April 29 is Raja Ravi Varma’s birth anniversary and a good time to have a look at the Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation collection of the artist’s work on Google Arts & Culture. In August 2018 Ganesh Shivaswamy, lawyer and independent collector of Raja Ravi Varma’s works started to write a book on the social, religious and aesthetic impact of the prints from the Ravi Varma Press. During the process of collecting images from various sources for the book, he discovered the first print from the Ravi Varma Press was launched on July 12, 1894.
The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation was launched in June 2019 and signed up with Google Arts & Culture. Shubhangini Raje, Rajmata of Baroda inaugurated the Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation’s Google Arts and Culture platform in Baroda, with the launch of a collection of prints commemorating 125 years of Ravi Varma’s prints.
Shivaswamy discovered that 2020 marks 150 years since of Ravi Varma’s first commissioned painting. “The Baroda royals immediately agreed to support the present project,” says Shivaswamy. “I approached various custodians and stakeholders across the world for permission to use the images (many of whom had given me images for my book). However, fresh permission was sought to use the images on this platform. Over 20 private and institutional collectors and repositories collaborated with the Foundation for the launch.”
This is the largest collaboration on Raja Ravi Varma, claims Shivaswamy. “One image even came from Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Collection Trust. Two hundred and seven images were uploaded. Including the earlier images of prints uploaded, the Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation has uploaded the largest ethically sourced images on Raja Ravi Varma.”
The 2020 NAAM Foundation calendar by Suhasini Hasan and G Venket Ram finds a place in the online collection. “It is a series of photographs recreated from Varma’s paintings. To me, the photograph of ‘There Comes Papa’ with Shobhana and baby Sitara represented a full circle. Varma created the painting from a photograph of his daughter, Mahaprabha. I created an exhibit called ‘Photograph to Photograph’ where one can go back in time from 2020 to 1892/93 when the first photograph was taken."
The DAG (Delhi Art Gallery) has contributed images of two sketchbooks. “It was an awesome resource to delve into the mind of the artist. These sketches have entirely new narratives. For example, there is a sketch of a man previously called a hunter. But a closer look revealed him to be a toddy tapper. There is also an interesting sketch of an elephant carrying the insignia of the Travancore kingdom. This will be an invaluable resource to academicians across the world.”
In 1870, Raja Ravi Varma left his home for the first time on a pilgrimage to Mookambika. On his return, he received his first commission to paint a family portrait from a judge, Kizakke Palat Krishna Menon. Ravi Varma’s paintings and the prints from his press went on to alter the aesthetic of the Indian sub-continent, says Shivaswamy.
“While our notion of feminine beauty was altered, our perception of religious imagery was also changed thanks to Varma’s image legacy. The altered aesthetics can be traced back to the Big Bang of the 1870 painting. Hence, it is important to acknowledge this anniversary.”
A three-part biography by Ashwathy Thirunal, Princess Gowri Lakshmi Bayi and her book on the Padmanabhaswamy temple is also uploaded on the site. “She is Ravi Varma’s great, great, granddaughter. She lives in Thiruvananthapuram and is the most appropriate resource for a book on Varma.”
In 1903, C Raja Raja Varma, Varma’s brother, observed in his diary that when the brothers visited Baroda, they watched the famous Tanjore dancers, Gowri and Kanthimathi, dancing to the varna, ‘Manavi chekona Radha’ in Shankarabharana. “This varna was rendered by Vidwan Sanak Kumar Athreya and Sowmya Athreya in the foundation’s inaugural video. It is a beautiful fusion of history, art and music," says Ganesh.