Raja Ravi Varma's works continue to charm art lovers…but how well has his legacy been preserved, asks K. Kunhikrishnan.

Raja Ravi Varma's (1848–1906)' paintings fetch amazing prices in the art market a century after his death. He accomplished a union of the Indian tradition with the techniques of European academic art and created a revolution in modern aesthetics. He was accused of being a mere illustrator and calendar artist, or an unimaginative copier of European techniques. The Indian public, however, never rejected him and he is adored as an old master pioneering the best form of fine art. The National Museum, New Delhi, in collaboration with various agencies conducted an exhibition of his paintings and brought out Raja Ravi Varma: New Perspectives.

Incredible sales

The increasing value of Ravi Varma paintings at auctions is testimony to his growing popularity. In 1997, at Osian's art auction in Mumbai, the painting, “Begum's Bath” fetched a prize of Rs. 32 lakhs (bought by Parmanand Patel). At the Bowrings Fine Arts auction at Delhi, the painting “Shakuntala Patralekhan” was sold at Rs. 36 lakhs in 2002, and “Yashoda and Krishna” (Oil on canvas) fetched Rs. 56 lakhs, a record price sold for any painting in India. At the same exhibition Nicholai Roerich's “Himalayan Series” went for Rs. 15 lakhs. In October 2007, Bonhams, the UK auctioneers sold off an oil on canvas painting for a price of UK Pound Sterling 602400 (nearly Rs. 5 crores) to Neville Tulli, Chairman of Osians, an auction house in Mumbai. The painting depicts the then Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother welcoming Richard Temple Grenville, third Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Governor General of Madras(1875 -80) on his official visit to Trivandrum in 1880. Reproductions of Ravi Varma paintings, are on sale on websites, for costs ranging from US $ 199 to 599.

Ravi Varma was the first Indian painter to use models to depict Hindu Gods and Goddesses and the first to make available his paintings to the masses through reproductions. The paintings played a great role in popularizing the sari as a national dress as his Goddesses are all sari-clad. During his life time Ravi Varma is believed to have produced more than 7,000 paintings and a large majority of them are untraceable.

Even at a time when travel was hazardous, he travelled extensively and took up large commissioning. His paintings are kept in various museums. Documentations in English and Malayalam are available including biographies, monographs, novels, Bollywood films, videos ( the one made by Vinod Mankara won laurels in Kerala.). A new biography by Deepanjali Pal, titled The Painter, A Life of Ravi Varma*, is the latest. The Marathi novel “Raja Ravi Varma” by Ranjith Desai is renowned and based on this, Ketan Mehta made his film Ranga Rahasya. Another film is now shot by the renowned cinematographer Santhosh Sivan.

The legacy of Ravi Varma raises many posers. There is still no memorial in his name. The Kilimanoor Palace, 36 km from Thiruvananthapuram where Ravi Varma was born and initially groomed by his maternal uncle, has a constant flow of visitors from all over the country, many from outside the state. The palace complex spread over six hectares houses several buildings, including those built by Ravi Varma, from the royalties he received from his paintings. But there is not a single original painting even at the Studio spot that he used. There are more than 230 family descendants and many live in the complex. The family assets are tangled and provide suitable alternate living amenities for the families is a complex issue. Part of the palace is in a shambles and a Ravi Varma Memorial, as a global heritage spot, is the need of the hour. Concerted efforts to preserve the heritage of Ravi Varma are lacking and lackadaisical steps have been futile.

At Mavelikkara, 120 km from Thiruvananthapuram, where Ravi Varma spent time with his wife Princess Bhagirathy and painted, there is the Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts, originally started by Rama Varma, ( his son, and after the death of his brother Raja Raja Varma, his closest assistant) In 1956, it was taken over by the Government of Kerala. It is one among the three Colleges of Fine Arts. Forty students are taken in annually for training in painting, sculpture and fine arts, leading to a BFA degree. There are no special studies on Ravi Varma and the families of his descendants are not involved in the running of the college. More than 70 direct descendants of Ravi Varma live at Mavelikkara and there is no memorial there.

Meagre balance

At Thiruvananthapuram, the Kaudiar, Pattom and Rangavilasam Palaces, possess just seven of the main paintings as part of the royal legacy. One memberof the Kilimanoor family also has a few original paintings.

The Sree Chithra Art Gallery of the Thiruvananthapuram Museum has 43 originals of Ravi Varma. There are also nearly 100 pencil sketches. The gallery has some of the last and unfinished paintings of the maestro like Mysore Khedda.

The walls of the unassuming gallery adorn "Draupadi in Virata Court”, “Mohini and Rugmangada”, “Hamsam and Damayanthi”, “Judith,” “Rama breaking the bow”, “Shakunthala”, “Jadayu Seethapaharan”, and “Udaipur Palace”. About 2000 visitors turn up daily to witness the paintings, according to the caretaker Mr. Natrajan.

“The mismatch between the modesty of its appearance and the worth of its holdings is too stark for anyone to miss, as if it were a calculated strategy by some perverted security genius to underplay its value,” comments K Jayakumar, poet and senior bureaucrat, which best summarises the pathetic plight of Ravi Varma Gallery in Thiruvananthapuram. This leaves a lot to be desired.

A family member of Kilimanoor Palace has already taken up cudgels pleading that the paintings were only loaned to Chitralayam, the original art gallery. Dr. JH Cousins, Art Advisor to Government of Travancore, on November 12, 1940, had assured the Kilimanoor Palace that they would provide “nice setting to more available works of Raja Ravi Varma, where they would be taken good care of, and would be seen by thousands of visitors”. He further wanted more paintings on “permanent loan against payment”. The paintings in Mysore are better preserved. So are the ones in the Maharaja Fatehsingh Museum at Lakshmivilas Palace at Vadodara. Paintings like Lakshmi Devi, Saraswathy, Sairandhri, Radha and Madhava, Damayanthi, Viswamithra and Menaka,, Arjuna and Subhadra, Keechaka and Sairandhri, Santhanu and Matsyagandhi etc are well preserved. Ravi Varma received the highest fee of Rs. 50,000 for 14 paintings, a fortune in the late 19th century.

The best work in reviving the legacy of Ravi Varma has been done by Mr. Vijayanath Shenoy of Hasthashilpa Heritage complex at Manipal (Karnataka). Ravi Varma wanted his paintings to reach the Indian masses, through reproductions and he had set up a litho printing press in Mumbai. But he could not run the business and had to sell his press and the oleographs with which thousands of reproductions were made. Before he left Malavli to live in his ancestral palace in Kilimanoor In 1905, Raja Ravi Varma sold his entire property including land, Press, paintings, prints, litho stones and other accessories to his trusted German technician, Fritz Schleicher, who continued the work of the Ravi Varma Press. Later they totally disintegrated. Realising the value of the archival materials and their potential for educating the people, Vijaynath Shenoy's Hastashilpa Trust in Manipal acquired all the materials connected with the printing process of the works of Raja Ravi Varma from the owner of the Press and set up the Museum.

The museum display in 2500 square feet, includes machinery used for printing process, 150 litho stones with the impressions of the works of Ravi Varma, packets of special colour ink powder made in Germany for reproduction, scores of original colour prints of Ravi Varma's, paintings of varying sizes, sketches and drawings, printing accessories, work sheets, and account books and other documents used in the Ravi Varma Press. Vijayanath Shenoy is proud of his possessions, and terms Ravi Varma as the Michelangelo of India and eloquently speaks about Ravi Varma paintings motivating the India's Freedom Movement. He has ambitious plans on the Ravi Varma Museum and terms his unique acquisition as the “loss of Maharashtra, but the gain of Karnataka”. It was only he who paid a fitting tribute to the greatest of modern Indian painters on his birth centenary.


Artist extraordinaire April 29, 2010