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Raja Ravi Varma - The father of Indian Modern Art

Updated: May 20, 2020


Was she just enjoying the fruit when someone came in, making her conscious enough to adjust her clothing or her mysterious smile, long wavy hair and side gaze render some intimation? It is quite interesting that the answers to these questions lie in the journey of its painter.

The lady with the mesmerizing gaze is a subject of the legendary and Father of Modern Indian art Raja Ravi Varma’s “Woman holding a Fruit”. This painting is referred to Ravi Varma’s one of the iconic works; belonging to a confluence of European art techniques with Indian aesthetic culture and sensibility.

In the 19th century, the colonization of India drew many European artists who introduced their academic techniques, oil paints, and a variety of mediums including linseed, turpentine, and canvases; resulting in the emergence of a new set of Indian artists. Born in 1848, at the palace of Kilimanoor in Travancore (present Kerala), Ravi Varma was amongst those Indian artists who studied and adopted the aesthetics of Western customs. However, his subjects mainly belonged to Indian ancestry. His realistic paintings recite the ancient mythological stories, including the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Ravi Varma also painted portraits for the elite community, and semi-nudes for which he had to face societal denunciation back then. He grew up with his siblings in the matrilineal Nair community, giving him proximity to women in the household. He painted them in a great variety of their daily course such as at their bathing ghat, on a swing or at siesta, playing musical instruments, listening to tales, bantering, at vigils, or at temples. His fusion of European academic techniques and Indian art rendered these women’s characters as the protagonist of the classical Indian verses.

His marriage into the Travancore Royal Family gave him an opportunity to continue his studies, and there he educated himself about the nuances of new mediums under the guidance of a European artist Theodore Jensen. Ravi Varma’s portrayals of female protagonists are considered as some of the most sought paintings. The painting “Woman holding a Fruit” has the allure and subtlety characteristic of his work. But this painting stands apart from the mystical narrative of mythological scenes that we observe from afar in many of Ravi Varma’s paintings, including series of Shakuntala, Damayanti, Draupadi, and Keechaka & Sairandhri, Yoshodha and Krishna, and verses from Ramayana. These paintings give us a sense of intimacy while retaining their surroundings. By studying the ambience, attire, expressions, we can outline the subject’s narrative and her echelon in the community. In one of the paintings of Damaynati series based on a Sanskrit epic folk tale “Nala and Damayanti”, with Damayanti as the protagonist. The scene depicts Damayanti pinning for King Nala, while her attendee is trying to comfort her with a peacock feathered fan. The attire of the women traces the Indian culture through their ornaments and glistering gold-bordered sarees and the smooth brush strokes blending in the effects of light define the curves and folds of their sarees, giving them a dynamic conjecture. The scattered flower petals and a plate of fruits and flowers at the lower left side of the porch in the terrace complementing the shadows create an astounding, moving yet a calm ambience. It has been noted that Ravi Varma often sought inspiration from the European figures for his subject’s expressions and postures, and experimented with his palette to attain complexion and backdrop that well suited the Indian setting. So, as in this painting, the pose of Damayanti was inspired by a photo from a theatre show “The Feast of Roses, L’inamorata” circa 1900.

The studied and well-formed composition in Ravi Varma’s paintings invokes a balanced harmony with the light falling on the main figures of the paintings. He demonstrates his command of perspective and foreshortening. That’s a technique that renders distortion to give an illusion of an object receding into the distance or coming forward giving a sense of the figure coming out of the painting. In the majority of his paintings, there is an absence of a prominent source of light, and are enhanced by an idea of light falling from a certain distance or shades in sky describing the moment in the scene. However, in Ravi Varma’s “In Contemplation”, partially curtained window, a wooden framed spherical mirror held by the lady in her lap and a silver glistering statured utensil on wooden stool juxtapose to crimson and yellow flowers are precisely placed so that light from the window can reflect on the mirror and the silver utensil brightening that area and partially reaching to her face, creating a silent ambience. So as in “Lady Juggler”, where light through an open window in right, is casting shadows on the wall.

The absence of these very elements gives the “Woman holding a Fruit” anonymity forcing the viewers to dive into the mesmerizing gaze of the lady. Varma’s treatment of light to highlight her movements, use of a dark and flat background to further put her into a three-dimensional spotlight. His palette does justice in capturing the woman’s innocence, tenderness in her almond-shaped eyes balancing with enigma and sensuousness. Her attire is painted in soft pink with gold border, and brown and ochre tones enhanced by the light falling on her left shoulder. Further, integrated with traditional southern ornaments including a string of red rubies and double folded pearl necklace.

Unlike Ravi Varma’s “Fruit carrying Lady” and “Lady with Fruits”, where he has placed a basket of fruits, in this painting the lady is holding a single fruit in her right hand. In some mythologies, such depiction has been referred to as a symbol for fertility or consciousness of sexuality. Instead of being like a subject in any of the mythological narrative scenes, she becomes rather a mysterious subject. Her eye contact, side gaze, and a small coy smile, playful or to a certain extend inviting expression draw viewers into her stare. While we may never know the real identity of the woman in the painting so as in the multiple other oil paintings with anonymous women as their subjects. We can engage with her portrait in a way that is spellbound. As she hangs in her home in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, her presence is simultaneously penetrating and subtle. In her enigmatic way, she represents how Ravi Varma was way ahead of his time, for which he was highly criticized. He painting semi-nude paintings of mythical characters like “Tilottama” and “Urvashi” got him into trouble leading to societal denunciation charged for matters of obscenity, offending public morality and hurting religious and cultural sentiments of people. However, his paintings were widely appreciated overseas, in 1873 his paintings were exhibited in Vienna followed by the esteemed World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where his paintings adorned the exhibition bagging him three gold medals for his work. In 1904, Ravi Varma was bestowed with the honour of the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal, by Viceroy Lord Curzon on behalf of the British Emperor. After which the title ‘Raja’ mentioned with his name.

1n 1894, he revolutionized Indian art by incorporating India’s first oleograph press in Lonavala, widely known as ‘Ravi Varma Oleographic and Chromolithographic Printing Workshop’, which allowed his paintings to be accessible to the public including those who weren’t allowed to enter in a temple. He employed Fritz Schleicher, a German Printer as the workshop’s manager; who gradually became the owner of the press and renamed it as ‘The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Works’. He with the reputation of a good businessman, managed to produce high- quality prints, even expanded the press to print textbooks and photographs. The production of oleographs of Ravi Varma’s artwork is one of the reasons that there are multiple versions of his paintings. For instance, the painting from the Damayanti series which has been discussed above was actually a sunlit scene but its varnish was too dark that the oleograph was transformed into a somber night-scene.

Later, Schleicher’s youngest daughter Lottie Schleicher inherited numerous works from her father. Some of the works from her collection were auctioned by Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian art auction house in New York including, one of the paintings from Ravi Varma’s “Damayanti” series was sold for USD 1.2 million (around Rs. 11.9 crores) at 2017 auction, and in 2018 “ Tilottoma” fetched USD 795,000 (around Rs. 5 crores). Further, Pundole’s, a Mumbai based auction house sold “Radha in the Moonlight” at around Rs. 20 crores and “Portrait of Shungrasoobyer Avergal” for Rs. 20 lakhs. However, in 1979, he was declared a National Art Treasure, that averted the export of his paintings from India. So, it is rare for his works to make an appearance at an international auction.

Recently, Saffronart conducted an auction in Mumbai, on behalf of the income tax department, sold Ravi Varma’s oil painting which depicts the ‘Maharaja of Travancore welcoming British administrators’ for Rs. 16 crore. This painting was among 68 other artworks from other artists, from the collection of absconding diamond merchant Nirav Modi, which were auctioned after a special court permitted the concerned agencies to sell the artworks to compensate the dues.

It is commendable how the figures in Ravi Varm’s paintings render the same aura as that of the verses of the epic mythological tales. His creations adorned the Indian Modern art and gave a window to peek into evolution of traditional art culture.

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