Nemiraj Shetty / Ravi Varma: Link Between Past and Present

Raja Ravi Varma is one of the greatest pioneers of Indian art. There is a continuous judgement on his contributions as an artist. These evoke sharp responses that are often contradictory. This has led to, even a century after his death animated controversies over his works.


Ravi Varma, the father of modern Indian art, was to Indian art, what a Giotto was to the Italian Renaissance art. It was the rudimentary beginning of Giotto, the breaking away from the flat Byzantine style, that prepared the climate for the magnificent efflorescence of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Somewhat in the same sense, Ravi Varma is credited with the introduction of a vocabulary in the Indian art scene. It was alien at the time but was considered innovative and evolutionary.

Among the most important critics of Ravi Varma was Ananada K Coomaraswamy. This eminent art historian observed that, “the pictures of Ravi Varma were like those any other European student who had learned to paint after a little perusal of the necessary literature and a superficial study of Indian life.”

His paintings were also criticized by Abhanidranath Tagore, the stalwart of the Bengal School. A similar judgement was passed by the artists of the 1930s and ‘40s like Amrita Shergil. Artists like F N Souza, S H Raza and M F Husain had opinion of sorts on the contributions of Ravi Varma. These put together have questioned the faithfulness and purity of Ravi Varma’s art and sought both consciously and unconsciously to perhaps defend their own brush outputs.

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) who belonged to the royal family of Travancore, was born in a transitional period of our national history. This period witnessed the first stirrings of Indian nationalism and the search for an Indian identity. There was a certain marked restlessness and a questioning of colonial rule, with its dominating cultural values. In essence it was, the questioning of the British hegemony over the country. This manifested through a variety mobilisations, both passive and militant. The latter was a signicant trend that was uprisings and revolts which gave a jolt to the British paramountcy. These suppressed were to have an important bearing on the political, economic and social fabric of the sub continent. But, the European art continued to have influence from dominant levels. The result was the emergence of confusing themes on the identity itself.

In the 1850s and 60s the British established art and craft schools in the major Indian cities. This resulted in the undermining of traditional art forms and many artists became destitute. However, the officialdom revered the new institutions set up. There were expert opinions given like by British art historian W B Archer on the contribution of these schools. He is reputed to have remarked that: “The new centres at Madras, Calcutta, Bombay and Lahore were ineffective in salvaging the lost spirit. The art schools did not produce any remarkable art or artists other than a few designers and craftsmen who were not necessarily better than indigenous untrained creators.”

Ravi Varma as the child of the conditions was aware of the climate of his times. There was a mixed trend from the second half of the 19th century which saw the political rejection of the colonial domination and an unconscious absorption of Western thought into the Indian psyche.

He did not connect himself with any art school where the South Kensington style of academic technique was taught. He was largely a self-taught artiste, who managed to retain his originality despite the colonial influences. When he did come into contact with the royal court painters in Travancore like Alagiri Naidu and the Dutch portrait painter, Theordore Jenson, he retained his own style. The strong motivation to be an artist was continuously being supplemented by great efforts. This individual exertion was to lead his mastery over portrait paintings in the medium of oil. This medium became the hallmark of the Indian art scene. It set a trend.

Previously, these cultural permeations were as such not unknown to Indian cultural history. The art of stone carving during the Maurya period and the Gandhara realism of Kushana sculptures was intensely influenced by classical Greek and Hellenistic art. It is impossible to deny the effect of Greek vase paintings on Ajanta frescoes. The similarities can easily be identified in compositional structures and in the marking of the contour lines around the shapes. In the same vein, the manuscript paintings of Mughals emerged out of elements extracted from Persian design and European naturalism. India never lost her identity when faced with alien influence but replenished and enriched her own life-spirit.

Ravi Varma did not identify with any political movements, like the artists of Bengal School nor did he seek to revive living or dead traditions. But having understood the changing attitudes of the tastes, he was able to present an amalgam of Indian and Western elements. In this way he was able to create a suitable contemporary language. “Ravi Varma,” commented Tapti Guha “presented a balanced blend of tradition and modernity. He was ‘modern’ without being Westernized in custom and lifestyle and was ‘traditional’ while moving firmly in the path of artistic progress.”

By his first hand experiences, Ravi Varma learnt a great deal from the Renaissance masters like Leonardo, Raphael and Baroque master like Vermeer. There was the drawing from the neo-classical art of Ingres and David.

He studied their art – portraiture and figurative composition to achieve a subtle quality in the use of color, form, division of light and shadow. The suggestions of distance and of three-dimensional space were also imbibed.

His works reflect cultural and social contractions of his times, but his genius lies in visualizing an appropriate structure in manipulating the spatial paradigm through the medium of his choice. He could not paint human figures as an academic painter would, using the grammar of human anatomy, but he had a sense for composition which was illustrative and dramatic in setting. He had a feel for history and tradition and a fine understanding of popular sentiment.

The historians broadly classified Ravi Varma’s paintings as portraits, portrait-based compositions and the theatrical composition based on myths and legends. In the first category were portraits of the ruling class and aristocrats such as Amma Tampuran of Mavelikkara, Maharaja of Mysore, Raja Raja Varma etc. in the second were his paintings of men and women of India depicting cultural peculiarities like Galaxy of Musicians. The examples of the third category were Hamsa Damayanti, Shantanu-Matsyagandhi, Rukmangadha and Shakuntala.

Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist to propagate the art of printmaking, in the country as a whole. His oleographs on calendars and pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses have found a place among the millions. He had the artistic knack to be accepted by a cross section of people, but faced a certain rejection by the intellectuals.

Indeed, it is undeniable that the Indian art has undergone quite a transformation since the days of Ravi Varma. The country for one is independent. The influences can be determined by political actins that seek to enhance the artistic traditions. However, this is not to deny the continuous attempts by alien influences. It is not always possible to accept influences of the time. Sometimes the past itself is sought to be negated. This negation is detrimental to the tradition of art which has a thread that links the primitive cave man to the modern painter.

A relook is required at the style of Ravi Varma. He was the product of the times. The context must always be kept in mind, especially a hundred years later. The strength of a modern artist rests on these roots. The alternative is rootlessness not only in context but in the perception of the individual personality.

The choice is between reality and mystification. Here Ravi Varma stands out as a blender of his times in a period of a difficult situation. It was the era of white man’s burden whereeven Mall roads were reserved for the sahibs. Ravi Varma inhaled life in this context. This context must always be borne in mind while evaluating. Here, Ravi Varma stands as a link with the past. This thread should be the basis of analysis.


Published in

Heritage, Art & Culture Supplement

Andhra Pradesh Times, Wednesday, January 1 1997


Nemiraj Shetty did his post graduate degree in Art Criticism from Faculty of Fine Arts, M S University of Baroda 1989. He is been running an art gallery in Hyderabad and presently teaches History of Art at LP Univeristy.

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