The Bengaluru-based Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation recently conducted an illustrative lecture on Raja Ravi Varma (RRV) in Goa. This Foundation is working relentlessly to promote and preserve works of the artist, so also that of his contemporaries. NT NETWORK speaks to the chairperson of the Foundation, Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi Varma (the great-great grand daughter of Raja Ravi Varma), CEO Gitanjali Maini, honorary secretary Ganesh V Shivaswamy and trustee, Jay Varma to understand about the work they are doing under this Foundation and why we need to celebrate Varma’s works and more
ARTI DAS | NT NETWORK
Q: Can you brief us about the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation? And what inspired you to found it?
Gitanjali Maini: “The Specific Reason of wanting to form a Foundation for me was, as a gallerist of 13 years it is a natural progression. I wanted to create a Foundation to perhaps stabilise the pricing of art in India. However with a certain amount of market research I found art being an aesthetic purchase; to define a final price like another commodity was impossible. My search for the foundation continued. In 2015, I chanced on a collector of Ravi Varma paintings who showed me that perhaps the missing element in the Indian art industry was a Ravi Varma Foundation. I was excited as here was an artist who is considered India’s foremost, and yet no foundation was established in his name. My search led me to Rukmini Varma who had been harbouring the same feelings over the past decade. It was a magical union. The motto of the Foundation is: Knowledge – Appreciation – Preservation. We at the Foundation strongly believe that if an art work is explained and knowledge is imbibed by the viewer, the viewer would appreciate it better and it would directly result in preservation of the art work and heritage.”
Q: Speaking about the artist Raja Ravi Varma, how would you like to define his works and why is there a need to celebrate it?
Rukmini Varma: “Raja Ravi Varma’s works come under the category of Classical Realism. However he has further added a new dimension to it by the portrayal of gods and goddesses as accessible entities. His works influenced almost every important aspect and walk of life, besides giving India a distinct national face, so to speak. No other artist in the world, west or east has achieved the unique feat of having influenced everything from aesthetics, theatre, films, attire, worship, education et al, as has Ravi Varma. Indeed, this is more than ample reason to celebrate his works!”
Jay Varma: “There are several terms that can be used to describe Raja Ravi Varma’s works such as “Classical Realism,” “Renaissance Art,” “Representational Art,” or “Traditional Realism” and such. In a broad sense one can say that his works are based on realism and is a representation of looking at the human form in a traditional perspective. As one of the foremost artists in his day, RRV created a new world using European Winsor and Newton paints to depict not only images from Indian mythology but portraits and other scenes of life in India. He was in this sense one of the earliest to employ sophisticated and high quality pigments and a level of excellence and professionalism that even to this date is hard to replicate. For this and for having created those iconic images that are forever etched on most Indians’ minds, I believe his works deserve to be celebrated.
Ganesh: “Raja Ravi Varma legacy and contribution to Indian culture is required to be celebrated and re-told as his effort is akin to Adi-Shankaracharya. The similarities are that both were from Kerala, both travelled extensively throughout India and were not stationed in a single place. The similarities further continue in that their work was pan-Indian and most importantly they re-defined the divine – making the divine accessible to the common man. Raja Ravi Varma in particular achieved this by re-inventing the divine in human form by cladding a Lakshmi in a saree and making her human. Just like Adi Shankaracharya, his effort percolated down to the common man and his way of life. Raja Ravi Varma accomplished this through the lithograph press, bringing the visual representation to the common household.”
Q: Can you share some insight on the amount of research you did to document and collect paintings and lithographs?
Ganesh: “I started collecting the lithographs when I was about 13 years old. My personal philosophy has always been knowledge should be free and hence decided to put up this catalogue online. I therefore created the first online catalogue of the Raja Ravi Varma lithographs in 2006. It can be viewed at: https://sites.google.com/site/ravivarmalithos/ I added modules to this website to include catalogues of the lithographs of the contemporary artists like M V Dhurandhar, Venkatesh Rao, Mukundan Thampi, etc. My curiosity led me further to explore the legacies of the later artists and started acquiring the paintings of these artists which were on the verge of destruction. I have read practically every book on Raja Ravi Varma and popular art. The problem with India is that a lot of information is scattered and even more has simply been destroyed. I have interacted with scholars, families of these artists, art dealers and academicians. Again, the Foundation would be the proper institution to compile all the information in one place. The Foundation is working extremely hard to digitize and consolidate information. While doing so, every lithograph has been referenced to other publications. Every lithograph has been researched as to content and context. Being a student of Iconography, every god and goddess is explained from a shastraic point of view.”
Q: Raja Ravi Varma in many ways made art popular as he made it accessible to common man and also he was the one who gave face to Indian gods and goddesses. But, at the same time he was also charged for obscenity. Please share your comment.
Rukmini Varma: “First and foremost, I must correct the term “obscenity” used with reference to art. True Classical Art – the Chambers’ definition – does not recognise the word “obscene”. To reproduce the texture of the skin and flesh as realistically as possible is the dream and aim of every true artist who follows the trend of classical realists. It is also the most difficult and therefore the greatest challenge to an artist of the above caliber. Most great masters such as Rubens and Rembrandt—represented most of their characters nude in order to bring out the flesh tints. Many of our ancient sculptures are nude or semi-nude. Here it was the form and not the colour that would have appealed to the sculptor. Why then should the word “obscene” ever be used when referring to works of art that depict the human form in all its glory and beauty?
Q: Varma is now one of the most expensive artists of the country, whose art is also widely plagiarised. Can you tell us the role played by the Foundation to save his original works? Also what’s the ideal way to find out which is an original Raja Ravi Varma painting?
Rukmini Varma: “The preservation of original works by RRV is a carefully undertaken process following concepts already in existence in countries like Italy, UK, and US, where every effort is taken to avoid damage to the surface, and using cleaning and replenishing techniques that cause no friction or erosion of paint. There are several scientific yet non-invasive, non-abrasive methods by which RRV’s works may be authenticated. Verifications, thereafter, by a board of knowledgeable professionals, fully qualified for this specific process, is also part of our final analysis, assessment and subsequent conclusion of research on this matter.
Q: How would you look at the role of private art collectors in promoting art in the country?
Gitanjali Maini: “Private collectors are an important part of the art industry. In their personal need to procure a piece that fancies them, they encourage the industry to create good work. There are two collectors: the engineered and the emotional collector; both play a role. The emotional collector buys what he likes at the price which he feels is irrelevant to the piece he wants. The engineered collector follows trends and perhaps makes ‘safe investments’. Both are important. The artists are encouraged by the economics and the appreciation of their works and aim to be a part of these collections. Some emotional collectors make an archived library of their works – a personal catalogue so their families and generations ahead know what they have indeed invested in. In the end if economics had to compete with art, art always wins! A pretty painting is there for them and a visual investment never fails.”
Ganesh: “The arts have flourished only if amply peppered with patronage. In the days gone by, the patrons were the maharajas, thereafter the corporate establishments and private patrons. While corporate establishments have inter-twined art procurement with monetary considerations, the private patron bought art for its’ sheer artistic delight. Therefore, the private art collector or patron, in the truest sense is a promoter of art in India.”
Q: Will the Foundation also work to promote art and artist of Varma’s generation? Are there any plans to showcase works of Rukmini Varma, descendant of Raja Ravi Varma?
Ganesh: Yes we will promote art and artists who were contemporaries and those later artists who were influenced by Raja Ravi Varma. At the recently concluded Coimbatore Vizah, the Foundation showcased Tamil artists who were influenced by Ravi Varma like M C Jegannath, M Ramalingam, Kondiah Raju among others. We were surprised to know that the Coimbatore art lovers had never even heard these names before. Our endeavour will be to showcase all such unsung heroes in the world of art who by being influenced by Ravi Varma, their works became a tribute to him. Rukmini Varma’s life-size portrait of her grandmother, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi adorns the display at the Foundation office. We hope to showcase her works as well as those of Jay Varma.
Q: What have you to say about current scenario where the art and artists are restrained and about the threat to creative freedom? Also do you think if Raja Ravi Varma was alive today, would he be still charged for obscenity or do you think our society has evolved in these 100 odd years?
Jay Varma: “As the question itself suggests, art and artists today are heavily restrained. In spite of the hundred odd years of time that has passed, I feel that the scenario in India has worsened. The artist has no real freedom to express his or her views, with religious and other intolerance perpetually harassing the artist and forcing him or her to toe the line and keep their work confined to a narrow, dull and edentulated channel. One would expect from a country like India, filled with peoples of all religions, a moderate worldview but instead, there is so much of moral policing and a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. One would expect, with today’s social media explosion and broader outlook in life, people to be more tolerant but such is not the case, unfortunately.”