Raja Ravi Varma’s 175th birth anniversary: Celebrating the artist’s subtle, layered nationalism
In 1893, at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, in his now famous speech, Swami Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to America and emphasised on religious tolerance, but there was another representation from India at the prestigious forum, which went relatively unnoticed outside the art fraternity. Raja Ravi Varma, the artist from Kilimanoor, a quaint town around 30 kilometers from Trivandrum, dreamt of travelling the world but was constricted due to the religious sanctions that frowned upon it. He explored every opportunity to showcase his art to as many and as distant an audience. Not only did his set of ten paintings — depicting women from different parts of India, including an aristocratic Muslim begum, Parsi bride and a nomadic tribal woman singing to the tanpura — win gold medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in conjunction with the Parliament, but the artist, who could not travel to the exhibition himself, was also awarded special merit that appreciated his prowess. One of the citations reportedly read: “This series of ten paintings in oil colors by Ravi Varma, court painter to several presidencies of India, is of much ethnological value; not only do the faces of the high caste ladies which are portrayed give the various types of localities, but the artist’s careful attention to the details of the costume and articles used in the social and ceremonial life he has depicted render the paintings worthy of special commendation.”
By this time, Varma had already gained repute as an artist sought out by kings and aristocrats, with an extensive network of patrons across India. He was also on the cusp of expanding his esteemed clientele by reaching out to the masses at large with the establishment of a printing press in Mumbai in 1894, where his paintings were reproduced as chromolithographs and distributed widely. The imagery of Hindu gods and goddesses, who he is credited with humanising from their former supernatural portrayals, became pan-India representations that united a fragmented nation and broke caste barriers with their sheer accessibility and availability. With his interplay of light and shadow, he added depth to flat surfaces, and though he was painting for and in different regions, he dressed his protagonists in a garment that also brought them closer — the ubiquitous saree worn by the upper class women he painted, also the less elite, and his goddesses, from Lakshmi standing on the Lotus to Sita in Ravana’s Ashok Vatika.
When he passed away in 1906 he was only 58, but thousands of Indian homes had a Ravi Varma oleograph on their walls. Though the obituaries that were written hailed his genius, soon after his demise, Varma’s works had to defend a battle the man perhaps never anticipated: He was attacked by swadeshi nationalists for giving preference to European realism over traditional Indian approach and indigenous material. While philosopher Aurobindo reportedly described him as the “grand debaser of Indian taste and artistic culture”, metaphysician-historian Ananda Coomaraswamy dismissed his work as “theatrical”. The labelling and perception continued through the 20th century and it has taken these many years for Varma to be hailed as the founder of modern Indian art.
Coinciding with his 175th birth anniversary on April 29 are significant museum exhibitions that record his far-reaching influences — if an ongoing exhibition dedicated to Bollywood at Louvre Abu Dhabi documents his impact on early Indian cinema, at the Bihar Museum, a curated showcase on the “art of hair in India” that opens next week includes his work. The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi is showing his work as part of an exhibition that celebrates the nine “national treasures” of Indian art who were instrumental in introducing modernism in Indian artistic practice.
While Varma’s art is now much-coveted and feted, his nationalism too is finding acknowledgment. In times when the term has gained more combative connotations, Varma is testament to how subtle and layered it can to be, much like the luminous oils he painted.
Born into a family associated with royalty, his connections did open several doors for him but he chose to pave his own path. His career might seem lucrative in hindsight, but was arduous too, and also left him with financial debt at a time. He was only 14 when he was introduced by his uncle Raja Raja Varma to Ayilyam Thirunal, the then ruler of Travancore, to nurture and hone his talent. While the impressed ruler allowed him to learn from the court painters, Varma invented his own distinct vocabulary informed by diverse influences that ranged from Tanjore paintings to the works of European travellers, notably Dutch artist Theodore Jensen who was visiting Kerala, and the vast literature he read in Malayalam, Sanskrit and English, all languages he knew.
He was a constant and compulsive explorer. Breaking prevalent norms, he wasn’t tied to one royal court, instead traversing the entire country through the recently-introduced railways with his younger brother C Raja Raja Varma. His artworks show the preferences of his patrons, his observations, aspirations, and the unique experience of visiting diverse topographies in India that not many then could boast.
When studying his art, it is important to contextualise it in the unique juncture to which it belonged. In the second half of the 19th century, while royal patronage for art was gradually dwindling, artists began seeking a modernist language for a plausibly independent India. As the unifying power of nationalism began to gain strength, Varma envisioned its fulfillment through his art.