Can you spot the hidden feminist in Raja Ravi Varma’s art?

A painting by the legendary artist recently fetched over Rs 11 crore at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. If you’re wondering why Ravi Varma is still relevant, it’s because he painted India as it could be.

art and culture Updated: Mar 26, 2017 12:10 IST
Arnav Das Sharma
Arnav Das Sharma
Hindustan Times
Note how a woman is the centre of his frame. Damayanti may be pining for her lost lover, Nala. But even in depicting the epics, with an aesthetic literally draped in tradition, Varma was surprisingly modern.

From a small village to the famous London auction house of Sotheby’s, the afterlife of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings has acquired a certain uniqueness that is, perhaps, only rivalled by the life of the artist himself.

Born in 1848, in the village of Kilimanoor in Kerala, and related to the royal family of Travancore by blood, legend has it that Ravi Varma, as a child, started painting on the walls of his house. Earlier this month, an unnamed painting by the artist depicting the mythological figure, Damayanti, from the Mahabharata, fetched a record Rs 11.09 crore at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, more than double its upper estimate.

“One of the reasons for this record price for a Raja Ravi Varma canvas is because it is so rare for his works to come out,” says Yamini Telkar, the Mumbai director of Delhi Art Gallery, which owns a sizeable collection of rare Ravi Varma paintings. “Most Ravi Varma paintings are housed in private collections, as he painted for the Travancore court. Besides, more than a portrait, the Damayanti canvas is part of his famed mythological series, the series for which he is particularly well known.”

Lady with a Lamp, a stunning illustration of Ravi Varma’s gift for depicting light and shadow.

The aesthetics of Raja Ravi Varma has become so ubiquitous today that it’s difficult to imagine what impact it must have had in the royal court of Travancore. His colour palette has become the source for innumerable representations of Indian gods and goddesses, from the popular calendar art to the comic books of Amar Chitra Katha. Daubed in bright, dazzling colours, his paintings of goddesses, draped in Maheshwari and Paithani saris, evoked a kind of femininity that in popular representations henceforth came to define ‘Indianness’.

In a way, working during the heyday of Indian nationalism, Varma’s works, particularly his mythological works, were embedded in the deep cultural ethos emerging at the time. Christopher Pinney, in his magisterial work, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, recounts how nationalist figures like Bal Gangadhar Tilak drew from the artist’s images to draw a picture of the emerging nation’s mythic past, a project that was so crucial for nationalism to succeed.

With independence, and the emergence of the progressive artists in the ’50s and ’60s, artists such as MF Husain, Ravi Varma’s images saw a sharp decline in terms of critical consensus. He was treated as an obscurantist and it seemed his reputation would largely be as a painter of gods and goddesses. As the writer Ira Pande puts it in an article on the artist, Ravi Varma was also a man of his times, a documentarian who showed in his portraits the courtly culture of Travancore, especially when nationalism was at its peak and the courtly culture had slowly become redundant. In that way, his works, while modern in their aesthetic, evoked a particular nostalgia for the mythic past.

Read: The enduring myth of Ravi Varma

Artists with flashier portfolios may come and go, but Ravi Varma’s legacy is timeless. The way we use colour, our notions of femininity on canvas, our very visual ideas of Indianness, come from his work.

The 21st century has been rather kind to Ravi Varma. Commenting on the critical and popular resurgence in Ravi Varma, Telkar of DAG says, “The reason for the contemporary interest in Raja Ravi Varma has got more to do with distance and time. The heavy influence of the Calcutta and Bombay Progressives is no longer as strong today, as it was in the ’50s. Now, we recognise Ravi Varma not just as pioneering, but also as someone who has self-fashioned a whole new vocabulary of Indian art. During his time, Varma was pioneering in his use of canvas as a medium, and his aesthetic, while couched in the garb of tradition, was surprisingly modern.”

The painting of Damayanti, for instance, is a case in point. While the painting itself depicts the titular character, looking out of her balcony, pining for her lost lover, Nala, Varma uses bright strokes to paint her. She is draped in a lush white sari, in a way signifying her chastity. But Varma is also mindful in not incorporating any male figure in the painting, making the female protagonist stand out.

Although critics like Yamini are mindful in suggesting that the possibility of another Ravi Varma going under the hammer in the near future is rather rare, it goes without saying that the record price would, perhaps, spark a resurgence for the artist, and for the fascinating world of Travancore that nurtured him.

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First Published: Mar 25, 2017 20:32 IST