The fact that his signatures were only ones to be recognized in 19th century India, placed on the first, upper-class, English-educated, self-taught Indian artist, the credit of starting easel painting here, says K.B. Goel in Delhi. The trend still continues.
Ravi Varma’s greatest gift to India, arguably, is easel painting. Rather, a concept of easel painting, which is a unique product of western culture. Unique in the sense that it has a few counterparts elsewhere.
Compared to the Persian, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, and even Chinese hangings, easel painting has a charm of its own: it isolates itself from the wall, and is independent of the demands of decoration. As a picture on the wall, cutting the illusion of a box-like presence, with the dramatic play of forms, light in terms of chiaroscuro and space, it is rich in world-making rules of verisimilitude.
In comparison, miniatures and Chinese wall hanging paintings are decorative in intent; they do not have the intentional logic of identification with the metaphoric mirror that the easel painting has, i.e. the mirror within a frame.
But whether one should attribute to Ravi Varma the distinction of giving us the art of easel painting, is in itself debatable. The more legitimate claimants for this honour would be the many ‘unknown’ artists whose works we associate with what is called Company Art, which flowered in the feudal courts of India in the early 19th century. Their works created the conditions for legitimisation of easel painting.
When easel painting arrived in the country through royal portraitists working in the medium of oil, it was looked down upon as inferior in sensibility to the portraits done in miniature style and remained an alien presence in India until the arrival of Amrita Sher-Gil on the Indian art scene in the 1930s.
Indian aesthetic never subscribed to any form of perspectival seeing, and hence a window view of the world, however rich in verisimilitude, was rejected, for it divided the world into inside and outside, limiting the outside to the narrow angle the perspective permitted.
Perhaps our sensibilities helped us to reject the window aesthetic. For, when Ravi Varma was engaged in working out its mechanics, that window, in the land of its origin, conceived as a hole in the wall, if not closed for ever by the Cubists, was screened by a transparent material earlier by Manet and the Impressionists. The cavity was filled by them with colour and textural tonalities and other effects of reflected light. Rather than exploring objects in depths, they were interested in emphasising the frontality of the surface for the sake of decorative structure.
By the 1970s, the future easel painting had become problematic, for it no longer was a site where a work of art was woven into tight mesh, and the formal unity contained so that the essence of the whole work was found in every one of its parts.
Kinetic art, Conceptual art, Body art, Earthworks and Happenings, which were the ruling ideologies in the late 60s, were intended to go beyond the private space the easel provided. The revolt was against the universality of a hallucinated space of uniformity that the easel represented.
But painters in India continue to set up their easels and apply colour on to the canvas in the same old conventional ways - and with amazing perseverance. The painter still stands before the easel as the first Aryan rishi might have stood before the rising sun to experience how a painting is born in him.
The artist’s act of hallucination is shared by the spectator who, too, imagines undergoing a similar experience as that of the painter. For the easel painting invites him to see something he often does not see. It is entirely another matter that he rarely sees the painting; he passes by it as if in a trance. He feels that he is at an arm’s length of the enigma of vision which the easel painting celebrates.
In relation to Ravi Varma, there are some other aspects of easel painting that need elaboration. Only easel painting kept up the tradition of handicraft to which painting provides an individual frame of reference, a concept and category of interpretation not available to handcrafted art objects. For painting claims that it has its origin within; that is painting is not about representation but is itself an example of interpretation. Interpretation demands a reflection on reflection. This is true when painting has the ontology of a mirror, not that of a window. In other words, a mirror within a frame.
Inside this, a consciousness is confronted and trapped within the impossibility of a unified image. For there is always a split between the implicit ‘so be determined’, and the explicit which is ‘already determined’. In a portrait, this is inscribed as the impossibility of homology.
Among the early founders of modernist sensibility in India, only Amrita Sher-Gil understood the nature of this split. And it is in her work - and not in Ravi Varma’s - that the split as in between space, is clearly visible. The distinction between the figurative and figural was of central importance to her.
Between these two positions of the figurative and figural, Lyotards builds his aesthetics. The figurative according to Lyotard, implies translation from a model, Platonic or otherwise. The resultant pictorial object is derived from its ‘real’ model (real for Plato is what is inside the mind), whereas the figural is a pictorial property relative to the demands of representation.
In more general terms, the two terms can be described as the two opposite poles of reference: one represents what is called literal and the other the figural.
There is no evidence in Ravi Varma’s work, of a movement from the literal pole towards the figural, or from the model to the perception of a plastic object beyond the limits of mimesis. The dependence of the figurative on (almost photographic) representation is absolute, which prevents him from evolving a vocabulary of his own, within which - and in the movement away from the literal - he could situate his imagination.
Only the mirror allows the presence, elsewhere, of the ‘real’ mirror. Ravi Varma, who had access to only a few British sources on contemporary art, was denied acquaintance with the mirror which the Impressionists had discovered and framed, as a mirror of reflected light.
Or, perhaps, he had no use for such a mirror, self-taught as he was, and his horizon reached the upper limits of art approved by the British Royal Academy of Art. And for the Royal academicians, as for Ravi Varma himself, the Daguerre mirror was the only mirror available.
The eye of the Daguerre mirror is the dominating presence in the portraits exhibited in the National Museum show. The opulent Louis XVth frames seem to have a symbolic relationship with the portraits: the frame, it seems is the dividing line between artandnon-art.
TheframemakesaDaguerre a picture - a picture that is freely transportable into any world. The frame marks the difference of the picture itself from copies of it.
For the historical Daguerre, as for Ravi Varma, the virtual image in a mirror is, in one sense, an ideal copy, for what we see in a mirror is an image, not a copy or a picture. A copy has a life of its own, is useful because it does not depend, like a mirror, on the presence of the original. It is self-effacing.
Why then are Ravi Varma’s signature not so?
An upper class educated painter, part of the colonial establishment, a Raja - these cannot be self-effacing. Besides, Ravi Varma’s signatures were the only ones to be recognised by the Victorian, colonial India of the 19th century. And it is because of this fact, it can be argued, that easel painting was born in India with Ravi Varma. His signature indeed go far beyond the private space of the which easel painting is its ontological truth; it is indeed the subject of the work itself. Like Husain’s signature today, which is the subject of his work.
With its, in existential terms, what Jasper calls ‘the cipher of transcendence ‘emerges. It is a fact, and not mere sophistry that easel painting survives because of the exportability of the artist’s signature: a paradox, perhaps, inherent in the structure of human psyche.
Ravi Varma is the first English - educated literate artist that India produced: or , to put in the other way round, he is the European example of the artist as hero, a common European strand of romanticism which still survives in India. He fought against the prevalent philistine attitude, particularly the prejudices of his parents who opposed his choice of vocation.
He fought his way to fame and success and lived without family’s support in all the years of oblivion when he was learning to paint. His only guide in those days were the works published in the Royal Academy journal, and he closely followed what was published in it. When he first saw reproductions of the paintings in the collection of the Maharaja of Baroda, he rejected the Victorian philistinism of company art. It seemed to him that what was produced by these colonial European artists was contrived.
Tagore testifies to the popularity of Ravi Varma: “In my childhood, when Ravi Varma’s age arrived in Bengal, the reproductions of European paintings on the walls were quickly replaced with oleographs of his works. “The Sengal intelligentsia, used to seeing only Ravi Varma’s opulent versions of Radha and Krishna, rejected Abanindranath’s first major work entitled Radha and Krishna.
As against this Ravi Varma’s famous work, Shakuntala, met with disapproval at the hands of Margaret Noble (a product of the Irish revival who become Swami Vivekanand’s favourite disciple). She thought it was not a true representation of Shakuntala, but “a fat woman lying on the lotus leaf”.