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Beyond Ravi Varma’s bovine beauties

The imaginative leaps made by 10th century and other Tibetan artists in their mountain fastnesses are, to call a spade a spade, mindblowing, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Nov 22, 2008 00:05 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Why is a Picasso or a Dalí assured of a steady appreciation rate of six to eight per cent a year no matter what tempests rage in the teapot of the money market? Obviously, it’s demand-and-supply for that prized commodity called original quality. Why did the Delhi dam-builder reportedly buy his wife a Ravi Varma for her puja room at Rs 27 lakh some years ago? It was, by all accounts, a particularly pudgy Yashodha and Krishna. Same reason. Usually, this perceived value devolves on an artwork because its maker came up with a new way of seeing, what MBAs call ‘first mover advantage’.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole unfed demand in Indian art that’s crying out loud for supply. But none of our look-West artists have cracked it yet, they’re so weighed down by 20th century baggage and the need to quickly score as players in the world market. This yet-to-be-reinvented subject is the grand canvas of Indian philosophy and religion. Yes, you do have Krishna collections, Golden Eggs and gopis by the gallon. But nobody seems to have made anything in the last 100 years, not since Ravi Varma, that turned into a national mania, an Indian icon that transcends the intellect and goes straight home. So how did Ravi Varma swing it, despite his artistic deficiencies, his lack of perspective, his flat Parsi theatre backdrops, disproportionate limbs and fat, dumb faces?

In the course of a conversation last month, artist Farhan Mujib, an atheist, said what many say: that Ravi Varma was not a good painter. “My brain agrees with you,” I recall saying. “But I’ve grown up seeing Ravi Varmas ennobled by carved rosewood frames in puja rooms. I’ve approached them kowtowing through a haze of incense and the compound smell of roses, jasmine, sandalwood, sacred ash; of naivedyam — creamy payasam studded with saffron threads and caju-kishmish fried in pure ghee; tiny, perfect golden bunches of Deccani bananas on glistening green banana leaves; of old, carved silver bowls of haldi, kumkum and sandalwood paste, the ritual chink of the ugrani (ladle) against the panchapaatra (silver beaker) of mantra-nuked water. It’s a total context, totally exciting. A Catholic experience comes closest to it in sumptuousness. And Ravi Varmas preside over it with authority.”

Anyhow, after the longest time, I saw evidence of that sumptuousness again: in a new book on Tibetan art by scholar-historian Lokesh Chandra: Tibetan Art (Niyogi Books, 2008). This fat coffee table book is better produced than Chandra’s 1996 publication, Transcendental Art of Tibet (Aditya Prakashan), but that too has very good material and is well worth a re-look. Both books painstakingly trace the history of Tibetan art through their operative concepts and give you a wealth of visual, a rich world of fantasy and the probable origin of miniature painting.

The imaginative leaps made by 10th century and other Tibetan artists in their mountain fastnesses are, to call a spade a spade, mindblowing. The artists, working on paper, silk or walls, seem to have internalised their ideas bank, married it with their observations of real life and propelled by some inner conviction and vision, made a new way of seeing the world and its possibilities! Their high energy and beauty are unmistakable.

Ever practical, the reason I point them out is that these books seem a timely reminder for Indian artists in this millennium. That beyond the money, beyond the prissy ladies painted by Ravi Varma (whom we love because we have nothing better to love), there’s the Big Prize shining through the incense-haze: a real shot at… Immortality. Like Picasso and Dali have. Like Ravi Varma has. Then give us our gods again, fire-fresh from the havankund of your mind.