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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Raja Ravi Varma

Group of Girls, Raja Ravi Varma
Lady with Swarbat, Raja Ravi Varma
Short of actually visiting a foreign country for an extended period of time (a month or more) the best way to learn about that country, its people, its culture, it's history, religion, and geography is by studying that country's art. A nation's art is always reflected by its artists and that which they create. Artists create what they know best and what the love most. After their own family, virtually every artist, whether they realize it or not, loves his or her way of life more than anything else. And, of course, that way of life is a mirror image of the country in which they live. I once did an Egyptian painting. What did I paint? King Tut and Nefertiti. They were stereotypical historic icons having little or nothing to do with present day Egypt, its people, their way of life, their religion, culture, etc. One reason I'm reluctant to write about oriental art is because there's way too much of it, going back way too many centuries, and it's way too complex for this old man to assimilate to the degree necessary to write intelligently about it. The same is true of two or three other such cultures. One such country's art is that of India. Nonetheless I shall try...and likely discussing the work of probably the greatest painter that country has ever produced--Raja Ravi Varma.

If it's not a beautiful lady, it's probably a self-portrait.
Victory of Meghanada, Raja Ravi Varma
American writers have to be careful in talking about artists from India. We don't dare refer to them as "Indian artists." There's a great risk that, in doing so, we immediately bring to American minds the work of Native-American artists (to be politically correct). Rajq Ravi Varma was an artist born in India. He was actually born in a palace, the Kilimanoor Palace, in 1848, located in the southernmost province of India, then the Kingdom of Travancore (now the state of Kerala). His mother was of the aristocratic Nair caste. In India, unlike other countries, titles and inheritances are passed down through the matriarchal side of the family. The Nair caste lived in large, multi-family compounds such as the Kilimanoor Palace, all of them related to a single female ancestor. That being the case, Varma's children were part of their mother's family. Kilimanoor was a feudal estate within the Kingdom of Travancore. Ravi Varma had a sister and two brothers, both of whom were also painters. Ravi Varma married well. In 1866, at the age of 18, Varma married a daughter of the Royal House of Travancore. She was twelve years old at the time. Their progeny was vested with the succession to the throne of Travancore, his children being royal by birth. It was an arranged marriage in the proper Indian manner, and was apparently harmoniously successful. The couple had five children. Their elder son, was excessively spiritual. He never married and eventually renounced his lineage, leaving home in 1912. The younger son, Rama Varma, inherited his father's talent. One of Varma's granddaughters later gave birth to Chitra Thirunal, the last ruling Maharaja of Travancore (before the British took over).

Galaxy of Musicians, Raja Ravi Varma
Raja Ravi Varma's career as an artist was promoted by both his wife's (royal) family and The British administrator, Edgar Thurston. The young artist learned the basic locally through schooling in Madurai. He received widespread acclaim after winning an award for an exhibition of his paintings in Vienna in 1873. Varma's paintings were also sent to Chicago's World's 1893 Columbian Exposition where he won three gold medals. Later, Varma travelled throughout India in search of subjects such as Hindu Goddesses or South Indian women, whom he considered the ultimate in feminine beauty. He is particularly noted for his paintings depicting episodes from Indian mythology, though his style is often criticized as being too showy and sentimental. Varma's Group of Girls (top) would seem to confirm this view. However, his Galaxy of Musicians (above) suggests otherwise, as it depicts Indian women dressed in regional attire playing a variety of musical instruments popular in different parts of the country.

A representative sampling of Varma's women of India.
By far, the vast majority of Ravi Varma's work is of beautiful young women or girls, reflecting India's matriarchal society (above). Varma's work became especially well known after 1899 when he bought, then brought, a lithographic printing press to Mumbai. The press was managed by Varma's brother, Raja Varma. The oleographs (color lithographs) produced by the press were mostly of Hindu gods and goddesses and were very popular. They continued to be printed by the thousands for many years, even after the death of Ravi Varma in 1906. His oil painting, The Historic Meeting (below) dating from 1880, came to be considered one of his best as a result of its having been printed in this manner. The scene depicts the meeting of the Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother as they welcome Richard Temple-Grenville, Governor-general of Madras.

Historic Meeting, 1880, Raja Ravi Varma


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