Ravi Varma: art as enterprise in colonial India

Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma will be on display at Bhoomigeetha at Rangayana in Mysore. PHOTO:M.A.SRIRAM, TO GO WITH MYKPMNS2.11 - Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma will be on display at Bhoomigeetha at Rangayana in Mysore. PHOTO:M.A.SRIRAM, TO GO WITH MYKPMNS2.11   | Photo Credit: M_A_SRIRAM

Ravi Varma's rise on the Indian art scene was meteoric. From the end of the 1870s until his death in 1906, at the age of 58, he was the best known and most sought after painter in India. But his fall from grace was as dramatic as his rise. At the time of his death, he was eulogised in obituaries as a singular genius, but less than a year later the swadesi nationalists were fulminating against him. Almost instantly he was reduced from being a national pride to a second-rate imitator of western academic art, the exemplar of a tendency that a nation striving to retrieve its cultural identity and self-esteem felt compelled to resist and reject. This negation only grew stronger as Indian art grew stridently modern in the years after Independence, and it continued to hold ground for nearly 90 years.

The first sign of a reconsideration of Ravi Varma's place in Indian art came in the form of a large exhibition curated by A. Ramachandran and Rupika Chawla at the National Museum, New Delhi in 1993. Although the exhibition drew sharp criticism from erstwhile modernists, it signalled a change in attitude. Following this, Ravi Varma became not only an art market success but also the subject of serious art historical studies. While the nationalists were exercised about the un-Indianness of his style and treatment and the modernists about its academicism and aesthetic mundanity, the new writers tend to look at the artist and his work against the larger social context and cultural practices of his time. Rupika Chawla's Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India is the most recent, and an important, addition to this growing body of writing on the artist.

Chawla begins her book by locating Ravi Varma within his familial and social background governed by the complex kinship patterns, social hierarchies, and cultural practices of 19th century Kerala. From there she takes us on a tour through his career, following the same winding route Ravi Varma took across the country in search of patronage. Her narration is straight and simple; it is biographical and anecdotal rather than analytical and art historical. All the same, her book is better researched than many of the available books on the artist. It is rich in information and there are many insights awaiting the careful reader. Here are a few that most wouldn't miss.

Firstly, while being led chronologically through the different courts, cities, and towns Ravi Varma visited, we are introduced to the commissions he received and the paintings he did for patrons in each of these places. Thus for the first time, art scholars are provided with a dependable chronology of his work. That these works are also sumptuously reproduced alongside in full colour makes the book both pleasurable and useful.

Secondly, as we read along, it becomes clear that there was a pattern to his career and his pan-Indian fame was not fortuitous. While moving from court to court, and one colonial city to another — emulating the itinerant European artists who visited India during the 18th and early 19th centuries — Ravi Varma, took advantage of the communicational and social networking made possible by the railways and the colonial administrative system, and perfected them into tools for turning his career into a pan-Indian enterprise. He used his friendship with members of the British civil administration like Sir T. Madhava Rao and Sir Seshaiah Sastri to gain access to native courts and procure commissions as much as he used the railway to travel across India. After establishing himself in southern India, “chiefly by the influence of some of my good friends,” he wrote to Sir Madhava Rao in 1881, “my ambition has like other things enlarged...and I have a mind now to undertake a tour to northern India provided I could place myself under your august patronage of which you held out some hope to me when I last had the honour.”

Ravi Varma's professional success came not merely through responding to the growing taste for western naturalism among Indian elites but also through the creation of his own opportunities and a careful cultivation of his persona. Thus after successfully garnering pan-Indian elite patronage — of the native rulers and merchants, the colonial administrators and the early nationalists — in good measure, by oleographing his paintings for wider circulation, he ensured his hegemony over Indian middle class taste. Even more shrewdly, by taking the initiative for creating a public collection of his works at a time when the idea of individual museums was unknown, he also invested in the perpetuation of his fame.

As an architect of his own reputation, Ravi Varma worked more like a professional seeking to meet the expectations of his clients than as a modern artist committed to self-expression at all costs. One of the consequences of this was the absence of stylistic coherence in his work. Although early scholars had guessed as much, Chawla's researches now make this patently clear.

Thus we find Ravi Varma's portrait of the famed poet, Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran, painted in 1880 formal and decorously restrained but that of his spouse Maharani Lakshmi Bayi (also Ravi Varma's sister-in-law) painted in 1883 overwrought with a surfeit of costume and jewellery. Similarly while his 1904 double portrait of Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV and Rana Pratapkumari, done from an old photograph, is stiff and meticulously ornate like a Tanjore painting, his 1903 portrait of Sir Arthur Havelock, also done from a photograph, is lively and, with its grandiose posture, reminiscent of European colonial portraits designed to aggrandise the stature of the model.

His style changed from court to court and subject to subject: it could be hieratic or informal, impersonal or intimate, depending on the taste and station of his patron. Although this usually meant adjusting his skills to suit the taste of his patrons at Udaipur, where the taste for miniature still held sway, we find him agreeing to paint portraits after old miniatures. Such bending to patronage, Chawla shows, occasionally extended even to the way he conceived certain details of the mythologies he was commissioned to paint, but in a less intrusive way, and on the strength of the illustrations in this book it can be argued that it is to these that we should turn for gaining a better insight into his artistic and stylistic development.

Chawla makes another significant observation about what are broadly categorised as paintings based on mythologies or, following the western academic practice, are called history paintings. Quoting a letter Ravi Varma wrote to the secretary of the maharaja of Mysore in 1904, she proposes that he saw them as belonging to three different sub-groups, namely ‘Puranic,' ‘Religious,' and ‘Scenes from Hindu Classical Drama'. Ravi Varma's subdivision seems to have been based on a consideration of both source and style. Chawla discerns that while ‘puranic' paintings represent action packed moments that invoke other moments in the story, the ‘religious' are more iconic and self-contained motifs, and ‘ scenes from Hindu classical dramas', based on contemporary textual or performatory interpretations, are self-contained and episodic. These last thus occupy a middle space between the narrative ‘puranic' and iconic ‘religious.'

Despite his independent approach to subject matter, Ravi Varma stuck to history painting and portraiture, the two genres which were considered hierarchically superior to landscape and representation of scenes from everyday life in the western academic tradition, and depended more on adoption and improvisation of studio conventions and less on observation. Although he preferred to paint his portraits from life, he was not averse to using photographs and borrowing postures from picture albums for his compositions.

As a professional painter he functioned more like the head of a studio and employed assistants, the chief among whom was his younger brother, C. Raja Raja Varma. An artist with a keen eye for nature and the everyday world, as his own landscapes attest, he seems to have been responsible for the naturalistic elements and breezy touches in the backgrounds of certain paintings of Ravi Varma. While Chawla underscores his contribution to certain specific paintings, the focus being on Ravi Varma, this painter with an individual sensibility remains, in this book as in life, a tantalising shadow figure behind that of his brother.

Chawla is perhaps right in suggesting that Raja Raja Varma was restrained by contemporary standards of propriety from recording his own contribution to the enterprise more fully even in the diary he kept, which incidentally is our most valuable source of information on Ravi Varma. This brings us once again to the thought that Ravi Varma was both an individual artist and an artistic enterprise. Chawla's book with its rich mix of images and information about studio practices, commissions, contemporary responses, payments sought and received, and about models chosen, pigments used and even framing preferences, backed with evidences culled from archival records, notebooks, personal diaries, letters, newspapers and even old labels behind paintings is a resourceful companion for knowing both.

* Rupika Chawla (2010), Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 2010; 360 pages and 436 colour illustrations, price Rs. 3,950.

( R. Siva Kumar is Professor of Art History at Santiniketan. He has curated several important exhibitions and written extensively on modern Indian art.)

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