Raja Ravi Varma - The Man Who Gave the Gods Faces
If there’s one Indian artist you’ve probably heard of, it’s Raja Ravi Varma.
He wasn’t doomed to obscurity in his lifetime like Van Gogh, nor was he (ostensibly) a pioneer of new movements in art like Picasso. In fact, some would say that the appeal of his works boils down to amazing marketing skills (which is a perspective Geeta Kapur refutes in her book of essays, ‘When Was Modernism?’). So why is he so famous?
Raja Ravi Varma (1848 – 1906) was an Indian artist who painted in the western romantic style. This distinction is important; he was not technically a romantic artist. What he was though, was an artist during a time of transition in India. We’ll get into the western influences on his works in a minute, but first; we can’t forget that this was still the time of individual courts and kingdoms in the Indian subcontinent. The rulers of these courts ‘collected’ promising artists from across the country and sponsored their artistic pursuits, and in exchange, these artists would produce art for the royal court. It was like; your company buys you Photoshop and gives you assignments that you have to do for them, but they also let you use the software to do your own thing. Raja Ravi Varma’s company was the Trivandrum court, and his job was official palace artist.
Now that we've established the context, we can talk about his actual work. You’ve probably seen some of it floating around; Damayanti with Swan, Draupadi Humiliated, etc. They seem pretty western, right? I mean, it's on record that he was inspired by European Romantic artists. But remember how we said he was an artist during a time of transition? This was the transition; from Romanticism to Modernism, and the driving force behind this transition was the industrial revolution and the sudden ability to mass produce things. Sure, Ravi Varma referred to western artists because their works were being reproduced and printed in magazines and newspapers everywhere; that’s the kind of art that was in vogue at the time. But, imitating them was a purely stylistic choice. He may have painted in the western style, but his subjects in his formal works were staunchly Indian. Indian characters, Indian landscapes, Indian (Hindu) Mythology; all that never changed.
With the advent of mass production, art was cheap and available to everyone, when so far religious art in particular had been something only temples and noble families could afford. And though the western style Ravi Varma drew inspiration from had a running theme of depicting religious and mythological personalities in human forms, they were not ‘religious’ images, as such. It’s like Christ on the Cross versus The Last Supper. Both are devotional, but you expect one to be hanging in a church, and the other in a gallery.
This is what Ravi Varma did for Indian deities. He humanized them. He gave faces to the stories that, thus far, had been passed down verbally, through song, or through religious institutions. Faces that people could relate to at that, because he usually used live models. Moreover, the timing of this humanization, and the resources he had available as palace artist, made those works available to the people at large. Now, Brahmins did not like this at all. Thus far, if you wanted to pray, you had to go to a temple. The way the gods were represented was dependent on the whims of the temple administration. The strong religious sensibilities of the general population made the people dictating those representations (and access to them) uniquely powerful. Brahmins were the judges of morality and social status; in the Hindu class system, they're above even kings. But suddenly, they weren't needed anymore. The people didn’t need to make appointments with the gods’ receptionists anymore; they could just DM them. This added autonomy made his works particularly popular with the common people.
As for the paintings themselves; visual culture in India was dominated by the western ideal because, of course, of colonization. This factor made Ravi Varma’s paintings a national hit, even though he wasn’t by any means the first artist to illustrate the myths.
He was however the first person to merge the western tastes of the social elite with the religious sentiments of the common people. This made him popular with people on both sides of the fence. These were what the representations of the gods looked like then, until Raja Ravi Varma set the precedent for more realistic looking avatars.
What do you think of when you imagine the goddess Kali? Probably Something like this, right? You've seen it in countless temples, in one of those golden frames. That's a Raja Ravi Varma painting.
Now picture the goddess Saraswati. Something like this, right?
And sure, trends in popularity are always changing; in a couple decades or so the Bengal School of Art would reinvent Indian art all over again. But, those artworks by the Bengal School and its successors in the 1900s were never meant to be reproduced the way Ravi Varma paintings were. The intentions behind them were completely different.
Ravi Varma paintings were like skinny jeans; popular to the point of obscurity. They became so ubiquitous in Indian visual culture, that they became the standard. And yes, trends have moved on from skinny jeans to mom jeans and they're not quite fashion forward anymore - but everyone probably still has a pair tucked away somewhere.
Think of it this way; you, as a modern viewer, are used to seeing his works and works inspired by him everywhere. It might seem ordinary or cliché to us today, but clichés don’t just appear out of the ether; they are created. And they are created when something is loved so much, that you start to hate it. Like that song you listened to on repeat in the summer of 2013, that you cringe upon hearing now. Similarly, we’re so used to seeing Raja Ravi Varma’s works everywhere, that we forget that he was the first one to create work like that in India on a large scale. His paintings, and paintings in his style, are on calendars and campy posters and in religious books because he was the guy who started the trend in the first place.
It may seem like quite a leap in style, but then again, the industrial revolution kick-started countless other movements. There are influences of his style even in the painted movie posters and pulp fiction covers from the 50's and 60's. It's his imagination that we base our current visualizations of gods on, sometimes subconsciously. Books, media, costume design; we may not look to his works for reference, but odds are that the people we do refer to, had referred to him.
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Written by Sambhavi Sinha, Content Writer at Skyshot Media.