Wanderers Between Worlds: Story Of The Ravi Varma Press

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

With information based on diary entries made by Ravi Varma's younger brother C. Raja Raja Varma, filmmaker Vikas Urs attempts to understand and rediscover snapshots from the last 10 years of the brothers' lives.

Malavli Hills (2019) by Vikas UrsRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

The press, founded in Bombay in 1894, had an overwhelming impact on modern Indian aesthetics. It was Ravi Varma's great industrial enterprise that sadly took its toll on the artist and his creativity.

Lithographic Press Lever (2019) by Vikas UrsOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

Established in 1894, the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press was, for some time, the largest picture printing establishment in India, and also the most innovative.

Several German technicians looked after the servicing and working of the machines and by extension, took part in the formulation of the modern Hindu pantheon.

Lithographic Press Machine (2019) by Vikas UrsOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

Since art is defined by technique as much by creative genius, the part played by these technicians in the visualisation of the new image of gods cannot be overlooked.

Master print-maker -Fritz Schleicher (1932) by Y.M. KandnikarOriginal Source: Private Collection

Right from the beginning, the press was under the technical control of German printer Fritz Schleicher, who eventually became its owner in 1903.

Lithographic Press Rotor (2019) by Vikas UrsOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

Ravi Varma ran the press as an absentee artist, with virtually no control over financial dealings, which were in the hands of his business partner Govardhan Das until 1898.

Bags of Coloured Powder Used For Printing (2019) by Vikas UrsOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

When Bombay was ravaged by the plague, Ravi Varma parted ways with Govardhan Das and decided to move the press from Ghatkopar to Malavli, with Schleicher's help.

Blue Coloured Powder Used For Printing (2019) by Vikas UrsOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

That Schleicher was an expert lithographer can be gauged from the high quality of the early prints from the Ravi Varma Press.

Litho Stone of Vasantasena (2019) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

He introduced the infrastructure necessary to run the steam-driven lithographic machinery, and maintained the biggest capital of the press, the store of lithographic master stones.

Under Schleicher's guidance, the press dismantled, shifted and reassembled at least twice between 1898 and 1901, first moving from Girgaum to Ghatkopar, and later to Malavli near Lonavla.

Under his supervision, the press became the largest picture-printing establishment in India. The quality of prints was very high and could be favourably compared with imported prints from Germany.

Litho Stone of Urvashi (2019) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

For the transfer of the pictures to stone, Schleicher relied on the artistic ability of another German lithographer, P. Gerhardt, who was also a talented painter and a master at foliated backgrounds.

If Gerhardt was a master of the backdrop, then Schleicher was known as a master of rendering human figures on stone.

Outline of a Lithograph of Saraswati (2019) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

Schleicher and Shriram Pant, a friend of the Varma brothers, leased the press from them in 1901. The working language at the press was German, as markings on original litho stones show.

Under the strict supervision of Schleicher and his German printers, the press became a virtual goldmine. The two machines at the press could produce up to 800 impressions per hour.

C. Raja Raja Varma (1895) by UnknownOriginal Source: Private Collection

The Varma brothers sold the press to Schleicher and Pant, along with the permission to reproduce about 100 of Ravi Varma's paintings, for a considerable sum, and to be received in monthly instalments.

Coloured Lithograph of Saraswati During The Printing Process (2019) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal, Karnataka, India

It is impossible to know from available evidence the true picture of profits or losses of the press. It is likely that Varma terminated his ownership of the press without overall loss or much profit.

What is understood, though, is that a more stringent business policy and better supervision of the press might have made Ravi Varma one of the richest men in India.

Wanderers Between Worlds (2020) by Vikas UrsRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Credits: Story

Film: by Vikas Urs.

References: from Raja Ravi Varma, Portrait of an Artist: The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger.

Exhibit: 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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