IT IS FAIR TO SAY that the afterlife of Ravi Varma’s images has been as eventful as his own. Fêted widely as the ‘first modern Indian painter’ during his lifetime, the years after his death saw a dramatic change in the reception of his work by the art historical community. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Bengal School (centred around the Tagores) had established itself as an avant-garde movement that proclaimed an ‘authentic’ modern Indian art and the realism of Ravi Varma’s works was seen as derivative, inspired by Western academic sources. Stalwarts like EB Havell, Principal of the Government School of Art, Calcutta, and Ananda Coomaraswamy dismissed his works as extravagant and theatrical and this characterisation continued over the course of the 20th century. In 1993, the painter A Ramachandran and the art conservator Rupika Chawla curated a major exhibition of Ravi Varma at the National Museum in New Delhi, and it announced a renewed interest in the artist at a moment when the art world was just beginning to embrace popular culture.
And so the myth of Ravi Varma persisted, not in the least because of his pioneering efforts in setting up a modern press to mass-produce his paintings—chromolithographs of gods and goddesses that persist in the ubiquitous calendar art of today. The spurt of interest in Indian visual culture since the 1990s, as evidenced in writings on vernacular photography, cinematic culture and bazaar prints, has led to our considering Ravi Varma the ‘father of modern Indian visual culture’—one whose mythological prototypes have provided templates for visualising the culture of kitsch in which we find ourselves immersed.
Rather than this guise as the father of kitsch, these two recent books on Ravi Varma adopt a different approach, examining the aesthetic value of Ravi Varma’s oil paintings and his career as a ‘gentleman artist.’ Rupika Chawla’s is a well-researched biography that comes the closest to a catalogue raisonné of the artist, featuring 436 paintings in rich colour. Chawla has meticulously gathered archival material on Ravi Varma—letters, newspaper clippings, conversations with experts—and consulted Marathi and Malayalam sources to produce a veritable tome on the artist. Locating him within the complex social hierarchies in Kerala, Chawla documents how Ravi Varma was able to cast off his provincial identity for a pan-Indian cosmopolitanism, travelling the breadth of the country in quest of a personal and professional vision. Chawla’s book is particularly rich in details about the palace intrigues involving Ravi Varma’s royal patrons (the courts of Baroda, Mysore, Travancore), revealing the complex place that an independent painter in the late 19th century occupied vis-à-vis his benefactors. Unlike the royal ateliers of the 18th century where painters were beholden to their rulers, Ravi Varma was able to carve out an individual professional career that spanned the nation, including both the British and Indian elite in his roster of clients.