Reinterpreting a legend

Raja Ravi Varma's name conjures a vision of an artist who was revolutionary in his contribution to Indian art. He is considered an icon and even the forefather of Indian art. A group of contemporary Indian artists who hold him in reverence have come together for a unique show to appreciate the contribution made by the legendary painter to Indian art.

He was one of the first to depict Indian subjects in the western style using oil on canvas, and is often described as the 'Father of Contemporary Art in India. A century after Raja Ravi Varma's death, 16 contemporary painters from across the country have come together to pay tribute to the artist in a show aptly titled 'Raja Ravi Varma'A Tribute to Realism' at the Museum Art Gallery, Kala Ghoda. This exhibition, as the title suggests, is our interpretation of Varma's timeless work.

In one such experiment, 'A Transition of Icons' presented by at the Pavement Gallery as part of the Kala Ghoda Art Festival 2003 drew from the themes and techniques of legendary royal painter Raja Ravi Varma, as they apply to the contemporary context of Indian Art. Artists 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. It explored three aspects the artist's work with great aesthetic and historical significance: Iconic references to Indian Gods and Goddesses or mythology, Royal Portraiture and Printmaking as a mass media art genre.

Raja Ravi Varma's works are still extremely popular as was evident from overwhelming response to an exhibit of the single largest private collection of his works in India ' that was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai a couple of years ago. The Raja Ravi Varma works on view then were from the single largest private collection of his paintings and oleographs in India from the Maharaja Fateh Singh Rao Museum, Baroda that comprised around 39 paintings, royal portraits and several oleographs.

Born in Kilimanoor Village, Kerala in 1848, Raja Ravi Varma was a self-taught artist. 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. Despite the presence of European artists' in India at that time, Raja Ravi Varma was an immensely popular artist.

The participating artists at this show, through their works, displayed how the legendary painter 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 dramatic depiction of mythological characters and incidents stood out the most, and influenced cinema and calendar art. His depiction of divine images was very human, yet holding the aura of the celestial. His iconic references to Indian Gods and Goddesses or mythology, and Royal Portraiture took on the greatest aesthetic and historical significance. His oleographs of Indian divinities represent his inimitable style.

The artist also transformed the simplest vignettes from life into masterpieces of breath-taking beauty. Raja Ravi Varma's works are considered a priceless treasure of immense historical value. Echoing the sentiments of the artists who are featuring in the group show, Meghna Oberoi, an upcoming artist, mentions she has grown up idolizing his works, especially his portraits of Indian women that she finds 'most intriguing.'. 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.

For this particular show at the Museum Gallery, artists including Sanjay Bhattacharya, Gurcharan Singh, Jaideep Mehrotra, Nayanaa Kanodia and Thota Vaikuntam give an expression to Ravi Varma's works in their own inimitable style. According to Delhi based Raghu Vyas, one of the artists whose works are on display at the exhibit, realism is often ignored by contemporary artists, but Varma's paintings still get the attention they rightly deserve. He is still one of the most celebrated painters of India, a fact that is underlined again by the show at the Museum Gallery that has brought together several leading current artists.

view all articles