A Century Of Sacred Art: Gods In Print

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

In 1894, Raja Ravi Varma and his younger brother C Raja Raja Varma set up a firm in Bombay (Mumbai), the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press. Over the next several decades, this press would issue a great river of popular prints of Hindu subjects, many based on Ravi Varma’s own designs.

Laxmi (1894) by Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press, BombayOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Laxmi (1894) Ravi Varma FAL Press, Bombay

Ravi Varma is often dubbed the “father of Indian calendar art”. There is no denying the influence and popularity of some of his premier designs. His prints of Lakshmi and Saraswati are among those most reproduced, commercially appropriated, and imitated of all modern Hindu images, in any medium.

Ravi Varma contributed fundamentally to the way the Hindus of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have envisioned these deities.

Lakshmi here stands upright on a wide pink lotus in a sylvan pool. A single white elephant swims towards her with a garland in its trunk.

Hanuman (1900-01-01/1915-12-31) by Ravi Udaya FAL Press, BombayOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Hanuman

Prints issued by the Ravi Varma Press from 1894 through to the 1930s, thus comprise the ones based on Ravi Varma’s designs and those by many others, mostly anonymous artists. Thus a majority of the prints from the Ravi Varma Press were not based on Ravi Varma’s own paintings, and are often erroneously identified as the work of the master, however, to increase their prestige and value.  

This print was done sometime between 1900-1915 at the Ravi Udaya FAL Press in Bombay. It depicts Hanuman with a colonial period beard.

Even the legs have been given a different treatment with the artist portraying Hanuman with athlete's legs.

Shri Shri Hariharamilana (1890) by Calcutta Art StudioOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Shri Shri Hariharamilana

Many of the earliest popular prints of the Hindu gods came from publishers active in the late nineteenth-century Calcutta, then a flourishing cultural and economic center, as well as political capital of British India. 

The most important of the publishers was the Calcutta Art Studio, founded in 1878. However, many other smaller firms and individual artists also sought to produce work for the religious market

Signalling still greater union among the gods, the goddess of prosperity Laxmi appears to make some offering to Lord Shiva. Once again, it's highly unusual and relative to this press.

Hari Haramilana (1890) by Chore Bagan Art Studio, CalcuttaOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Prints from these early Calcutta presses reflect Bengali religious culture in their selection of deities and themes, and in some cases display distinctive regional iconography.

This version of Hari Hara Milana (1890) from the Chore Bagan Art Studio substitutes the gods with two winged angels with garlands and long flowing black hair.

Goddess Kali (1883) by Calcutta Art Studio, CalcuttaOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Goddess Kali

An 1883 Calcutta Art Studio print. In this representation, we see all of Kali's characteristic features: a dark blue or black complexion.

In the earlier Puranas, the fearsome goddess appears first as an angry incarnation of Durga, who takes form on the battlefield to slay demons.

In some later traditions, particular goddess-oriented Tantras, Kali takes on a more exalted character. She stands atop a prostrate Shiva, in a battlefield setting.

Shri Sheshanarayana (1886) by Chitrapriyaprakash Press, BombayOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Shri Shesharayana

Vishnu Naryana On His Snake Couch (1886). In Western India several presses started up in the late nineteenth-century, including the Chitrapriyaprakash Press in Bombay, which released this print and the Chitrashala Press in Poona. 

These Maharashtrian publishers promulgated a more robust style in their prints than their Bengali contemporaries.

The primal scene here includes several devotees: Hanuman and the horse-headed musical Tumburu. Brahman (on the right) acts an agent of Vishnu in carrying out the work of creation.

Shri Uttara Rama Panchayatana (1886) by Chitrapriyaprakash Press, BombayOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Shri Uttara Rama Panchayatana

The Assembly of Rama, this print from the Chitrapriyaprakash Press was released in 1886.

The artist has very cleverly included the title and the press in the form of the scripture in the sage's hands.

After defeating Ravan, Lord Rama's coronation takes place in Ayodhya. He is flanked by his three brothers, his wife Sita and their sons Lava and Kusha seated on their laps.

This iconography portrays Lord Ram's ardent devotee Hanuman, sans the usual beard, once again, mirroring the local artist's imagination.

Shri Shankara (1880-01-01/1890-12-31) by Chitrashala Steam Press, PoonaOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Shri Shankara

This print of Shri Shankara (1880-1890) was released from the Chitrashala Steam Press, Poona.

This is one of the earliest and most popular prints of the Chitrashala Press. The artist portrays Lord Shiva with his consort Parvati and son Ganesha amid the Himalayan-like backdrop.

The young Ganesh holds the quintessential modak while Shiva's trusted mount, Nandi is clearly depicted.

Samudra Manthan (1914) by Ravi Udaya-Vijaya Press, GhatkoparOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Samudra Manthan

In the early 20th century, the Ravi Varma Press was the foremost publisher of religious prints.

The Ravi Varma Press did not have the market to itself. New publishers started up and especially in Maharashtra there was a concerted attempt to cash in on the artist's name and popularity.

Vishnu on his tortoise incarnation, sits below the churning pole-mountain. In the ten small rings surrounding the central scene, the artist illustrates the ten incarnations of the lord.

Sita Svayamvar (1930) by A Pannalal GopilalOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Sita Svayamvar

Ravi Varma was by no means the first to produce religious prints. There were others before him, like the Calcutta Art Studio and Chitrashala Press, and many after him like S.S. Brijbasi and Sons.  This print released in 1930 is from Brijbasi and Sons.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, the most successful and influential publisher of god-prints was S.S. Brijbasi and Sons, founded by two brothers, Shrinathdasji and Shyamsunderlal Brijbasi.

The brothers, who owned a picture-framing shop in Karachi made their foray into publishing when they began producing prints of the Hindu deities based on oil paintings done by artists from Nathdwara.

Shiva Panchayatan (1930) by Khubiram Gopilal (of Nathdwara)Original Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Shiva Panchayatan

The Brijabasi brothers' work with painters from the pilgrimage town of Nathadwara set a whole new direction in the popular representation of the Hindu gods. Located initially in Karachi, they moved to Mathura in 1939.

Khubiram Gopilal’s version of Lord Shiva's portrait was released in 1930 and includes a full set of figures with Parvati, Ganesh and the six-headed Skanda.

Shiva and Parvati sit on a pedestal shaped like a Shivaling. Nandi the bull and a lion, which is considered Parvati's mount, are also depicted.

Shiva Panchayatan (1952-01-01/1953-12-31) by Lakshmilall (of Nathdwara)Original Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Shiva Panchayatan

This print by Lakshmilal of Nathdwara was released in 1952-53.

Shiva’s assemblies are most often outdoors with the backdrop of the Himalayas, but here Lakshmilal has brought them indoors.

Like the earlier print in 1930, Lakshmilal incorporates Ganesh and the six-headed Skanda. It's not often that Skanda or Murugan is depicted with six heads in a Shiva portrait.

Given the setting is indoors, the artist, whose signature is visible on the right, depicts only Nandi the bull, unlike the earlier print which also had the lion.

Credits: Story

Reproductions: from the collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante from their book Gods in Print
Information and research used with permission from: Mark Baron, Elise Boisante, Vasudha Narayanan and Richard H. Davis

Exhibit & References: from the collection of the Mark Baron and Elise Boisante from their book Gods in Print and Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Click here to read more about Raja Ravi Varma.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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