The Raja's New Clothes
She's pleasantly plump, wears a benign expression and a red sari edged with gold. Her hair is dressed with ornate jewels, a nose ring glints
(Above left) Raja Ravi Varma’s Lady With Fruits, reinterpreted by contemporary artist Waswo X Waswo
One alabaster arm is wrapped around her stomach, the other holds a bowl of fruit. A classic Raja Ravi Varma oleograph, you think approvingly, until your gaze travels upwards and you notice with a lurch that what is being held aloft is not fruit but a head on a platter. This grisly juxtapositioning is a comment by the artist Waswo X Waswo on the emerging superpower, India, and clearly there's nothing Gandhian about its rise. Waswo has cleverly reworked a trademark Ravi Varma image, Madri, to layer it with references, not all of them flattering. On one level are resonances of a demure Durga or Kali flaunting a hirsute trophy of a demon oppressor; on the other are biblical shades of a vengeful Salome demanding John the Baptist's head on a platter and getting her way. "It was fitting that, as India emerges as the new global leader, Mother India holds an American's head," says the 55-year-old American expat artist, who has made Udaipur his home. Further , Waswo's conflation of Eastern and Western narratives can also be viewed as an artistic nod to Raja Ravi Varma's groundbreaking adaptation of the European academic
More than 100 years after he shook up the miniaturist world of Indian art by painting mythical subjects with lush realism, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906 ) remains one of India's best-selling artists at auction and an inspiration to contemporary artists, photographers and filmmakers. "The impact of Ravi Varma upon what is contemporary Indian art is immense," says Deepanjana Pal, author of The Painter: A Life Of Ravi Varma. "His influence on the kitsch style is obvious, and artists like Pushpamala N have referenced him directly in a lot of their work. We tend to overlook the fact, however, that he's the first artist to have created the notion of an Indian beauty that wasn't recognisably from any one part of India. It's something we take for granted today. The figure and face that is the traditional image of the Indian woman is a tradition begun and crafted by Ravi Varma."
Pushpamala N, whose works have been described as 'performance photography' - where she is both actor and director - reworked three Ravi Varma paintings (Lady In The Moonlight, Lakshmi and Returning From The Tank) by substituting herself as protagonist in each. She says that she uses Ravi Varma's images to question mainstream stances on ethnicity and gender in the 19th century, because his images are "nationalist" and have had a great influence on the history of Indian cinema and popular representation.
Pushpamala's kitschy distortion is an approach that other contemporary artists have explored too, often to effect. In the process, highly reverential portraiture, most of it commissioned for royals and the rich, is turned inside out by a sharp stab of irony. Weary of being perceived as a privileged foreigner by local Udaipuris, Waswo cheekily replaced a Ravi Varma image of the goddess of wealth with his own suit-clad self. "Some people think that because I am white, I must be a crorepati," he says. "One day I asked a friend, 'Do you think I am Lakshmi?'"
Sharon Apparao of Apparao Galleries, adds that the influence of Ravi Varma is so overwhelming that "whenever contemporary artists want to take up a part of our popular culture and rework it, it is hard to escape him" . She cites the example of the 34-year-old Brooklyn-based lesbian artist Chitra Ganesh, whose work is "a cross between Ravi Varma and Amar Chitra Katha" . Ganesh draws from an eclectic range of sources: Hindu, Greek and Buddhist iconography, fairytales, Bollywood and comic
No review of Ravi Varma's impact is complete without paying tribute to his avant garde role in setting up the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press with German technology. He and the pioneering filmmaker Dadasaheb Phalke, who worked at his press for a while, were the fathers of modern mass communication in India. Ravi Varma's style is written all over Phalke's mythologicals , and has forever shaped the visualisation of Hindi cinema and its posters. It was the Ravi Varma press outside Bombay that churned out thousands of calendars that found their way into almost every Indian hut and home.
Not everyone, however, is impressed by this immaculate porcelain iconography. M F Husain, for one, went so far as to describe the prints as "the worst kind of calendar art" and the goddesses as "Italian women in saris" . Husain's disdain is rather ironic given that so much of modern India art is derivative - Husain himself is beholden to Picasso, Souza to Van Gogh and so on. The fallout of Husain's intemperate criticism was that when he was chosen for the Kerala government's prestigious Raja Ravi Varma award in 2007, an incensed family member went to court to get a stay. (No one stopped to think that despite their obvious difference in technique, Varma and Husain are united in a more fundamental political way - as victims of censorship, hounded for painting semi-nude goddesses.)
Pal says that if rolling one's eyes at Raja Ravi Varma is
A recent example of this is fashion photographer Rohit Chawla's 2009 pop calendar in which 12 well-known women robed in Varmaesque costumes were photographed against elaborate sets. "Fashion imagery is getting increasingly Westernised," Chawla says. "So being the snob that I am, I decided to go against the trend, back to our roots. Ravi Varma was the first to document the look of that time. We wouldn't have known what people wore or looked like then but for him. The colour palette is rich, not exactly my sensibility, but it represents a romantic vision. As a fashion photographer, that's exactly what we do - romanticise our subjects."
The romance of Raja Ravi Varma's story is captured magnificently in Ketan Mehta's new colour-soaked film Rang Rasiya, over which the censor's scissors hover perilously. Silky as paint, its sensuous narrative tells the story of this hugely talented and ambitious painter who, in many ways, provided the visual plinth to the ABC of early mass communication in modern India: Art,