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All the Raja’s artists

india Updated: Jan 24, 2009 23:44 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
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“I don’t know what uncle will say.”

“Never mind what he says. You and I will manage him.”

“Poor dear, I am not ashamed of him, but I

wouldn’t thrust him upon polite company.”

- Garthowen, Allen Raine

Raja Ravi Varma is a site of struggle in India’s art scene that sees him as a good example of kitsch and an accidental modernist. Some say that the grand old man’s use of oil in paintings and the attempt at realism came courtesy his contact with European painters in 19th century India. Others feel that his calendars are full of idealistic images of gods, goddesses and men and women in all-too-bright neon. Calendar artists today, while acknowledging the inheritance, stress the points of departure.“Raja Ravi Varma, painted the ideal, I’ve gone post-modern,” says Rajendra Kapse, a painter whose artwork is part of Red Earth’s new art calendar.

What is modernity? No two people agree on that. But a few questions asked about literature can also be asked of art. First, is it fun? Second, does it give a good representation of reality? Third, what is the intention of the artist? Ketan Mehta, director, Rang Rasiya, a flim based on the life of the painter to be released in March, defends his man on all counts: “Ravi Varma has fathered India’s pop art. He was the first to use photography in painting. He wasn’t gaudy, he was exuberant. His printing press, a first for India, democratised art by making it available to those who could not enter temples and palaces, its traditional homes. He travelled across the country when our first trains rolled out, so his paintings reflected a pan-Indian iconography. He was modern, he was popular. A post-office was built in the 1890s at Killinanoor, Kerela, to take care of his fanmail.”

Most of the 12 artists participating in the Red Earth enterprise consider Varma a ‘senior’. But they wouldn’t underline the relation. Perhaps there is a point to that. As Himanshu Verma, curator, says: “Each of these artists presents a unique way in which popular culture is incorporated into their art practice, going towards making what we may call contemporary calendar art, calendar art with a contemporary art twist.” Presenting Calendar 2009…