A New Aesthetic
Raja Ravi Varma was a celebrated Indian artist, famous for his realistic portrayal of Indian gods, goddesses and mythological characters. Referred to as the ‘father of modernism’, he was one of the first Indian artists to work with oil paints. Bringing detail, texture and a nuanced interplay of light and shadows to Indian art, Varma crafted a new and unique visual aesthetic that remains just as alluring and influential today, as it was more than a century ago.
Varma was not only a master portrait artist for the royals and aristocrats of India but also a pioneer of popular culture, responsible for the mass dissemination of this new visual vocabulary he had created. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Indian homes slowly began to see the arrival of several colourful prints of deities and mythological figures — many of which could be traced back to the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. Through his countless oleographs, and those that copied or reproduced his compositions, he infiltrated the majority of households with his imagination, essentially becoming responsible for influencing and shaping the perceptions of generations to follow.
The Ravi Varma Press
Repeated demand for copies of his paintings led Sir Madhava Rao, the diwan of Travancore, to suggest that Varma have some of his paintings reproduced as prints. Although paintings were earlier sent to Europe, mainly Germany, to be lithographed (a print technique that uses metal plates along with water and oil), Ravi Varma chose to set up his own printing press in Maharashtra in 1894 instead. His brother, Raja Raja Varma, his partner in this enterprise helped him engage a German technician as well as procure equipment from Germany for this purpose. The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press was set up in first in Ghatkopar and eventually in Lonavala.
The first chromolithograph issued by the Ravi Varma Press depicted the 'Birth of Shakuntala' or Shakuntala Janam, which this textile label reproduces.
According to legend, frightened by the sage Vishwamitra's growing powers, Lord Indra sent the beautiful celestial nymph Menaka to interrupt his meditation. Menaka successfully seduces Vishwamitra, and Shakuntala, their daughter is eventually born. In this scene, Ravi Varma imagines the moment when Vishwamitra rejects Menaka and Shakuntala, adamantly refusing to even look at the child's face, because they remind him of his lapse.
From Royal to Populist Artist
Soon after, presses in other parts of the country like Pune, Calcutta, and Sivakasi started to emerge. The mythological, religious and secular images supplied by these presses across the country formed, what Kajri Jain calls, a ‘bazaar economy’ — which functioned as an informal network that ran parallel to state-led corporate economy dominated by the English-speaking elite which persisted post-Independence as well. By mass-producing oleographs, of which the most popular were images of Hindu gods and goddesses, the Ravi Varma press challenged conventional ideas of not only the ownership of art but also the privilege of faith. Caste hierarchies that dictated who could access temples and worship gods and when could suddenly be upended. Blurring the distinctions between ‘high' and 'low' art, the ‘royal’ artist became a champion of making art accessible to all.
Promotional calendar for Vinolia soap (1920 – 1940) by Unknown Maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
A New Purpose
In September 1894, the press launched the chromolithographs of goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati. These were to become two of Ravi Varma's most famous and recognisable images. Significantly, Varma’s illustrations were among the first popular images of Hindu deities depicted in three dimensional human likeness. These chromolithographs–and many later images derived from them–would soon develop a ubiquitous presence in households across the country. Calendars and ticket labels that featured them were often collected, framed and revered as images of the gods – placed in puja rooms and worshipped.
This calendar promoting Vinolia, for instance, features Ravi Varma's Lakshmi. In fact, Vinolia, an expensive luxury soap which had the distinction of having been supplied on the ill-fated Titanic, issued a series of calendars from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s that featured the Ravi Varma depictions of Lakshmi and Saraswati. For the companies publishing calendars and advertisements like these, the deities served the role of celebrity endorsers and built brand recognition.
As artefacts however, they were to have entire lives of their own that moved away from the commercial consumerist space into the personal domestic sphere. Apart from its obvious three dimensional form, Ravi Varma’s illustrations deviated from older depictions in other subtle ways.
For instance, Varma’s representation of Saraswati popularised the depiction of the peacock as her mount, rather than the swan. And while earlier representations generally depicted the ancillary hands of a deity behind the body of the deity, Ravi Varma, through his paintings and the chromolithographs altered this convention. Saraswati’s hand that holds the book can be seen here extended out as if offering it (and symbolically knowledge) to the viewer.
The popularity of Ravi Varma’s compositions were to influence the way in which these deities were imagined and stories were perceived to such a degree, that other painters and publishers would mirror the same imagery. This postcard for instance was published by the S. S. Brijbasi Press, another important pre-Independence press. The Saraswati that it features, however, is rendered in the same style as Ravi Varma – incorporating a peacock instead of a swan and with the hand holding the book extended similarly.
Damayanti (1890 – 1910) by Ravi Varma PressMuseum of Art & Photography
A New Imagination
Ravi Varma was to also influentially shape visual culture around the representation of mythological stories from Indian epics and Puranic texts. The painter and art historian Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh notes that “his most interesting innovation lies in the choice of his themes. He virtually invented the visualisation of the legends of Harischandra-Taramati, Shakuntala, Vishwamitra-Menaka among others, as there are hardly, if any, traditional prototypes of these. With a bias towards a theatric tableau and physical freezing of scene, he was adding a new dimension of portrayals of traditional narrative. Traditionally, a continuous narration had avoided the projection of a climactic moment. In looking for new themes to paint, he seems to have unearthed from the ancient and medieval storehouse many with a vast potential for the nostalgic and sentimental, the Indian middle class seemed craved for.”
This oleograph (a print that mimics an oil painting) depicts Damayanti, the protagonist of the Sanskrit epic Nala Damayanti. In the story, Damayanti and King Nala fall in love with each other after hearing about their respective noble traits, intelligence and beauty.
Here, Ravi Varma depicts her engrossed in Nala’s thoughts, and possibly confiding in her attendant Keshini who stands nearby fanning her. It appears that Ravi Varma was quite taken with the story of Nala-Damayanti as he painted multiple works that feature different episodes from their tale.
Many of Varma’s most iconic compositions were adapted from photographs of theatrical productions or illustrations of Old Master paintings and other images in European magazines.
The painting that this oleograph is based on, for instance, was inspired by a photograph from a theatre show called, The Feast of Roses, L’inamorata (c.1900).
Ravi Varma skilfully adapts everything from the posture and stance of the actor in the photograph to the Indian context, transforming the folds of her costume into the pleats of Damayanti’s sari.
The gold ornamentation and borders of the womens' sarees are intricately rendered, as was expected in Varma’s paintings (and their subsequent reproductions).
Another signature element of Ravi Varma’s compositions is expressed in the verandah floor of this illustration. Strewn with delicate flowers, it draws viewers’ eyes to the emerging shadows and contrasting light effects from the skies above.
Themes of Engagement
Ravi Varma’s foray into realism began with portraiture. He then delved into mythological paintings inspired by the Sanskrit epics and Puranic texts, and later narrative paintings that were influenced by Parsi and Marathi theatre in Bombay. He was also particularly appreciated for his depictions of Indian women, portrayed engaged in everyday activities. So much so, that at one point it was a recognised way of describing a beautiful woman – someone who looked “as if she had stepped out of a Varma canvas.”
This idealised vision of Indian female beauty that Ravi Varma rendered repeatedly, fed into his mythological narratives as well. Seen here for instance is a textile label that reproduces his depiction of Rambha, queen of the apsaras.
This textile label features Varma's iconic composition of 'Shakuntala Patralekhan' or Shakuntala writing a letter. Although this reproduction does not carry the vibrancy of the original painting, or even the accuracy of the oleograph, it retains the Ravi Varma spirit of ideal female beauty in its delicately featured figures who are presented here like nymphs within a pastoral paradise.
The Puranic Compositions
Characters and episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana frequently appear in Ravi Varma's and the Ravi Varma Press' imagery. These along with scenes from other Puranic texts, were referred to by the artist himself as his 'Puranic' work.
This textile label reproduces Ravi Varma's depiction of the 'Flight of Ganga' - which forms the backstory to the Mahabharata. Textile trade labels, also referred to as ‘tickets’ and ‘tikas’ were a fascinating by-product of Indo-British trade and cultural history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They formed an integral part of the publicity campaigns of both British and Indian mills of the period, and featured imagery that ranged from the mythological to the political.
This textile label meanwhile reproduces the scene of King Shantanu being captivated by Satyavati or Matsyagandha. The king's desire to marry her and her own conditions for the marriage, sets the stage for the Mahabharata.
This textile label reproduces Ravi Varma's depiction of Ram Vanvas, or his fourteen year exile. The episode represented is that of their crossing of the Ganga, which has many different stories attached to it. In one, for instance, the boatman having heard the story of how Ahalya was transformed into herself from a stone by the touch of Rama's feet was fearful for his own boat. Believing that if Rama stepped into his boat, it would transform into several women, given that it was made of several parts, he insisted on washing the lord's feet first and asking him to step upon on his own hands before climbing into the boat.
In this textile label Ravi Varma's wonderful representation of 'Angad Shishtai' is reproduced. In this episode, Angad, son of Bali, has been sent by Rama as a diplomatic emissary with a final offer of truce to the Lankan court. When Ravana slights him by not offering him a seat, Angad responds by making a show of his strength. He extends his tail, coiling it into a cylindrical throne upon which he seats himself, hovering above the rest of the court and Ravana himself.
The Nationalist Narrative
In her book 'When Was Modernism' (2000), art historian Geeta Kapur writes that it would be reductive to perceive Ravi Varma’s work as the cheap imitation of European techniques since he was a self-taught “gentleman artist in the Victorian mould” who was also “a nationalist charged with the ambition to devise a pan-Indian vision for his people”. Varma's quest for an 'Indianness' which transcended geographies and class was to become a quest for a national identity. The mythological and classical literary narratives he painted, may be seen within this context, as an attempt to unite people under the banner of a shared collective cultural archive.
In a tribute to the artist post his death, the journalist Ramananda Chatterjee explains this: “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 painting 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 organisation and the national character are much hate 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.”
Mahishasuramardini (Late 19th to early 20th centuries) by Ravi Varma PressMuseum of Art & Photography
Even after the artist’s death, the Ravi Varma Press, which had been sold by Varma to his printing technician Fritz Schleicher, continued to make prints of Hindu gods, sometimes finding itself in controversies over the politics of its imaging. 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, as “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”.
Although Schleicher claimed in court that the British Government’s interpretation of the image (as an assault upon two butchers who have slaughtered a cow) was erroneous, Christopher Pinney points out in his book 'Photos of the Gods' that the print in question could in fact have been read in this manner in the absence of any textual knowledge. The Government and Schleicher were to reach a compromise and the latter agreed to minor modifications in future copies of the print, including making the buffalo darker and removing the blood stains from the fallen figure's sword (which is trimmed out, showing only the hilt, in this composition).
Spheres of Influence
The appeal of Ravi Varma, mobilised by his lithographic press, did in fact transcend regional differences, catering to a growing middle class population's taste. Additionally, as the artist who pioneered a new realistic way of imagining and depicting gods and goddesses – who gave them a human face – he was not only to erase earlier representations of these deities from public memory but also inform all contemporary and subsequent representations of them. His images (both legitimate reproductions and unauthorised or pirate versions) came to inhabit all sorts of spaces and were transposed and adopted to all kinds of forms including calendars, packaging, textile and matchbox labels, postcards, book covers and movie posters.
This promotional card for a brand of cigarettes (part of a set of 25), for instance, reproduces Ravi Varma's composition of Kaliya Mardan – an episode in which Krishna dances upon the venomous snake Kalia to subdue it.
The same episode is represented in this postcard, published by S. S. Brij Basi & Sons. Though not a Ravi Varma print, the imagery here closely imitates his, lodging itself still more firmly into the popular visual imagination.
The Kaliya Mardan also forms the subject of this textile label. Although deviations may be found in this illustration upon observation – such as the fact that Krishna is playing the flute here instead of having his hands in the drummer's pose while dancing – the overall framing of the elements remain largely unaltered, and therefore reminiscent of Ravi Varma's composition.
Collages such as these, combining painted backgrounds with cut-outs of figures from popular prints, were hugely in demand around the early to mid-twentieth century. They usually featured cut-ous from prints produced by the S. S. Brij Basi press. The figure of Hanuman Hriday Bidaran seen here however, might have been from a Ravi Varma press print. Certainly, it mimics his composition, depicting Hanuman tearing his heart and showing Rama and Sita reflected within – though the collage situates him within a countryside garden landscape with the sea and a mountain in the background.
The pervasive nature of Ravi Varma's imagery, perhaps cemented his long lasting influence upon popular Indian visual culture. Like in the case of the collages, his imagined characters and narratives took on new forms and lives of their own as they were refigured not only in form, but also purpose. His aesthetic greatly influenced Indian cinema, particularly its portrayal of religious stories; an influence that extended to television, the comics of Amar Chithra Katha and into the present day. In the twenty first century, today, several artists such as Chitra Ganesh, Pushpamala N. and Nalini Malini continue to adapt, restage and respond to his images, weaving them into new discourses.
For example, in photographer Waswo X. Waswo's hand-painted photograph, Swinger, the artist is seen posing in two avatars – both a reference to Ravi Varma's iconic depiction of Mohini (the temptress) on a swing. In one he is dressed in a suit, while in the other, he is rendered as a woman with flowing dresses and clad in an ocean blue sari. A commentary on gender and sexuality, the work evokes ideas of transgender identities throughout – from its title to its subject (Mohini being the only female avatar of Vishnu).
Postcard depicting Mohini (Early to mid 20th century) by Unknown maker(s)Museum of Art & Photography
With his eye for detail, interplay of light and shadows, mastery of texture, and skilled working of perspective, Ravi Varma crafted a novel experience of realism for his audiences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It earned him a pre-eminent place in Indian art history, whether classified as a classical or bazaar artist, whether producing high or low art. Thus, from the rustle of the pleated folds of saris, and the delicate glint of jewellery to the swaying of flowers in the breeze and the sighs of parted lovers, he brought his subjects to life – building in the process, an enduring legacy that continues to influence how a million people imagine them.
Google Exhibit | Curation & Content: Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
References & Further Reading:
Christopher Pinney. "Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India", Reaktion Books, 2004
Geeta Kapur. "When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India", Tulika, 2000
Kajri Jain. "Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art", Duke University Press, 2007
Partha Mitter. "Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations", Cambridge University Press, 1994
Tapati Guha Thakurta. "Westernisation and Tradition in South Indian Painting in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)", Studies in History, Vol. 2 Issue 2, 1986