Ravi Varma was a product of his times who gained fame not as an originator of trends but one who quested for a truly authentic subject matter.
By all appearances the Raja Ravi Varma exhibition, an attempt to rehabilitate the court painter has gone completely askew. The exhibition at the National Museum has been criticised for not including large chunks of his most fecund period, at the Baroda court.
Again a barrage of articles and letters has vociferously argued why the show should not have been held in the first place. Ravi Varma was a first class toady who upheld the values of feudalism, because, rather than being modern, he was a purveyor of shallow and affected values, because he made no attempt to relate to the decisive art movements of the West, like his predecessors the French Impressionists and his own near contemporary Cezanne, because he corrupted middle class values and because even his own interest in mythic figures was vapid and insincere.
Bal Chhabda, Husain and Co. are not the first ones to says so; Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rabindranath Tagore, Jaya Appasamy and Mulk Raj Anand have already dismissed Ravi Varma as an irrelevant if not misleading milestone in Indian art history. In all fairness, it might be more accurate to see Ravi Varma as a product of his times, who gained fame and notoriety not as an originator of trends, but because he was simply so much more conspicuous and successful than his own contemporaries in India.
If comparisons with the West are to be made, it may be more accurate to compare his output not with the French but his near British contemporaries like the pre-Raphaelites, who like him quested for a truly authentic subject matter, and thus turned to myth and literary legend, but in the same intellectually hollow mould that he used.
At home his own contemporaries were Tanjore artists and their “modern” clones like Ramaswami Naicker, or uninspired bazaar artists in Delhi and the courts of Rajasthan. Much opprobrium has laid at his door as the originator of the mass calendar movement, but Ravi Varma really reworked a trend that had long been in existence. As a printmaker his real forebears were the mass printers of Calcutta. It is in their footsteps that he followed, albeit with less financial than popular success.
Lithography came to Calcutta thanks to two French artists, Belnos and de Savignac in 1822, about seven decades before Ravi Varma set up his printing press at Girgaum. The volume Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta, edited by Asit Paul notes how these prints soon became a rage, and under the Europeans, a number of presses were spawned in Calcutta between 1824 and 1850. The Bengali pata painters of Kalighat who had hitherto flourished, now found fewer takers for their wares and were absorbed in large numbers in the print business.
What they printed mainly were episodes based on the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mangal Kavyas or medieval ballads of Bengal - all subjects conspicuously used in Ravi Varma. The prominent presses had their own artists, as for instance Bamapada Bandhopadhyaya (1851-1930) of the Calcutta Art Studio whose prints were made in Germany for their superior colour reproduction, and then sold en masse in Calcutta.
Another successful printing house, the Kansaripara Art Studio produced chromolithographs with decorative images titled The Beauty with the Rose, The Beauty with the Tabla, Woman playing the sitar and veena. All of which foreshadow Ravi Varma’s painting Galaxy of Musicians, and his spectacularly successful series on the women of India, with its paintings like Malabar Beauty, Begum at her Bath and so on.
At any rate, by 1880, the Calcutta market was flooded with prints. As the business flourished, the English wanted a slice of the cake. Wrote Trailokyanath Mukherjee in 1888
“Some English chromolithographers took advantage of this and made exact copies of Calcutta Art Studio pictures in colour and sent a large consignment for sale in India at one tenth the normal prices.”
It is very unlikely that Ravi Varma who travelled 7200 miles across the length and breadth of the country was unaware of these popular reproductions of Pauranci scenes. With British involvement it is also unlikely that distribution of these prints was limited only to Calcutta. At any rate, the Poona Chitrashala also turned out an abundant number of prints on similar mythic and religious themes. By the time Ravi Varma’s printing venture was initiated in 1894, the market for prints and their offshoot calendar art already existed.
The difference perhaps was that he succeeded in creating images that approximated the popular theatrical images of the time, with their appealing realism. The reactionary aspect of Ravi Varma’s work, the hawking back to a legendary glorious past, with little reference to the immediate and everyday aspects - other than in paintings like Poverty - are oft quoted as a sign of his decadence. Valid as this criticism is, it is important to recognize that even in post-independence India, with different emphasis, cultural attitudes have been in the main reactionary.
Ever since Maulana Azad at the nascent meetings of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1951 urged a greater Indianness of expression, this message has been observed more in the letter than the spirit. Our cultural mores have reworked and reinvented myths both as symbols of cohesion and collective glory - the revival of Ganesh Puja by Tilak in Maharashtra in 1919, and the injection of the popular Santoshi mata myth in recent decades are examples which immediately come to mind.
Considerable effort has also gone into the revival aspect of our artistic traditions. However, Vallathol’s effort to restore Kathakali, or Rukmini Devi’s pioneering effort with Bharatanatyam or the 25 or so gurus of Oddisi who banded together under the banner of Jaynatika in the 50’s to revive Odissi is in danger of becoming ossified if even decades later there is no original creative effort.
It is notable that schools of classical dance and music continue to mushroom, while the fresh creative efforts of Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar, Shanti Bardhan and Emani Shankar Shastri have largely petered away, with little state or public support for contemporary performing arts. Even theatre, the medium which most radically disturbs the status quo has been stultified by the compulsion of carrying the cross of the past.
Until a few years ago, when Girish Karnad and Rajinder Paul took over the reigns of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the SNA only funded those schemes by young directors which used overt elements of folk forms. In the process, we had Ganesha figures prancing on stage, the occasional trappings of Nautanki or Bhavai, and a stultified theatre movement which is still grappling with the problem of creating a modern vocabulary, that can express a pan nationalconsciousness.
The only medium which has successfully aspired for a modern Indian identity is that of the visual arts but here again, the dangers of success, in the overwhelming use of the decorative and illustrative elements, the use of the icon as the image that is both known and new are ruses that can sap a truly questioning modern spirit. Unless we take a proper stock of this, a correct perspective of the historical value of Ravi Varma or the painters who have come after him is going to be blurred.
Published in Pioneer, July 8th, 1993