An artist of the royals

Source: By Vandana Kalra: The Indian Express

Often referred to as the father of modern Indian art, Raja Ravi Varma is widely known for his realistic portrayal of Indian gods and goddesses. While he majorly painted for the royalty, he is also credited for taking art to the masses with his prints and oleographs. On 6 April 2022, one of his significant paintings, Draupadi Vastraharan, will be going under the hammer for the first time. Estimated to fetch between Rs 15 and Rs 20 crore, the canvas depicts the disrobing of Draupadi in a scene from the Mahabharata. We take a look at what helped shape Varma’s art and how he finally took it to the masses.

Formative years and influences

Raja Ravi Varma was born in April 1848 in Kilimanoor, Kerala, to a family which was very close to the royals of Travancore. At a young age, he would draw animals and everyday scenes on the walls in indigenous colours made from natural materials such as leaves, flowers and soil. His uncle, Raja Raja Varma, noticed this and encouraged his talent. Patronised by Ayilyam Thirunal, the then ruler of Travancore, he learnt watercolour painting from the royal painter Ramaswamy Naidu, and later trained in oil painting from Dutch artist Theodore Jensen.

How he became an artist of the royals

Varma became a much sought-after artist for the aristocrats and was commissioned several portraits in late 19th century. Arguably, at one point, he became so popular that the Kilimanoor Palace in Kerala opened a post office due to the sheer number of painting requests that would come in for him. He travelled across India extensively, for work and inspiration.

Following a portrait of Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda, he was commissioned 14 Puranic paintings for the Durbar Hall of the new Lakshmi Vilas Palace at Baroda. Depicting Indian culture, Varma borrowed from episodes of Mahabharata and Ramayana for the same. He also received patronage from numerous other rulers, including the Maharaja of Mysore and Maharaja of Udaipur.

As his popularity soared, the artist won an award for an exhibition of his paintings at Vienna in 1873. He was also awarded three gold medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Who were his protagonists?

Believed to have made more than 7,000 paintings before his death at the age of 58 in 1906, Varma combined European realism with Indian sensibilities. While he travelled to find his subjects, painting the Indian royals and aristocrats, his inspiration came from varied sources — from Indian literature to dance drama. Much of his celebrated art also borrows heavily from Indian mythology. In fact, he is often credited with defining the images of Indian gods and goddesses through his relatable and more realistic portrayals often painted with humans as models. The depictions include Lakshmi as the goddess of wealth, Saraswati as the goddess of knowledge and wisdom, and Lord Vishnu with his consorts, Maya and Lakshmi.

How he took Indian art to the masses

Raja Ravi Varma aspired to take his art to the masses and the intent led him to open a Lithographic Press in Bombay in 1894. The idea, reportedly, came from Sir T Madhava Rao, former Dewan of Travancore and later Baroda, in a letter where he pointed out to Varma that since it was impossible for him to meet the large demand for his work, it would be ideal for him to send some of his select works to Europe and have them produced as oleographs. Varma, instead, chose to establish a printing press of his own. The first picture printed at Varma’s press was reportedly The Birth of Shakuntala, followed by numerous mythological figures and saints such as Adi Shankaracharya.

In 1901, Ravi Varma sold the printing press to a German lithographer, Fritz Schleicher, who continued to manufacture the lithographs. The popularity of the prints, in fact, continued till modern times, with Varma’s style acting as inspiration for artists who illustrated the popular comic book series Amar Chitra Katha.