April 29 is 162nd birth anniversary of Raja Ravi Varma. What is it that makes the legendary artist popular even today?

Every year, April 29 is a day of celebration for art lovers in India. It is on this day that legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), considered to be the father of modern Indian art, was born.

The life and career of Ravi Varma signifies a disjuncture with the past, placing him in the forefront of the movement of modern art in India. He was one of the first painters to introduce the European medium of oil paint and use it quite successfully and consistently. His paintings received appreciation from the then ruling British and Indian princes alike. He had an extraordinary ability for capturing the character and imparting grace to the model's personality.

Ravi Varma's paintings were strikingly different on account of his novel approach. From the vast repository of Indian classic literature, Ravi Varma selected themes that evoked an emotional response in the viewer. Placing figures towards the centre of the pictorial area in the narratives enabled him to introduce a dramatic element in the paintings. This compositional device also enabled him to draw the attention of the viewer onto the expressions, gestures and postures of the figures in the paintings.

Mythical characters and situations depicted in his paintings approximated those in real life, thereby succeeding in formulating a new vision which had the power to recreate the glories of a lost past. Balendranath Tagore appreciatively commented on Ravi Varma's art as thus: “ability to balance the naturalistic rendering of faces, anatomies, colours and scenes with the full tenor (rasa) and expressive eloquence (bhava) required of the themes.”

Choice of themes

Ravi Varma's success also lay in his choice of themes. Often he chose situations/episodes such as ‘Shakunthala writing love letter,' which had hitherto not been depicted in Indian art, either in miniatures or wall paintings. As such he painted several versions of the Shakunthala theme. Ravi Varma's paintings also often drew inspiration from Kathakali attakathas. Painted narrations of ‘Krishna as envoy,' ‘Nala deserting Damayanthi in forest,' ‘Keechaka and Sairandhri' are good examples.

He was also inspired by Marathi and Parsi theatrical performances in Mumbai. Many of Ravi Varma's paintings appear like a tableau staged in the proscenium of a theatre. Classical theatrical forms of Kerala and drama productions of Mumbai enlightened Ravi Varma's vision and his artistic endeavours contributed to theatre and cinema in later periods.

Raja Ravi Varma is known to have learnt the technique of painting mostly by watching artists visiting the court of erstwhile Travancore. But it was mainly through his arduous efforts and perseverance that he became a master of the art of painting.

The medium of oil on canvas as well as the use of ‘illusimistic' technique with light and shade and spatial perspective enabled him to emulate the real world. Ravi Varma's venture to make mass productions of his own paintings was also a significant event in the history of Indian art. As the demand for his paintings became overwhelming, T. Madhavarao, the then Dewan of Baroda, requested him to make prints of his popular works. Accordingly a printing press was set up at Thane near Mumbai with German machinery and German technicians. The oleographs prints that came out of the press were based on his paintings featuring scenes from the epics and many depicted Gods and Goddess. Prints became very popular, especially the ones portraying Goddess Lakshmi and Saraswathy. Even a century after his demise, the influence of his art remains as popular as ever.

(The author is an art historian and former lecturer at the College of Fine Arts Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.)

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