Ahalya, lithograph. Deviating from traditional mediums, Raja Ravi Varma became the first Indian artist to work with oil paints Image Credit: Supplied

With his oil paints and brush, Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran (1848-1906) created a unique visual language for India that is just as captivating and influential today as it was more than a century ago.

With his deft strokes, eye for detail, mastery of texture and the interplay of light and shadows, Ravi Varma crafted the magic of realism, breathing life into his subjects with colour and emotions that were instantly palpable. Suddenly, you could hear the rustle of silk in pleated sari folds, experience the depths of longing in lustrous eyes or listen to the silent cries of a pining lover.

His lush visuals, oozing with decorative details and narrative power, created a bewitching theatre on canvas as his pictorial representations from classical literature, commissioned works for royalty across India and resplendent portraits captured not only the essence of each personality but also the ambience and lifestyle of the time. From the exquisite fabrics and style of clothes to hairdo, ornate jewellery, even artefacts and furniture, nothing escaped the keen eye of this painter.

Ravi Varma also gave shape to his vision of deities, portraying the Hindu pantheon in full-bodied human form. Breaking away from tradition, he gave the deities a three-dimensional representation — and the acceptance of these realistic forms was so overwhelming that it overshadowed the earlier illustrative depictions, which soon faded from memory.

Seeing how people queued up to see his creations, he worked towards making his art accessible to the common man and therefore, set up a printing press in Bombay in 1894. The idea was to create inexpensive oleographs or chromolithographs of his paintings, making it affordable for the masses. It is estimated that around 134 such lithographs were made from his paintings by the Ravi Varma press.

The National Gallery of Modern Art in the south Indian city of Bengaluru is exhibiting what is regarded as the most comprehensive display of Ravi Varma’s lithographs over a five-week period until August 14. The show, titled “Raja Ravi Varma: Royal Lithography and Legacy”, is being organised by The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, a registered trust set up in 2015 by Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi Varma, a sixth-generation descendant of the artist.

Featuring 131 lithographs, the exhibition is “nothing short of historic”, says Ganesh V. Shivaswamy, honorary secretary of the Foundation, whose collection of 126 lithographs acquired over several decades feature prominently at the exhibition. This curated work will later travel to other countries.

Explaining the importance of Ravi Varma’s lithographs, Shivaswamy says, “Creating lithographs in the late 19th and early 20th century in India was a difficult process. Skilled craftsmen were required to transform a painting into a lithographic image. The precision required by the lithographer to etch outlines for each colour on 16 to 24 slabs of limestone — all manually — and then stamp them in perfect alignment on a sheet of paper, was a daunting task. Therefore, a lithograph was and continues to remain a difficult art form.”

The original objective of Raja Ravi Varma in permitting and encouraging the printing of lithographs was precisely to make some of his pictures available to the common man, he adds. “The original paintings were commissioned only by the elite and powerful. Lithographs, on the other hand, permitted the percolation of visual representation to the common man, thus democratising art.”

However, when these lithographs started becoming the basis for advertising — selling everything from soaps and matchboxes to consumable products, they began to be branded as “kitsch” and “calendar art”. Thus it was that the artist, once hailed as the “father of modern Indian art” and credited with the creation of a pan-Indian image, began to be vilified by critics who called his work “cheap, popular and sentimental”.

According to Rukmini Varma, the description “modern art” clearly signifies the advent of Western methodological influences. Deviating from traditional Indian mediums such as natural pigments, Ravi Varma became the first Indian artist to work with oil paints.

“Also, in portraying human figures, he developed his own particular style incorporating the realistic proportions of the West and adding depth to his paintings using perspective. And so, in effect, the terminology ‘modern art’ meant the art resultant from the new materials available.”

In the aftermath of the two World Wars, art took a turn at the hands of Picasso, Chagall and others, explains Rukmini Varma. “The old methods, which involved laborious work, great planning and careful and exact execution, were found to be time-consuming and tedious. In this context, the works of classical masters became a thing of the past. It was during this period that ludicrous appellations, such as “calendar art” came into force, simply because Ravi Varma’s paintings had become so popular that it was depicted on calendars and post cards. It was only much later, in comprehensive retrospective studies of Indian Art that it became irrefutably apparent that the genius of Ravi Varma had touched the human soul, and influenced every walk of life.”

Born on April 29, 1848, in Kilimanoor, southern Kerala, Ravi Varma belonged to an aristocratic family of scholars, poets and artists. His charcoal drawings on the walls of his home caught the attention of his uncle who took the 13-year-old to the royal palace of the Maharajah of Travancore — to whom he was related — for art lessons. Although he received instruction in water colours, the palace artist refused to teach the young Varma the secrets of the European style of oil painting, seeing in him a potential rival.

British/Dutch portrait artist Theodore Jensen, who visited the palace during that period, influenced the technique of Varma, but he was essentially a self-taught artist, says Shivaswamy.

In 1881, when the newly crowned Maharaja of Baroda — a princely state in present-day Gujarat — invited Raja Ravi Varma to paint his ceremonial portrait, he was so impressed with the artist’s talent that the Maharaja commissioned him to paint many mythological paintings and portraits. Ravi Varma then travelled all over India and by the fusion of Indian traditions with the techniques of European academic art, he became the undisputed sovereign of the realistic style of painting.

Although Ravi Varma belonged to an aristocratic family and enjoyed the patronage of rulers across India, it is important to note that all his efforts were focused towards artistically enriching the common man, says Shivaswamy. “He was the first to move the governmental machinery in the Kingdom of Travancore for the opening of a museum where art would be viewed by the general public. This eventually resulted in the formation of the Sree Chitra Art Gallery at Thiruvananthapuram.”

In the first three-quarters of the 20th century, while India underwent a phase of political and social upheaval — from asserting for independence to establishing itself as a democratic nation, ideologies and priorities too experienced a dramatic change as any art, apart from nationalist imagery, was generally considered superfluous, says Shivaswamy. “This notion blanketed all forms of art, not just that of Raja Ravi Varma. India emerged out of this eclipse only in 1972 when it enacted its first post-Independence art and antiquities legislation. While doing so, one of the first artists to be declared an ‘art treasure’ was Raja Ravi Varma [by notification dated August 10, 1979].”

Raja Ravi Varma is today an institution, not merely an artist, says Shivaswamy. “There is so much that we owe Ravi Varma. His works have influenced Indian life and culture in so many ways — from aesthetics, theatre, films, attire, and even changing the way we perceive the divine.

“He has also changed the way children understand our epics as his influence is traced in the pictorial depictions in Amar Chitra Katha, India’s largest comics’ publisher. Modern temple architecture has also been influenced by his art. A number of new temple towers have stucco idols copying compositions from Varma lithographs. The Foundation is therefore intent on exploring all these subtleties and nuances.”

According to Gitanjali Maini, CEO of the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, “One of our primary objectives is to create a catalogue raisonne of the works of Ravi Varma — not only the paintings and drawings but also of the lithographs. This is the standard protocol followed by Foundations in Europe such as the Rembrandt Research Project. We will also set up a process for authentication of paintings and the procedure will be announced in due course.”

The motto of the Foundation is “Knowledge: Appreciation: Preservation”, she adds. “There is an urgent need to reacquaint the populace with our ancient culture and in our current exhibition, every lithograph is accompanied with a curatorial note describing the work with references to the ancient texts. We believe that once a viewer imbibes the knowledge, he will appreciate it better, and better appreciation results in preservation of culture.”

Sangeetha Swaroop is a writer based in Dubai.

“Raja Ravi Varma: Royal Lithography and Legacy” runs at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India, until August 14.