The people’s Raja Ravi Varma

Shailaja Tripathi | Updated on May 22, 2020

A 1904 studio photo of Raja Ravi Varma after receiving the Kaiser-I-Hind medal from Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India   -  (SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT; THE WORLD OF RAJA RAVI VARMA)

Two new visual archives attempt to go beyond the artist’s works and techniques to capture the history of the era in which he lived, worked and did business

*Manu S Pillai’s book The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes and Patrons is a visual archive of the painter’s life and times

*Film-maker Vikar Urs’s documentary Wanderers Between The Worlds is a glimpse into the labour that went into setting up the Varma brothers press

In the 1800s, long before concepts such as content, marketing and strategy became the buzzwords they are today, Raja Ravi Varma had mastered it all. It was his exemplary art that humanised Hindu gods and goddesses and made their stories visceral and accessible. His brother C Raja Raja Varma was his steadfast partner, who shared his vision and gave shape to it through the Raja Ravi Varma Press.

Since 2015, Bengaluru-based The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation (TRRVHF) has been creating a discourse around the artist through lecture series, research, films and books. In late-April, on the artist’s 172nd birth anniversary and TRRVHF’s fifth anniversary, the foundation launched the book The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes and Patrons by Manu S Pillai, and film-maker Vikas Urs’s Wanderers Between The Worlds, which Urs describes as an ‘artefact’ and not a film.

Pillai’s book is a visual archive of portraits commissioned to Raja Ravi Varma and the stories of the people captured by his masterstrokes. Published by Juggernaut, the book also features rarely seen photos and paintings.

The 33-minute film by Urs captures the last 10 years of the Varma brothers’ lives through the press they set up in Ghatkopar (in present-day Mumbai), which was later shifted to Malavli (in Pune). The film, along with some unseen works of Raja Ravi Varma, can be viewed on online platform Google Arts and Culture.

Gitanjali Maini, CEO and managing trustee of TRRVHF, says the effort has been to look beyond the artist’s paintings and techniques, to examine the history of the era in which he lived and worked, and the factors that influenced him and his artistic practices.

The painting of Rani Janaki Subbamma Bayi Sahib of Pudukkottai   -  (SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT/ THE WORLD OF RAJA RAVI VARMA)


“Portraits idealised their subjects, and with princely patrons, presented the self-image they often aspired to. But they are always more than just likenesses of the rich and famous, because there are ideas, conflicts, and antecedents behind each of Ravi Varma’s subjects, which tell us about everything from gender to myth-making, and from colonialism and resistance to caste and the invention of tradition,” Pillai says.

Contending that the late-19th century and its “moderate nationalism” were not studied enough, he portrays Raja Ravi Varma as its visual chronicler, featuring some of the leading lights of that age in his portraits. The book also touches on his personal life — the “journey from a boy of 14 with little knowledge of the world, to a man who achieved the height of fame, only to find himself in an emotionally vulnerable state,” Pillai adds.

Urs’s film is based on the book Raja Ravi Varma, Portrait of An Artist: The Diary of C Raja Raja Varma, edited by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger. Raja Raja Varma made diary entries, which provided a glimpse into the labour that went into setting up the Varma brothers’ press and its impact.

The photos — shots of Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, moving train, prints, press machinery, tools — evoke the poignant tale of the press, an ambitious and visionary project that eventually had to be sold off. Specialised printmakers and German technicians such as Fritz Schleicher and P Gerhardt were hired. One employee was sent to Germany to understand lithographic printing. An entrepreneur from Bombay, Govardhandas Khataumakhanji, was approached for financial support and pigments were imported from Germany. The press was later sold to Schleicher.

An incomplete lithograph of goddess Saraswati   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT: WANDERERS BETWEEN THE WORLDS


“Lithographic printing was happening in India at that time, but Raja Ravi Varma prints changed the game. They were qualitatively high. Raja Ravi Varma would draw the examplar, Schleicher would carve out the figure on a limestone block and P Gerhardt would create the background image. It was a collaboration between industrial machinery, visual artists. It was a huge risk taken by them,” Urs had said at the film’s launch.

The film-maker points out that while printmaking was one of the earliest forms of mass production in India, the coming of industrialisation had radically transformed the making and dissemination of these prints. “The prints were of not just classical subjects but also subaltern images. The Ravi Varma Press, to a great extent, benefited from the highly skilled craftsmen involved and also the choice of subjects, unlike the other presses,” Urs says.

The transportation of the prints was a concern, so the colonial British government was persuaded to build a railway station at Malavli, and that’s how a remote hill station came to have a railway station.

Pillai’s visual archive of the people who were pivotal in shaping Raja Ravi Varma into the man and artist that he became and Urs’s reinterpretation of the Varma brothers’ journey as they tried to don the roles of artists and businessmen make for fascinating subjects for research and documentation, says Maini. She adds that the foundation wants to create many such visual archives to document Raja Ravi Varma’s life, work and legacy.

Shailaja Tripathi is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist

Published on May 22, 2020

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