BENGALURU: A chance encounter with two rare Ravi Varma Saraswatis got lawyer Ganesh Shivaswamy started on collecting the artist’s lithographs, soon to be displayed at NGMA.
The Raja Ravi Varma: Royal Lithography and Legacy exhibition opens on Friday, and 126 of the 131 works on show belong to the 41-year-old, who began collecting as a teenager.
“We come from a traditional family,” he says. “Once, when I was 13, my aunt took away the Ravi Varma Saraswati from our puja room in our Race Course Road house.”
The house, he adds, is 102 years old. In the sanctums of many such homes, the Lakshmi and Saraswati are an inseparable pair, he explains, and his mother keenly felt the loss.
“So I went to an antique shop, and asked for a Ravi Varma Saraswati,” he recalls. “And just to tease me, the owner showed me two, neither of which resembled the one my aunt had taken with her.”
It took him a while, he admits, to realise that these two were rare treasures. And though he took the more popular work back with him for his puja room, he came back before he turned 20 for the ones he had failed to recognise as Ravi Varma’s.
“That’s how I began collecting,” he says. “And I will never stop.”
Over the years, he saw many people selling off old frames, and throwing away the art it held.
“That’s how I got may other little-seen lithographs, many by Ravi Varma,” he says. “We Indians have not realised the value of art in the past. Now, of course, everyone seems to, with archiving taking on great significance.”
Shivaswamy, the honourary secretary of the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation that is hosting the show, counts the 19th century painter’s works among the more fortunate as people recognise them, he says.
“But how many people would have heard of M V Durandhar, or any of his other contemporaries?” Shivaswamy asks.
Other rare lithographs by the legend in his possession include one depicting Sita’s swayamwar.
“We normally think of her as an 18- or 20-year-old, but according to the Valmiki Ramayan, she was all of six,” he says. And the artist has painted her as a young girl.
One of Alhalya, also part of his collection, shows Indra riding his second vahan Uchchaihshravas, a winged horse. “He is usually shown riding the elephant Airavata,” he adds.
Two Vishnu forms, another with Krishna in his mischief and litho-print of the Nizam of Hyderabad also figure this list.
He is a fourth-generation lawyer, and continues his family practice ‘with equal zest’. So how does he juggle his work and passion? “They’re my yin-yang,” pat comes the reply.
He elaborates: “Mine is a tense profession. And whenever I feel high-strung, I come back and look at my lithographs. Later, when I feel calmer, I get back to work. So the two complement each other.”
He hasn’t kept count of all the lithographs he has the collected over the past three decades. “But it’s probably well over 4,000,” he estimates.
Raja Ravi Varma: Royal Lithography and Legacy at Manikyavelu Mansion, NGMA. The exhibition, which opens on Friday, will be on display till August 14 from 10 am to 5:00 pm. The gallery is closed on Mondays and national holidays.