A rare opportunity to view Raja Ravi Varma's mythological iconography and royal portraiture

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) is considered a pioneer for 20th century Indian art. The single largest private collection of his works in India - thrown open at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai - amply highlights three aspects of his work, which have taken on the greatest aesthetic and historical significance; iconic references to Indian Gods and Goddesses or mythology; Royal Portraiture, and Printmaking as a mass media art genre. The collection is representative of all these aspects.

The Raja Ravi Varma works are from the single largest private collection of his paintings and oleographs in India from the Maharaja Fateh Singh Rao Museum, Baroda that comprises around 39 paintings, royal portraits and several oleographs. It's a priceless treasure of immense historical value.

Raja Ravi Varma is known to have developed a style that depicted the iconography of the Indian Gods and Goddesses and the mythical elements associated with them. In addition, he translated this iconographic style to the portraits of several Indian royal families around the turn of the century. The painter extended his work to printmaking, creating a genre of art, which was, for the first time, accessible to the masses. This exhibition includes incidents from the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as from the life of Lord Krishna. The famous image of Saraswati is also a part of this exhibition.

To coincide with the show, Saffronart exhibited a range of works on the pavement gallery at the Kala Ghoda Fair 2003, which characterized the importance of Raja Ravi Varma as an artist and a pioneer for 20th century Indian art. The participating artists at Saffronart Pavement Gallery namely Tanuja Rane, Dileep Sharma, Rini Dhumal, Suhas Bahulkar, Papri Bose, Brinda Chudasma Miller, Lalitha Lajmi, Kiran Telkar, Aniket Khupse, Nikhileshwar Baruah, Jayakumar and Bose Krishnamanchari exhibited a range of works that depicted contemporary icons and related portraiture. The works timely in their context comprised a range of media, in particular various forms of printmaking. In addition to the Pavement Gallery, Saffronart also featured a printmaking seminar and discussion on the work of Raja Ravi Varma.

Born in Kilimanoor Village, Kerala in 1848, Raja Ravi Varma was a self-taught artist. In 1873 he won the Governor's Gold Medal for 'Nair Lady Dorning her Hair' in the Fine Arts Exhibition in Madras which gave him instant recognition. He held several exhibitions including World's Columbian Exhibition (Chicago, 1893), Baroda Puranic Commision's (Trivandrum, Baroda & Bombay, 1893). The painter enjoys a unique standing in the history of Indian art even after a century, as he was the first Indian artist to apply the tradition of Western painting and drawing to Indian mythology and literature. Maharajah Sayajirao of Baroda was one of his great patrons. Maharaja Ranjitsingh Gaekwad, his predecessor who is now carrying forward the legacy, underlined the fact that despite European artists' presence in India at that time Raja Ravi Varma was an immensely popular artist.

His dramatic depiction of mythological characters and incidents stood out the most, and influenced cinema and calendar art. Saryu Doshi of the NGMA, hosting the exhibition, mentioned in an interview that the artist represented the British aspiration of using western academic style to paint Indian themes. He was capable of working in western techniques as is seen in his oil (a medium not originally used in India) portraits. His depiction of divine images was very human, yet holding the aura of the celestial.

A special mention needs to be made of an art restorer from Kerala, M N Manikandan, who worked for over a year on some of the damaged or over painted paintings and original portraits made by the legendary artist before they were put up on show.

Friends of NGMA Trust will mark the culmination of the exhibition on March 30, 2003 with a panel discussion for its members on Raja Ravi Varma.

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