Scientific symbolism in Ravi Varma’s paintings

The plant life depicted in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings will be dissected this weekend

Published - April 26, 2019 04:54 pm IST

Art students can now gain a botanical perspective to Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. ‘Encounters of his brush with the Botanical’ is a researched study where nearly three dozen works of this icon have been picked by The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation from an eductional viewpoint. A short video presentation on the topic and a 100-page booklet of the study will be released to commemorate the 171st birth anniversary of Raja Ravi Varma at the National Gallery for Modern Art (NGMA) in the city on April 28.

“‘Encounters With The Botanical’ delves into various botanical elements in 33 paintings by the renowned artist,” says Gitanjali Maini, Managing Trustee and CEO, The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation. The research is in association with Geetanjali Sachdev, Dean, Postgraduate Program of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. “It identifies their species, highlighting relevant botanical specifications, and details the content in which each plant, flower, tree, vegetable or fruit has been incorporated into the painting,” says Maini.

This will also be a talk by renowned historian and writer Rupika Chawla, who authored ‘Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India,’ considered a comprehensive guide to the artist’s life and work.

Speaking on how the Bengaluru-based foundation zeroed-in on the botanical aspects of Varma’s paintings, Maini says the project began on a much smaller scale. “The Foundation wanted to create a new learning experience for viewers based on his paintings. Hence, Geetanjali Sachdev and us put our heads together and what began as an idea to create a flyer and booklet resulted in a descriptive video and botanical manual,” she says.

So what does one learn from the myriad trees, plants, flowers, fruits visible in his works?

“It’s about the realism from every botanical element that he has reproduced as close to the the actual species as well as the use of colours and textures to enhance these elements. Plant motifs do not always share a visual correspondence with real plants, and are often abstract and stylised,” says Maini.

The Foundation’s research with these selected three dozen paintings has lead them that Varma’s extensive use of flora indicates that plants may have played a significant role in his life.

“The puja thali, flower basket, baby’s rattle, the landscape and narrative itself -- these are receptacles for the range of botanical motifs in his work. His use of plants in his works could be attributed to several influences,” says Geetanjali Sachdev.

His works also are a historical and cultural mirror to the vegetation of the period – peepal trees and paddy fields were part of the landscape Ravi Varma grew up in, along with his animistic beliefs about plants as a force of nature,” says Maini.

External cultural influences of the British, Dutch and other European artists he was exposed to shaped his personality, according to author Rupika Chawla.

He went on voyages to gain inspiration, enlarge his visual repertoire and expand his imagination and as a result, he built up his bank of images and sources, according to Rupika.

“His mother, apart from being a poet and artist, was also an Ayurvedic physician who used plants extensively in her work.”

Varma also used plants as design motifs on different surfaces and materials. “These floral and vegetable designs can be seen in the textiles, embroidery, printed furnishings, carpets, jewellery and architectural detailing in his works,” explains Chawla.

(171st birth anniversary of Ravi Varma, NGMA, April 28, 4pm, 9845445235)

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