When 13-year-old Ganesh V Shivaswamy, already an art lover, collector and amateur painter by then, walked into the house of the great great granddaughter of artist Raja Ravi Varma to authenticate a painting attributed to the eminent painter, little did he know that this new acquaintance would eventually lead him to the mission of a lifetime—the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.
Since that day almost three decades ago, the fifth-generation Tamil lawyer from Bengaluru has been on as he puts it, “several hunting expeditions in obscure South Indian towns scouring for original works of art and calendar art”. Over the years, he has collected and stored several thousands of lithographs of Varma and others and virtually saved many of them from being destroyed or burnt away. “It is a pity that old heritage paintings and calendars, which are so invaluable, have no worth in South India,” he rues.
A vision long in the works, the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation has recently been set up in Bangalore. The founders hope to make it at par with the Monet Foundation and the Rembrandt Research Project. It is the lifelong dream of the reclusive Rukmini Varma which has finally been realised. “It is going to be the single point of verification of authenticity of originals and lithographs,” says the managing trustee, gallerist Gitanjali Maini who is also the CEO of the Trust. Shivaswamy is the honorary secretary while Rukmini Varma will be the chairperson of the Board of Trustees. Her son, Jay Varma, an artist, has been nominated as trustee.
Shivaswamy, who has an antique home filled with original paintings, believes “information, appreciation and preservation” are the three keywords that are going to steer the activities of the Trust. He and Maini work well as a team. Shivaswamy, who has a penchant for collecting all things antique, including grandfather clocks, has approximately 132 different subjects depicted in Ravi Varma’s works and those of his contemporaries, too. “There were contemporaries and more who came after him, but Ravi Varma was certainly the torchbearer and mastered the art of two as well as three-dimensional painting,” says Shivaswamy.
He has done a great deal of research on the painter. The popular Amar Chitra Katha comics were vastly influenced by Varma’s creations, says Shivaswamy. Archiving has already begun and by 2018, a catalogue should be ready for publication. The Trust has already come up with a schedule of events slated for 2016 which includes lectures, interactions, exhibitions, and so on. Not only Varma’s, but even the works of his successors such as Dhurandhar, MA Joshi, Warrier and Mukundan Thambi will be on display. His influence on temple architecture and sculpture and ceramics, his influence on temple jewellery, iconography of various Hindu deities like Shiva, Ganga, the different forms of Lakshmi, Subramanya and above all his obsession with Shakuntala will be explored and discussed with art lovers and all those interested.
“Did you know sari designs and motifs on textiles are based on his lithographs, and a store in Chennai gets custom-made saris based on Ravi Varma’s motifs?” shares Maini. The Trust hopes that private collectors will come forward and share their works with the Foundation.
Spanish brand Lladro’s porcelain Goddess Saraswati (priced at Rs 7.50 lakh), launched in June this year, too is inspired largely from—no prizes for guessing—Ravi Varma’s depiction.
The Raja and Popular Art
Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was one of the greatest painters in the history of Indian art. He brought Indian paintings to the attention of the larger world; provided a vital link between traditional Indian and contemporary art. He is famous for his depiction of scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, but most remembered for his paintings of beautiful sari-clad women. He is considered as a modern among traditionalists and a rationalist among moderns.
“He was born into the feudal royal family of Travancore (now part of Kerala). Varma’s contribution to iconography and lithographs in Indian painting is significant. He apprenticed under the court painter Ramaswamy Naicker and Dutch painter Theodore Jensen. His paintings had a significant impact on Indian theatre,” writes Sujit R Varma in his biography of the artist.