Raja Ravi Varma was not only a master portrait artist for the upper echelons of royal society in India but also a pioneer of popular culture, responsible for the mass dissemination of a new visual vocabulary through oleographs. By infiltrating the majority of households with his paintings and prints, he was essentially responsible for influencing and shaping perceptions for generations to follow.
Varma grew up with his siblings in his mother’s ancestral home as his father was from a higher caste and lower caste wives were not permitted in the same lodgings. In close proximity to his sister and other women in the household, it was commonplace for him to observe women performing their daily beauty rituals and tasks. This later led to a vast production of amazing paintings depicting women set amidst everyday life and in their natural environment and is one of the factors that influenced his artistic production. He was first taught by his uncle Raja Raja Varma who had achieved a modicum of fame as a painter himself, but it was the combination of his rigorous home schooling with his sojourn in a royal household which brought forth the influence of European realism, that resulted in Varma’s unique and illustrious output.
The colonization of India attracted a large number of European artists who were drawn to the wonders of what they considered to be an exotic and alien culture. These artists brought with them superior artistic materials including oil paints and canvases, the portability of the easel and rigorous academic knowledge and training. Varma utilized these tools to elevate his already burgeoning painting skills.
It was his uncle Raja Raja Varma that brought a young 14-year old Ravi Varma to the palace at Kilimanoor and introduced to him the Maharaja at the time. He was permitted to stay there, practice and study the royal collection of both local and European paintings. A few years later, Varma married into the royal family, cementing his connections and allowing him the opportunity to further study the art books at the palace and improve his English. Wary and jealous of his emerging talent, the few painters of the court who worked with oil refused to teach Varma this new medium. It was a European court painter Theodore Jensen who finally allowed him access to watch him paint. Experts such as A. Ramachandran (who was the force behind a grand exhibition in 1993 that revived the idea of Raja Ravi Varma as the father of modern Indian art) have since posited that Varma’s talent in the treatment of jewelry and the human form itself was far superior to that of Jensen’s, adding to the notion that Varma was one of the most talented painters of that century. His time at the court also led to the discovery of the Tanjore style of painting. Characterized by bold colors, static postures, glittering gold foil and inlay work of gemstones, it is interesting to note that these characteristics then featured in Varma’s oil paintings as well. After five years of practice, Varma sent a painting to the Fine Arts Exhibition in Madras and won the gold medal, overshadowing the work of Ramaswamy Naidu, another prodigious and well known painter of the time. Thus after establishing himself locally, Varma traveled to other states, always roaming amidst the most wealthy and powerful ranks of Indian Royal Society.
Later, in 1894, after producing a large number of oil paintings, Varma founded India's first oleography press in Lonavala, known as the Ravi Varma Oleographic and Chromolithographic Printing Workshop to make his artwork available and accessible to the public, revolutionizing the presence of art – typically relegated to the court or temple – into everyday homes. To help reproduce his paintings, Varma employed Fritz Schleicher, a German printer from Berlin, highly qualified in color lithographic printing to act as manager of the workshop. Varma eventually sold the Press to Schleicher in 1903, at which stage the firm was renamed The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Works. Schleicher was known to have been a good businessman under whose management the press garnered a reputation for producing high quality prints and experimenting with innovations like adding metallic foil to create an effect that was reminiscent of the Tanjore paintings Varma had seen in Kilimanoor. While he stayed true to Varma’s original vision for the Press, he expanded the press’s portfolio by securing jobs to print textbooks and photographs. Schleicher had twelve children, the youngest, a daughter named Lottie, who had started her education in Berlin, but with the rise of Nazism, moved to a private school in Vienna. In 1941, Austria was in the throes of World War II, which forced her to move to India with her fiancé, Dr. Surendra Singh. Mrs. Lottie Schleicher Singh inherited a group of works from her father from where this exceptional painting hails. Several of these were offered at Sotheby's London in 1996-97.
Varma's depictions of women in particular, are considered to be excellent examples of the paintings that emerged from this period, as is evident from this work. Many of Varma’s most iconic compositions were adapted from photos of theatrical productions or illustrations of Old Master paintings and other images in European magazines. Varma had a large collection of these and often referred to them to draw inspiration for his model’s faces and poses. This painting for instance, was inspired by a photo circa 1900 from the theater show called, The Feast of Roses, L’inamorata. It is fascinating to see first-hand how Varma took the posture and stance of the European woman and transformed her features into his vision of idealized Indian beauty, also turning the folds of her costume into a saree.
The oleograph from which this painting is based is titled ‘Damayanti.’ Damayanti is the protagonist and heroine in the Sanskrit epic, Nala and Damayanti. In the story, Damayanti and King Nala fall in love with each other after hearing about their respective noble traits, intelligence and beauty. Using a golden swan as a messenger, they exchange messages. Over time, Damayanti starts to pine for Nala, shunning food, sleep and other activities. The scene depicted in this painting is Damayanti, engrossed in thoughts of Nala and being fanned by her attendant Keshini. It appears that Ravi Varma was quite taken with this story as he painted multiple versions of Damayanti in a variety of scenes and stances as well as other compositions with both lovers.
In this painting, one can tell that Ravi Varma strove to impart the same beauty to his Damayanti that had been written about so poetically in literary sources. Each element in the picture works in harmony to elevate it beyond just a decorative painting into a meaningful depiction of one of Indian mythology's most romantic epics. Even in modern times, this scene and subject matter are considered amongst Raja Ravi Varma's most iconic compositions and popular in numerous households.
The gold ornamentation and borders of the womens' sarees leap from the canvas while their bodies are both poised yet dynamic at the same time. The veranda floor is strewn with delicate flowers drawing the eyes to the emerging shadows and contrasting light effects from the moody skies above; jointly creating a tranquil yet moving ambiance. Interestingly, the scene was originally meant to be on a sunlit terrace but was glossed with a varnish that was too dark and the oleograph was converted into a night scene with a hand painted crescent moon.
Rupika Chawla who has conserved many of Varma’s works and written voraciously on his life and work has said of the artist, ‘He selected easel painting and the oil medium over established Indian methods and materials, academic realism over the subtlety of suggestion as prescribed by ancient Indian treatises. But he also understood the power of the epics and classical texts that he had grown up with, and which his environment had so generously bequeathed to him. With the rich and plastic oil medium and realism as his tools, Ravi Varma transferred the wealth of stories and mythology that came so naturally to him, into paintings of great resonance.’ (R. Chawla, ‘Exploring the Source,’ Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 2010, p. 158)
His use of color and paint is unparalleled for an artist from this period, which makes Ravi Varma’s works so desirable. In addition, in 1979 the Indian government declared him to be a National Art Treasure and prevented the export of his paintings from India so it is incredibly rare for his works to ever come up at auction internationally.