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Gods for the commoners

What does a lawyer have to do with art I ask myself on my way to meet Ganesh Shivaswamy, the secretary of the Bengaluru-based Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, and a collector of popular art. His search for the artist’s works began when he was 13. “I was attracted to the visual beauty of these works. It was only later that I researched about the iconography and mythology.”

It is difficult to stop this man, once he starts speaking about Ravi Varma paintings and other artists of Tamil Nadu, whose name have been wiped off from the art history of South India, thanks to our own negligence. At the lecture organised at the Jenneys Residency by Art Houz, as a part of Coimbatore Vizha, Ganesh introduced us to the rare lithographs of Ravi Varma and his contemporaries who painted popular Hindu deities we see on our calendars now.

He showed a few paintings of the artist, most of which featured women from Indian mythology such as Mandodari, Damayanti and Shakuntala. “Ravi Varma’s major contribution to Indian art is that he humanised the gods,” says Ganesh and also shows us how the gods were represented before Ravi Varma. “These adhered to the shastras and depicted the goddesses in their holy avatar, where as Raja Ravi Varma created a Lakshmi who wore a regular sari and a delicate pearl necklace, thus bridging the divine and human. People could easily relate to these characters.”

We see a painting depicting Seeta Swayamvara, the marriage of Sita, where a six-year-old Sita is holding on to her father for dear life. Or, take the case of another painting with Ahalya and Indra. Instead of Airavatam, Indra flies into the frame on a unicorn. Similarly, cupids and other European art motifs have found their way into his frames. “He completely modernised Indian art by employing the motifs of the modern European art and Victorian designs especially on the garments and accessories of the women.”

According to Ganesh there are reasons a plenty to celebrate an artist like Raja Ravi Varma. “He was pan Indian. His art was not restricted to a state. ” He was a widely travelled man and spent many years in Mumbai and Baroda, cities which influenced his style. “If you see closely, many of the women in his paintings wear sari the Marathi way,” Ganesh points out.

Ganesh’s journey of art collection began 28 years ago, when he found himself in a shop that sold the lithographs of Ravi Varma. This was an antique shop and stored some of his rare Saraswati paintings. “I was hooked instantly. There were three variations of the same goddess.” The search for these paintings took Ganesh to many villages across Tamil Nadu such as Madurai, Sivakasi, Kovilpatti. “I found paintings of Ravi Varma and other artists lying around in garages, poorly maintained. Some of the villagers even burnt them, for reasons I cannot understand. ”

Ravi Varma democratised art by printing his art works at the Raja Ravi Varma press on a mass scale. “The works, which previously hung on the walls of the Diwans’ houses, now became the common man’s property.” Ganesh’s mission is to save these art works from being auctioned to art connoisseurs abroad. “There is just handful of art collectors in the entire world for these popular Indian paintings. Art cannot survive without patronage. There were royal patrons for these artists.

Later, the business houses kept them alive by launching the commercial calendars with these paintings. Technology is the modern patron of these kinds of arts, he says.

“Use your WhatsApp to circulate these images. The younger generation can do so much with the technology in their hands.”

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 7:18:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/gods-for-the-commoners/article8198458.ece

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