A Contemporary Tryst With Ravi Varma’s Canvas - The New Indian Express

A Contemporary Tryst With Ravi Varma’s Canvas

Published: 01st December 2013 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 30th November 2013 03:55 PM

Contemporariness lies concealed in the layers of art history. Raja Ravi Varma’s legacy has served as a cerebral canvas for artists for nearly two centuries. The onus of exploiting, revisiting and reinterpreting every inch of its space, surface, imagery, texture and depth lies with committed Indian curators and artists. When High and Low Art Meet, a group show displayed by Art Alive Gallery at Rabindra Bhawan, Delhi curated by Rupika Chawla brings together the “low” (popular art) of Ravi Varma’s Oleographs and personalised contemporary expression inspired by it. The latter is defined by Chawla as “high” over two years of hard work and thought. While Manjunath Kamath’s Damyanti on Old Delhi could hold a viewer for a few centuries with its linear and far-sighted understanding and adventurous play with the theme, especially, with his spin to Delhi urban spaces, the Amby, public parks and stray dogs, works of A Rajeshwar Rao, Anita Dube, Anupam Sud, Atul Dodiya, Pushpamala N, Ranbir Kaleka, Gopi Krishna and Himanshu Verma make a powerful brush with history, present, gender, seduction, love, loneliness, gods, goddesses, myths, political upheaval and environmental disgrace in a candid, two-way dialogue. While some artists at this “project” have kept Ravi Varma on the pedestal he commands, others have walked into his oeuvre with intriguing sagacity, giving the master all due respect through their interpretations. A Ravi Varma litho stone from a private collection, placed at the beginning of the Chawla’s curatory project, paves the way for litho stones in the unforgiving depiction and giddying reflections of India’s political scars from Riyas Komu.

Artists like Komu are born to create movements and milestones. Quite literally. In the background of the collective lauding of feminine beauty, pride and changing gender discourses at the show, Komu cares to be “the activist”—the now rare, courageous cultural activists, who wouldn’t mince words about the country’s present political situation before he declares he is here to “express anguish” through static, solid and sombre musings. His series Stoned Goddesses steals the short-lived moments of peace you would want to seek out of “low art”. Over nine pieces of litho stone, India’s political milestones, Komu inscribes the reminders of sectarian violence, riots and hostile situations that have “fractured” the country and changed the course of its pain-ridden history. He says, “Starting post Partition, there was a period when we lived without a conflict. We were scared of killing each other... We are moving towards a very decisive year in politics We have an aura of religious iconography which we have dealt with sensitivity. I wanted to create a dialogue.” Komu wanted to go back to litho stone “to create an idea around it.” He says, “It’s a very tedious process, very minimised approach. I have screen-printed on it. I am not taking the print out of the stone. It is placed here as a work of art. This work is edited so much because I have to stick to these nine litho stones. I wanted to use 12. Physically, it’s much more a controlled approach. I like to archive the times we live in. This is closer to the aesthetics of the museums.” He won’t look at art very “romantically”. He says, “Since the beginning, art for me has been a political exercise. This, is part of my large research project on India which I have been doing for two years. It will culminate into Stoned History which I will show next year.” The last milestone — of the 2002 Gujarat riots is nauseating. “I wanted to show my anguish. There is a reflection.” Komu thanks Ravi Varma for having “taught us how we approach the myth, the gods and goddesses in a very sincere way”. He adds, “He was accused as a calendar artist. People dismissed him. But he still comes back because of the presence and legacy of myth and iconography he has created. We got a chance to reinterpret, revisit how we conceive myths and gods and goddesses in our consciousness.”

This partnership brings two worlds together—western and Indian; bhava and technique, apsaras and handsome witty men; ‘high’ and ‘low’. Waswo X Waswo and miniature artist Rakesh Vijay’s duet deserves the celebration Waswo has given it in Swinger. It’s a bold and eccentric self-portrait. Waswo’s face, the double chin, curl of the lip in his image imposed on the apsaras’ bodies presents a teasing dep iction of Varma’s impeccable and innocent Mohini. “I have great respect for Ravi Varma’s work. I have studied Oleographs and prints in my artistic journey and realised that Ravi Varma was like Shakespeare. He delved into human emotions and express them very dramatically. Having worked with Rakesh, I have known the beautiful Indian sensibilities in miniatures, Oleographs and prints.”

An intellectual rebirth can be more than “reforming”. Sometimes it gives you two artists. GR Iranna asked himself, “What if I were Raja Ravi Varma?” The image of Shiva, which Iranna believed “Ravi Varma had probably never painted” danced before his senses. But it never appeared alone. Shiva’s wedding procession, the coveted bunch of baaraatis and their fear-instilling frenzy “that had made Parvati faint” crossed his imagination. Marriage and Shiva, his work is a torrid celebration of the proud procession with the leader and the led smeared in ash. The haunting eyes and face of the naga sadhus, holes and bullet marks on the surface create a screaming digression from the feminine curvaceous charm in Ravi Varma’s works. Iranna says, “I have had the opportunity to clean my system while exploring the concept of high and low art. If I were Ravi Varma, Shiva’s depiction would be with  the baaraatis.”   

Veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon renews her tribute to oleographs, popular art, feminine beauty, pride and ornamentation in Ravi Varma’s work by placing the eternal theme of relationships within the golden frames, borders and pillars in Wedding Journey. She says, “I have always held the works of Ravi Varma, the depiction of women, and the Devis very high in respect. Since the early 2000s, I have visited the theme of popular art in many works, including the display Kitsch Kitsch Hota hai. This exhibition has thrown up yet many different takes on the master’s works, especially the portrayal of women.”

Manish Gera Baswani stirs the art of addressing violence without using red and crimson to paint a moving ode to Jatayu. With tea water for the base, Manisha “visualises” a part of the noble mythological bird’s broken, falling and bleeding wing, after its ferocious fight to free Sita from the clutches of the devilish desires of Ravana in Raja Ravi Varma’s depiction of Jatayu’s fight with Ravana. Each feather in Jatayu, her work, seems to surrender to pain with deathly peace in its brush with the wind. “Initially, I was unable to comprehend the idea of not using red in Jatayu’s context. Curator Rupika Chawala helped me understand the fact that Jatayu had died in the hands of Lord Rama and his death was the most peaceful. Her words helped me wipe off the red from the paper.” V Ramesh gives a beautiful dimension to print in water colour through reproduction of the master’s work Hansa Sandesh (with the same title). Marks of smudged water colour on the surface lend it a brimming wetness. Sisters in Sorrrow: A portrait of Damyanti and Shakuntala, borrows the melancholy from the duality and singularity of sorrows faced and shared by the two women in mythology and Ravi Varma’s work. Ramesh says, “This project forced me to come out of the comfort zone. It will help me incorporate more and more prints in my work. The idea of mass production in print across South India fascinates me so much.” His work Could Damayanti Ever Have Imagined What Would Befall Her When She First Heard Swan’s Words? is as vast an emotion and journey as the title.

From Around the Web