By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
This exhibit is adapted from the lecture ‘Kerala & Guercino’ by Prof. Partha Mitter presented for Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.
Raja Ravi Varma
The artist's life is an object lesson in how he systematically, and in stages, constructed his self-image as a fashionable painter. However, his professional image was created not solely by him, but at later stages with the partnership of his younger brother Raja Raja Varma.
Ravi Varma was, of course, in the mould of a fashionable and thoroughly professional Victorian artist.
Let us examine how he achieves this in stages against the background of the High Noon of Empire.
First let’s try and place Ravi Varma in the context of his time, which helps explain his meteoric rise. We will single out certain events in his life to explain how, in stages, he created his ideal beauty.
Professor Partha Mitter has called him one of India's first ‘gentlemen artists’. What does he mean?
Related to the Travancore royal family, he already enjoyed a high status, as did another aristocrat, Abanindranath Tagore.
Portraits of Raja Ravi Varma from Travancore and Abanindranath Tagore from Calcutta
Varma, like Tagore, belonged to a new class of artists who claimed a higher independent status by asserting their individualism. In this sense, he and his brother C. Raja Raja Varma were similar in status to many artists of the period.
Traditional court artists like Ramaswamy Naidu held a low artisan status in the courts and were entirely dependent on the Maharajas. Unlike them, Varma turned to Indian cities for patronage. His move to Bombay, away from the domination of the Travancore court, was crucial in this. Bombay, like Madras and Calcutta, held annual art exhibitions that helped the brothers propel their careers forward.
Tara Bai Old (1880) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara
The Old and the New
This painting of Princess Tarabai is done in Raja Ravi Varma's old style, reminiscent of Tanjore style paintings.
The highlight of the painting is the subject's prominent jewellery and a static expression. Like Tanjore, the painting doesn't reflect emotion.
Maharani Chimnabai II (1889) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara, India
In this painting of Maharani Chimna Bai, his work had undergone total transformation.
Notice the careful modelling of the face, capturing the shy beauty of a young bride, the glow of soft and graceful form, complemented by the textures of her brocade sari and velvet background.
What a world of difference!
This change in Ravi Varma's style and technique of painting led ultimately to one of the finest academic portraits of Victorian India being created.
Maharashtrian Lady (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi
Portraits in Victorian Style
In time, Varma rose to be the most important, if not the only Indian fashionable portrait painter, prized as much by the Raj as by Indian aristocracy.
The Gamekeeper's Daughter (1880-12) by Valentine Cameron PrinsepRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
The Gamekeeper's Daughter by Valentine Cameron Princep
Princep, a British artist born in Calcutta, painted during the same period as Raja Ravi Varma, and was a popular court painter in India.
Prinsep was not only a popular artist but also well connected owing to his father Henry Thoby Prinsep's service in the British Raj.
Varma ended the monopoly of these visiting European painters like Prinsep and Theodore Jensen with his superior artistic skills.
So how did Ravi Varma achieve his phenomenal success? He didn’t leave it entirely to fate. The young Varma very quickly found out that the most successful profession was portraiture. First, he decided to tap into his family connections.
British governors and native rulers had social links with the Travancore family, and the British had enrolled Ravi Varma in the exclusive club of Freemasons. He started painting the provincial governors and Maharajas, notably the Gaekwad of Baroda.
A comparison between two portraits of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, one painted by Raja Ravi Varma and the other by H. & B. Narain.
Following on from his success with the portraits of the Baroda family, he moved to Bombay where he set up a highly professional studio. Realising the amount of work, he invited his younger brother C. Raja Raja Varma to join him as a partner. Astute entrepreneurs, they organised their studio with business-like efficiency. Engaging agents to secure commissions, they travelled the length and breadth of the country in fulfilling portrait commissions.
Ravi Varma's Studio in Kilimanoor (2018-09-30) by Jay VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
Kilimanoor and Ravi Varma's Studio
A view of the Kilimanoor palace and Ravi Varma's studio
The entrance to Ravi Varma's studio where he spent most of his time from dawn to dusk.
Ravi Varma's Room in Kilimanoor (2018-09-30) by Jay VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
An inside view of Ravi Varma's studio, which has now been renovated.
His younger brother Raja Varma’s diary, the very first Indian artist to keep a diary, relates the fascinating story of their travels throughout India in fulfilment of commissions, and the difficulties faced by them.
After spending his full day painting in the studio, Ravi Varma would 'unwind' by listening to epics and stories from mythology.
By the end of the 19th century, Ravi Varma had built up a lucrative profession as a fashionable portrait painter, visiting Baroda, Ahmedabad, Udaipur and Hyderabad, and other regions as well, including the colonial cities of Bombay and Madras.
Arjuna Subhadra (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
The Lasting Frame
Ravi Varma’s lasting fame rests on his history painting, adapting Victorian salon art to bring to life ancient Indian epics and the Puranas, and literary classics such as Kalidasa. They combined melodrama with moral lessons.
He engaged a traditional reciter to go through the classics to find appropriate stories. Among these stories, he chose themes that stirred emotions and demanded reactions from the viewer.
The appeal of his heroines lay in the fact that they were not iconographic types but palpable, flesh-and-blood human beings who expressed real human emotions. In this respect, traditional iconography wasn’t much use.
To give a few examples of his portrayal of heroines: Varma grew up with Tanjore paintings, which were displayed in the courts he visited. They are sacred icons devoid of emotion. If we examine art in other parts of India, the situation was the same. Take this wonderful painting from western India, illustrating the love story of Laur Chanda.
Painted scenes from Mohammad Jaisi's Laur Chanda
This painting, from a manuscript made in the mid-sixteenth century, melds elements of Persian painting, particularly from Shiraz, with the Chaurapanchasika style of northern India.
Chanda in her palace from a Laur-Chanda manuscript (ca. 1540)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art
Laur and Chanda
Chanda in her palace from a Laur-Chanda manuscript. The artist illustrates Mohammad Jaisi’s literary text.
Chanda’s growing feeling of love is represented through the scene of spring with flowers and animals. The heroine, however, doesn’t betray any emotion. This is where Ravi Varma was different.
To show deep emotion, sentiment, not to speak of visual beauty, Varma needed a different aesthetic and a different heroine.
This new aesthetic that Ravi Varma created through his works is what Professor Partha Mitter has referred to as the blend of Kerala and Guercino.
Shakuntala And Her Companion (1880) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Travancore Royal Family, Kaudiar Palace, Thiruvananthapuram
Kerala & Guercino
Remember his treatment of the shy young beauty in the painting of Princess Chimna Bai? He now rolls out a series of heroines, ideal beauties of full rounded faces, straight features large dreamy eyes and in general an expressive face.
Sita in Ashoka Grove (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection
You cannot mistake his ideal women for those of other contemporary artists. Ravi Varma was also affected by the dominant standards of beauty; we show by contrast what was regarded as the opposite of beautiful – aboriginal women.
The Persian Sibyl (1647/1648) by GuercinoMusei Capitolini
The new canon of beauty — a mixture of Kerala and Guercino — created by him was greeted by the Indian nationalists as endorsing their own literary ‘inventions’ of the past.
(This is a painting of a woman by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri or Guercino)
The Madonna and Child with an Escaped Goldfinch (early 1630s) by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called GuercinoNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Themes such as this, of 'Madonna and Child', were also borrowed by Varma from the Italian artist.
Keechaka and Sairandhri (1891) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fatehsingh Museum, Vadodara
Keechaka and Sairandhri
Ravi Varma's fervent wish was that the public should see his works and appreciate them.
The Bombay Art Society gave exposure to the brothers, as this painting of Keechaka and Sairindhri exemplifies.
Varma wanted more and wished to set up a public museum where his works could be displayed.
However, this wish remained fulfilled because of complex circumstances.
Sairandhri (1894-12) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
Mechanical reproductions of paintings were a major device imported from the West that helped spread images through the length and breadth of India. The two brothers set up their press in Lonavla near Bombay, with the assistance of two Germans, Fritz Schleicher and Paul Gerhardt.
There was, however, another area, a modern device, that offered him a great chance to make his works reach the widest audiences.
Shakuntala Janm (Birth of Shakuntala) (circa 1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
The tonal quality of Ravi Varma was more complex and nuanced, the colours richer as they emulated original oil colours of his paintings
Above all, his women were soft and voluptuous with flirtatious expressions, real human beings.
The prints were affordable even to the ordinary Indians, and all Indians, irrespective of their social and economic background, were thrilled with them.
Shri Shankara (1800-01-01/1890-12-31) by Chitrashala Steam Press, PoonaOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante
There was a distinct and qualitative difference between the prints done at the Ravi Varma Presses and the others in the country.
Prints from the Ravi Varma Press became hugely popular and spread to all parts of the country.
Padmini (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
The women that Ravi Varma depicted were beautiful and were instantly relatable.
Ravi Varma's works were admired throughout India and outside the country too. What Ravi Varma sought to convey was that beauty wasn't far to seek.
Vishwamitra Menaka (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Vishwamitra and Menaka
Ravi Varma's grasp and understanding of mythological tales and scriptures was his greatest advantage.
Ravi Varma's heroines were alluring and beautiful. The play of emotions on Vishwamitra and Menaka's visage is starkly different here.
Mohini or The Temptress (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Mohini or The Temptress
The hugely popular Mohini on a swing has been recreated many times over after Ravi Varma's creation.
The ethereal beauty with the most common place of element -- the swing, in a forest setting, was a masterstroke.
According to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore: "When Ravi Varma’s age arrived in Bengal, his oleographs quickly replaced the European prints that used to hang in our walls."
"I would to add that it was his conception of feminine grace and charm that has continued to dominate popular arts in India".
Concept & Text: Professor Partha Mitter
Research: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
Images: Prof. Partha Mitter from his book Art & Nationalism In Colonial India