THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Adecade-and-a-half after Olaf Van Cleef first stumbled on a Raja Ravi Varma painting outside a temple in Pondicherry, he began embellishing prints of his works.
The show, featuring Swarovski-studded prints of the iconic Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ahalya and Hamsa Damayanti, opened at Bengaluru’s Gallery on Wednesday evening.
Each piece has between 300 and 500 of the precious crystals characteristic of works by the jewellery expert-artist, he tells City Express, drawing attention to them with a magnifying glass in hand. So they are priced between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 4 lakh.
“These give a third dimension to the works,” explains Olaf, in his mid-sixties.
If opulence shows in the Swarovski crystals, the Dutch-born French’s ingenuity in using chocolate wrapper for saree borders, another signature feature in his works.
“I like using these over gold because you have more colour options,” he says. But he has stuck to golden for the Ravi Varmas. But for these glittering colours to fit the scheme, he has also picked up his brush and felt pen, introduced a few elements to the copies of the ‘browning’ art legacy - hues of sunset reflecting in a river, trees, folds in the subjects’ sarees and tiny black dots surrounding areas of focus.
“In this,” he says pointing to the Ahalya, “I even created a forest. But I’ve been very careful not to do anything that would have disturbed Ravi Varma.”
After all, it was after that Pondicherry visit that he began dabbling in water colour, creating Hindu gods and goddesses, each with a sparkle.
“Soon after (seeing his first Ravi Varma), I went for an exhibition in London and saw 200 of his works,” says Olaf, who was adviser to jewellery company Cartier for several decades before retiring a couple of years ago. “Then I bought a book about him to read.”
But all this prior research hadn’t prepared him for this project. Once he agreed to it, the artist spent hours poring over each of the four pieces.
“I had a month to finish everything. In all, I spent 120 hours on each print,” offers Olaf, who shuttles between Pondicherry where he has a studio and Paris.
Though Raja Ravi Varma is a household name in the country, he speculates that this generation of Indians do not celebrate the renowned artist’s works as their parents might have.
“But when it glitters like this, it could very well hang in a living room in Paris as in a pooja room in India,” he says.
He has earlier admitted to discovering India through Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and Shere Khan (the Jungle Book characters), a trip he took here with his grandmother as a teenager stripped him of his Orientalist outlook. Ever since, during every visit - he has travelled extensively in the country and even penned a travelogue, from Darjeeling to Pondicherry - he has ‘found a new India’.
In India, he says, people appreciate him for simply being Olaf rather than the scion of the founding family of jewellery, watch and perfume company Van Cleef and Arpels. His paintings have made it into people’s homes here, into their sanctums.
He started painting when he was four, and did abstract art as he grew up. “I still do, but nobody likes them,” he says, smiling. “They remind people of Picasso, but they don’t think of it as original.”
Given a chance, he would like to work on more or Raja Ravi Varma’s works and also on prints of the paintings of various maharajas ‘because there’s a lot of jewellery in those too’.