Nine chromolithographs belonging to the Bengaluru-based Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation will soon be on view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as part of its upcoming show ‘Bollywood Superstars: A Short Story of Indian Cinema’. Modernist painter Raja Ravi Varma’s legacy is entwined with the history of Indian cinema through the pioneering Dadasaheb Phalke, who was one of the artists working at the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press before he departed for Germany to study cinematography.
All set to celebrate Varma’s 175th birth anniversary this year, the eight-year-old foundation was set up by art collector Gitanjali Maini along with the artist’s descendants — his great, great granddaughter Princess Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi Thampuran of Travancore State and Jay Varma. The loaned artworks will be exhibited alongside works from the collections of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and others such as Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, the al-Sabah Collection, and the Priya Paul Collection. The exhibition is designed to explore the history of Indian cinema from its beginnings in the late 19th century up to the present through its long tradition of image making.
Edited excerpts from an interview with Maini, managing trustee and CEO of the Foundation:
Is this loan the Foundation’s first overseas institutional participation on this scale?
This is not the first time that the Foundation has loaned assets to an international museum. In October 2020, several chromolithographs from our collection, along with a lot of research and a film made by us, was on display at the State Museum of the History of Religion in Saint Petersburg. The Louvre Abu Dhabi participation will be our second international institutional participation.
Tell us about your specific interest in Raja Ravi Varma. You’ve been championing research and literature on him, supporting young historians such as Manu Pillai, for a while now.
Legacy management is what we are aiming to achieve through the Foundation and that means investing into research, study, knowledge sharing, documentation and much more. Manu S Pillai has been an asset to our Foundation given his keen interest in history, especially Ravi Varma and the times that he lived in.
What are the biggest challenges you face—Varma is a controversial figure to some.
Ravi Varma is not a controversial figure; it’s more like he and his art are made to appear controversial. The Foundation has worked diligently to build brand value by creating educational modules, conducting lectures and workshops and having the artist’s paintings reinterpreted in new ways by authors, scholars and historians.
Did you have to navigate ‘The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act’ to enable this loan?
What we have loaned the Louvre Abu Dhabi are not oil paintings, they are chromolithographs (works on paper). They are also not over 100 years old and hence this law is not applicable here.
There are several meme and tribute accounts for Raja Ravi Varma [such as @rajaravivarmamemes] on Instagram. What are your thoughts on them?
The person who runs the account is clever and it’s a brilliant way for the young Instagram generation to connect with the work of this great artist.
Why should Indian and international audiences pay attention to Raja Ravi Varma’s oeuvre today?
What image of Goddess Lakshmi do you find most often in a puja room in India? That of her donning a reddish-pink sari, standing on a lotus with two elephants behind her? Of Saraswati, you will recall the goddess in a white sari playing the veena, with a peacock in front of her.
These images were popularised due to the vast reach of Ravi Varma’s art. He doesn’t need reverence. What he needs is respect and recognition for the service that he has done to modern Indian art. He introduced and popularised techniques like western realism, he popularised the use of oil paints, he brought the gods into the artistic pantheon and popularised historic and Puranic stories through his paintings.
‘ Bollywood Superstars’ will run at the Louvre Abu Dhabi from January 25 – June 4.
The writer is a Mumbai-based arts journalist and editor. Her debut novel ‘The Illuminated’ was published in 2021.