travancore. He was one of the first Indian painters to successfully adopt Western painting techniques and adapt academic realism to the visual interpretation of Indian mythology. His genre of paintings, which eventually lead to  chromolithographs (oleographs), has maintained a lasting effect on the Indian sensibility, making him
the best-known classical painter of the modern era.
This book is an account of Ravi Varma’s traditional background and environment and the manner in which they related to the modernization of colonial India; his profession as an aristocratic itinerant painter, his royal patrons, his portraits and the analysis of his mythological and iconic paintings; his influence on the Indian mindset, the sources used by him and his controversial status from the late 19th century till today even while contemporary painters continue to be inspired by his art and his attitude. The book is lavishly illustrated with pictures taken from princely and private collections and museums. These also appear in the book among the works that have never been seen before, previously undisclosed maps, letters, photographs and other archival material.

Going back in time with Raja Ravi Varma DNA
Oh my God!” muttered the budding writer to a socialite-friend, “you look so different, well, I mean so nice and…” And then she stopped abruptly midway through her sentence, realising that she was about to stray into blunder-land with the OMG hype.

You see, the amply-endowed friend usually wears ill-fitting designer western clothes or designer saris with rhinestones and loads of other semi-precious stones that hurt the eyes, like full-on headlights. All of which makes her appear quite gauche, when not gaudy.

This evening she looked like a heavenly beauty who had just stepped out of a Raja Ravi Varma portrait — courtesy a traditional South Indian silk sari with a resplendent border, set alight by the kind of jewellery that adorns Raj Ravi Varma’s women. Mercifully, she was following the dress code of the evening.

It was the Delhi launch last Saturday of Rupika Chawla’s book, Raja Ravi Varma — Painter of Colonial India (Mapin Publishing), for which the guests, both men and women, had been requested to wear clothes inspired by the painter’s canvases. Sportingly, a large number did, with flowers craftily incorporated into the coiffures of several enthusiastic women.
The invention of India Outlook
Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) is to a hundred years of Indian visual language what Shakespeare is to four hundred years of English. If, as claimed, forty per cent of an English speaker’s common usage is derived from the Bard, Ravi Varma provides approximately the same quotational base for the popular Indian visual lexicon.

Even in 21st century India, it is difficult not to encounter on a daily basis the iconometrics of the two-dimensional pictorial code that Ravi Varma drilled into the subconscious of a people waking up to the idea of a self-image as part of their claims to cultural uniqueness and identity in the face of colonial/ imperial subjugation. It was accompanied by, as art historian Ratan Parimoo has pointed out, “a newly awakened taste for the luscious”.

Calendars, posters, greeting cards, book covers, oleographs (oil prints), cinema hoardings, match and fire-cracker labels, multi-colour prints of gods, goddesses and other dramatis personae from mythology—commonly found in restaurants, offices, trucks, buses and household pooja rooms—have so naturalised these otherwise Western approaches to the pictorial narrative that these have become the signature stereotype of ‘the Indian look’.
An artist for the masses Scholars without Borders
A new book from MAPIN, Ahmedabad, Raja Ravi Varma: Life and Times in Colonial India celebrates the career of Raja Ravi Varma (1848 - 1906) who, arguably, was the first major Indian artist to adapt western techniques to paintings on Indian themes... His portraits, as well as the images of familiar stories from mythology in the late 1880's captured the imagination of Indians awakening to the possibility of Independence... Then modern techniques of mass production, via oleography, brought these paintings to the common man- and there is probably not one middle-class home in South India that did not have a reproduction of Saraswati, or Krishna and Yashodha, or some similar image...

His influence- and reputation- was huge. Ravi Varma's work "has maintained a lasting effect on the Indian sensibility, making him the best-known classical painter of the modern era.
A painter, a prince TOI Crest 

A good biographer is supposed to be a good detective, sniffing out secrets and filling in the gaps in the life and work of her subject. Rupika Chawla would probably get an appreciative nod from Hercule Poirot for her luscious and painstakingly-researched book on the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma, considered by many to be India's first modern painter. Paradoxically, he was also responsible for the faces of gods and goddesses and mythical figures that figure in our collective visual imagination. 

The sleuthing Chawla has given us the portrait of a man in full by doggedly following the most ephemeral of clues across India, ferreting out unknown Ravi Varma paintings, burrowing into dispersed archives, digging up provenances for scores of work, tracing his scattered descendants in pursuit of bits of information or some forgotten and damaged Ravi Varma canvas — even making the most obscure of connections coalesce into fascinating revelations. 

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