More than a hundred years after his death, Raja Ravi Varma’s position in the hierarchy of Indian art remains very much a matter of perspective. To most art critics, he is a purveyor of kitsch; an artist who sold his soul to to the blandishments of wealth and fame. To everyone else, he is the artist who defined what our gods and goddesses looked like, and whose reproductions hang from calendars and in the pooja room.
This new commemorative volume tries to broaden the perspective by bringing in other, less obvious aspects of the artist’s influence. The book takes off from a recent exhibition of Varma’s work (February 22 to April 30), held at the Piramal Museum of Art, funded by the Piramal Foundation. This addition to Mumbai’s cultural spaces is a wonderful example of what private patronage can do if there’s a will. Curated by Farah Siddiqui and Vaishnavi Ramanathan, under the overall direction of Ashvin Rajgopalan, the exhibition brought together Varma’s work and included some rarely seen paintings by the painter’s brother and son. The book is handsomely brought out, and is likely to be a collector’s item.
In his introduction, Rajgopalan says that they opened the museum (more accurately, the gallery) with Raja Ravi Varma because his “representation of the Indian aesthetics changed the country forever”. It’s a broad claim to make, and only partly true. Siddiqui in her lead essay makes the point that although critics may be scathing about the artist’s alleged descent into kitsch, no one can overlook the fact that his pictorial imagery and depiction of our mythology has been so powerful that they have been embedded into the average Indian’s mind. Much of this, according to her, is because of Raja Ravi Varma’s mastery of the human form and his undoubted skill at story-telling.
Siddiqui also makes the point that Varma can be regarded as the nationalist who brought Hindu mythology into our consciousness during British rule, and that his command over the mechanical process of printing and making oleographs of his work, made this a widespread phenomenon. This also served the purpose of spreading an awareness of art. An intriguing essay by HA Arvind Kumar tries to make a connection between mainstream Indian cinema’s depiction of its heroes and heroines and Varma’s art. This, he bases on the professional print making partnership between Varma and Dadasaheb Phalke.
The popularity of Raja Ravi Varma’s Shakuntala, Saraswati, Damayanti and other heroines makes us forget that he was an accomplished portraitist in the European academic tradition who won several awards at international expositions. His later mythological paintings are a fusion of this technique with a purely Indian sensibility. That, plus the mass production and marketing of his paintings surely does make him a pioneer on multiple fronts.
Yet he is not given due credit because we feel that his depiction of goddesses modelled on real life South Indian women clouded our sensibility — the sculptures and other antiquities which have survived centuries, show very different forms and physiognomy. Yet, so powerful was Varma’s pictorial vision that we are firmly locked into it: his Lakshmi is our Lakshmi, his Damayanti is our Damayanti, his Saraswati is our Saraswati. The central question arising out of this, and one which the book fails to answer, is: was this Raja Ravi Varma’s fault? Or ours?