TODAY Ravi Varma (1848-1906) remains one of the best-selling artists of India as his paintings are based on mythical subjects and endowed with lush realism, oozing out serenity despite the tumultuous times that he lived and worked in. We rather have a one-sided view of the artist who is known to be a Bohemian hedonist when, on reading this book, one discovers that he in reality was very traditional – he got up early and offered prayers and went to bed early. He led a disciplined and respectable life. It was he who shook up the miniaturist world of Indian art and remains a source of inspiration for contemporary artists, photographers and filmmakers. Says the author of the book under review, “The impact of Ravi Varma upon what is contemporary Indian art is immense. His influence on the kitsch style is obvious and artists like Pushpamala N have referenced him directly in a lot of their work. What most people tend to overlook is the fact, however, that he was the first artist to have created the notion of an Indian beauty that wasn’t recognisable from any one part of India. It’s something we take for granted today. The figure and face is the traditional image of the Indian woman in a tradition begun and crafted by Ravi Varma.”
The book traces Ravi Varma’s life and career and through these brings alive the world in which he lived. Despite hailing from a royal family, he took up a career as a painter. He was born on April 29, 1848, in a small estate called Kilimanoor to Uma Ambabai Thampuratty. In Malayali society, Thampuratty means ‘princess’ and it was because of the matrilineal system of inheritance in which the girl’s bother is in the position of power. The title of ‘Raja’ Ravi Varma he earned with a little help from the British who referred to him as Raja Rai Varma in the citation for the Kaiser-i-Hind medal in 1904.
As a young boy, Ravi spent hours sitting in his father’s lap, listening awestruck to the stories his father told him from the Hindu epics and legends. One day his uncle, his mother’s brother, saw him drawing a scene with cows on the wall and decided to teach him how to draw. Ravi Varma later learnt painting from Ahangiri Naidu. European artists like Tilly Kettle, Johann Zoffany and Thomas Hickey were the first European artists to visit India and paint in oil. Ravi Varma was greatly influenced by their work. Ravi Varma made his debut as a painter at the age of 20 when in the presence of a Danish painter named Jensen, who had been invited to paint the maharaja and his wife, Ravi boldly upstaged the experienced artist by painting a more flattering portrait of the royal couple than what Jensen had unveiled. Jensen never forgave him for that.
Ravi Varma’s reputation grew with each painting as he used realism with sensuality to depict human figures, not only of ordinary people but deities as well. He became India’s celebrity painter. He even started his own printing press called Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press with German technology, producing oleographs of his work and soon became a household name. He and the pioneering filmmaker, Dadasaheb Phalke, who worked in the press for a while, became known as the “father of modern mass communication”.
This a very enjoyable read, indeed!
(Random House Publishers India Private Limited, MindMill Corporate Tower, 2nd Floor, Plot No. 24 A, Sector 16-A, Noida-201 301.)