On the occasion of 114th death anniversary of Raja Ravi Varma, a seminal figure in Indian art, on October 2, historian M G Sasibhooshan gives a lowdown, which is chronicled by R Sasi Sekhar, on the body of work churned out by the celebrated painter.
The paintings of Raja Ravi Varma played a pivotal role in laying a strong cultural foundation for the resurgence of nationalist sentiments in the last decade of the 19th century. The renewed nationalism brought a whiff of fresh air for people who were stifled by the imperious colonial rule. Ravi Varma started his artistic odyssey like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore by creating portraits of British Residents, viceroys and kings living in grandeur. Shortly, the celebrated painter shifted his focus to painting mythological characters, Hindu gods and goddesses, epoch-making moments in epics and national leaders.
Meanwhile, Ravi Varma’s brother and disciple C Raja Raja Varma included different places, cities and people from different walks of life in his volume of work. The exquisite paintings of Ravi Varma were instrumental in providing the divine presence of gods and goddesses to people who were facing the rigours of life.
The Baroda Mission
The 10 years between 1880 and 1890 were a period of achievement for the artist in Ravi Varma. Ravi Varma, who reached Baroda (now Vadodara) at the invitation of Madhava Rao to make portraits of the Baroda royal family members, turned to recreating on canvas the momentous occasions of the ancient mythological stories and Indian epics. His paintings were replete with happenings in Ramayana, Mahabharata, Shakuntala and Nalacharitham. The Sri Krishna-centric works such as birth of Krishna, Kamsa Maya, Radha Madhava and Krishna Drishta were drawn during this period.
And the most popular work among them is Radha Madhava. It portrays the feminine nature in a man and the masculine traits in a woman. A dramatic tinge is the underlying theme of Ravi Varma’s other works. Krishna’s deeds are a relentless journey towards the purification of soul. Those who have visited the Fateh Singh Museum in Vadodara would vouch for the magical elegance of these creations.
Dream to own a printing press
The national leaders gave Ravi Varma the idea of making available printed copies of his paintings for those who can’t buy his creative works by shelling out huge amounts of money. When those who promised to invest in his lithograph press backed out, Ravi Varma opened a printed press with his savings in 1894-95. But anarchy and general concerns stemming out of the outbreak of plague posed a problem or two for the accomplished artist. Ravi Varma started operations of the lithographic press at Malvali near Lonavala in Maharashtra and was ably supported by his brother Raja Varma, Kilimanoor Madhav Warrier, Shekar Warrier, Sriram Joshi and M V Dhuramdaru, among others. More than 100 lithographs of Ravi Varma’s paintings such as Radha and Krishna, Yasodha and Krishna, Krishnaleela, Gopikas and Krishna, Gopi grahanam and Draupadi ‘Vastraharanam’ came out from the printing press. But these lithographs lacked the aesthetic colour sense of the original paintings and many, including Anantha Kumara Swamy and Sister Nivedita, criticized the copies of paintings.
Ravi Varma decided to relinquish the ownership of the printing press as he feared that it would be a blot on his reputation in the pursuit of popularizing art. He finally sold it to Fritz Schleicher, a German, who was the main employee of the press. But Ravi Varma received only the first installment of Rs 25,000 of the total sales consideration. The building that housed Ravi Varma’s lithographic press could be seen on the road leading to the Bhaji Hills, but now it is used as a warehouse to store liquor bottles.
Unrealized dream of an art gallery
After returning from Malvali, Ravi Varma got immersed in travelling and painting, and that’s when he strongly wished to start an art gallery in Thiruvananthapuram. He wrote a letter to Diwan Shankara Subba Iyer about his desire and promised all help in this regard, but the Travancore administration didn’t give much thought to the suggestion. Meanwhile, there was an unexpected turn of events in the great painter’s life. Ravi Varma’s two grandchildren were adopted by the Travancore royal family though first prince Chathayam Thirunal Rama Varma was unhappy with the adoption.
Mysore maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar asked Ravi Varma to provide nine paintings for the newly-built Jagamohana Palace. Ravi Varma made the paintings for Rs 27,000 for the Maharaja, who was a devi bakht, and the majority of his work portrayed different manifestations of the supreme power. Ravi Varma hailed the glorious actions of Rama and Krishna through his drawings knowing the Yadava-Kshatriya lineage of the Mysore royal family. The collection includes Rama’s ‘sethubandhanam’ (construction of sethu bridge) and the instance of Krishna coming to Duryodhana’s palace as an envoy. The art historians consider these two creations as masterpieces of Ravi Varma.
One of the game-changing moments of ‘Udyoga Parva’, the fifth of the 18 books in Mahabharata, is when Krishna is send as a negotiator to talk to the Kauravas on behalf of the Pandavas. But Duryodhana gives orders to fetter Krishna despite reservations raised by his relatives. In a thunderous voice, Krishna replies that he was not alone as the guardians of whole universe were with him. Ravi Varma’s magical hands created this radiant Krishna who silenced everyone in one stroke. This piece of art also reflects the vigour of a Kshatriya who was pained by the lackluster response to the request given to the King and Diwan to start an art gallery in home town.
How Ravi Varma sees Krishna
The other works on display at the Mysore palace are those relating to the rescue of Devika and Vasudeva and pranks of Krishna and Balaraman. What stands out in these paintings are the dramatic twist and grace. Some of the paintings that Ravi Varma drew repeatedly illustrated Yashoda feeding Krishna, Yashoda adorning Krishna, Putana moksha and the divine love between Radha and Krishna. The art students came to know about these drawings, which were part of private collections, quite recently after a compilation of Ravi Varma’s works was published.
The miniature painting styles such as Rajasthani and Pahari were not alien to Ravi Varma, though he had an inclination towards the Thanjavur style. There are records vouching for the fact that the celebrated artist visited the famous Krishna temples in Guruvayur and Udupi, but he rebuffed the sketches at these places of worship.
Ravi Varma might have been exposed to the ethos of Krishna through the tales of his mother and epics.
Treading the middle path
Ravi Varma was not willing to toe the line of westernization practices, which were followed by the educated class in India. At the same time, he didn’t fancy Brahma Samaj’s favourable disposition towards western elements nor the fundamentalism of Arya Samaj. Instead, the acclaimed artist slightly drifted towards the middle path as propounded by Vivekananda.
Feminine grandeur in Ravi Varma's paintings
Ravi Varma perceived Yashoda, Radha, Sita, Draupadi and Damayandi draped in 9-yard saris as a reflection of the resplendence of Indian womanhood. Thus, he portrayed the feminine grandeur, which was a fine blend of emotional tenderness and tolerance, through his paintings based on Indian mythology. Ravi Varma rose to earn the respect of the Indians by immortalizing puranic characters such as Sakunthala, Sita and Draupadi. Renowned Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan was so enchanted by Ravi Varma’s paintings that he penned the much-acclaimed poem ‘Chinthavishtayaya Sita’ (Sita in Pensive Mood) after seeing the portrait of Sita resting at Valmiki’s hermitage. This painting is currently housed at Madras Museum.