Critics have called Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings by many names- kitsch, vulgar naturalism, not real art etc. The artist was also termed as a historic failure when it comes to the progress of modern Indian painting. His meeting with Theodore Jensen is termed as a catastrophe- modern Indian painting did not progress instead it got set back by fifty years.
Yet none of these come to mind when you gaze at the divine figures in his paintings. In fact, you glory over its beauty and splendor. His paintings of Lakshmi, Saraswati, his tales of Shakuntala, Damayanti, Sita, Radha, his realistic colorful paintings of Kerala ladies renders you speechless. None of the paintings may depict reality yet for a moment you are lost-lost in the moment, submerged in the painting in front of you.
The Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation at Lavelle Road is one such place where you get immersed in the artist’s works. The foundation was established in 2015 by Ravi Varma’s great-great-granddaughter Rukmini Varma. It works to spread awareness about the great artist, his life and times[1848-1906] and immortalizes his paintings through various events. When I visited the place a couple of lithographs were on display. There were plenty of books about the great artist and about his paintings.
The paintings of Raja Ravi Varma didn’t go cheap. Recently one of his paintings, Damayanti was auctioned at 11 crores in New York. His collection of 14 paintings was brought by Raja of Baroda for 50000 Rupees back then in the 19th century. No wonder then that the artist established an olegraphic printing press in Bombay on the advice of his friend, the Diwan of Baroda so that his paintings could reach the masses.
There are a couple of places where you can order Ravi Varma prints for your home. The online Art Print store is one of them. Since 2008 it has been selling Raja Ravi Varma’s prints on canvas. The prints rendered on canvas using the latest printing technology make art affordable.
Some of the art prints that are available here are worthy of grazing your homes. There are prints of Sita Vanavas, Hamsa Damayanti, Krishna as the envoy, Radha Bilas, Mahananda, Arjun-Subadra, etc. Sita Vanavas is an 1880 painting of Sita lost in thought. The sage in the background, however, is confusing. The painting could also be that of Shakuntala. The painting Mahananda or titled ‘Belle of Malabar’ is a painting created in 1890. It depicts a Kerala lady with a traditional mundu on her head playing a musical instrument. She is also lost in thought. Then there is the popular Hamsa Damayanti who is enthralled with the swan who is the messenger from prince Nala extolling his virtues.
The Radha Bilas of 1890 shows Radha in a playful mood with Krishna. The oil painting of ‘women holding a fruit’ displays the mood of innocence with flirtiness; the ‘stolen interview’ depicts two lovers adjacent to pillars in different moods-one shy and the other intent.
The Krishna as an emissary depicts Krishna as a messenger of peace sent to Duryodana’s court. He is however humiliated here and a devotee Satyaki is seen flashing a sword in Krishna’s defense. The paintings of the master artist be it Krishna, Arjuna-Subhadra, Shantanu and Ganga, Sita Vanavasa, Yasodha, and Krishna bring the epics, Puranas to life.
So whether Raja Ravi Varma showcased Indian culture at its best or was he a painter who worked on portraits refusing to adopt the techniques and progress of the West is perhaps a matter of perspective. Personally, for me, his paintings have always been sheer nostalgia heralding me decades back when hanging a painting from Raja Ravi Varma in the homes was a matter of pride, the various Hindu gods occupying the prayer rooms majestically and his calendars with the Saraswati-the goddess of knowledge hung in the living rooms. Simplicity at its best!