Indian art was stuck inside the four walls of religion until Raja Ravi Varma arrived with his stunning portrayals of women and nature in perfect harmony. On his canvases, mythological characters adapted human forms and expressed emotions and vulnerability just like a human. Until then, Indian art scene was thronging with Herculean idols and superficial imageries. From the debonair Damayanti striking a pensive pose with her ‘Hamsam’ (swan) to the dreamy Sakunthala scrawling a love letter to her Dushyanthan on an abandoned leaf, Ravi Varma’s characters were relatable and hence very real.
However, just like every other artist, Ravi Varma also had to face many a critic’s wrath for his realistic approach towards art. He was even called a ‘calendar artist’ for his picturesque renditions.
Filmmaker and artist, Nemom Pushparaj, who did his MFA from Fine Arts College, Thiruvananthapuram, believed in those criticisms just like every other art student there. But once out of college, he started researching on Indian art and realised the invaluable role Ravi Varma played in its progression. Foreseeing what prints could do in popularising art among commoners, Ravi Varma started his own lithographic printing press and made sure those picture prints were available to everybody despite their caste or creed. After studying Ravi Varma through books and his works, Pushparaj started seeing him as a visionary who walked much ahead of his time with his outstanding works and exemplary outlooks. In order to bring Ravi Varma’s contributions to art in writing, Pushparaj has written a 303-page pictorial biography with hundreds of known and unknown works of the artist, Raja Ravi Varma, Kala, Kaalam, Jeevitham. The book trails through the history of Indian art, while studying Ravi Varma in detail.
Unlike other Ravi Varma biographers, Pushparaj do not dig deep into his personal life. Instead Pushparaj’s book adamantly sticks to Ravi Varma’s artistic journey and how this small-time prince born in a palace at Kilimanoor was eventually crowned the King of Indian art by the world. “Ravi Varma was criticised as somebody who didn’t let Indian art to grow from realism and explore modernism. But when you think about it, he lived around 100 years back (1848-1906), when there were many societal stigmas including untouchability were prevalent. Then, art belonged to lower castes. However, he came out of all those stigmas and made art a livelihood,” says Pushparaj.
Pushparaj gives us a sneak peek into the world of Ravi Varma by showcasing pictures of his childhood home at Kilimanoor, the places where he spent most of his childhood years, his ‘ezhuthupura’ (office), temples, intimate moments spent with his family and many other significant events from the artist’s life in the first chapter. On the second chapter ‘Chithrakalacharithram Ravivarmakku munpu’ he analyses the history of art before Ravi Varma’s time. By elaborating on myriad art movements that has transpired in Europe such as neo-classism, cubism, impressionism, expressionism, abstract art and magical realism by citing artists who belong to a particular genre, (Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, Vincent Vangogh etc) Pushparaj gives an outlook about the subject beforehand. He also seems to tell us that by Ravi Varma’s time, European art branched out to many novel schools, while his works handled realism in its utmost form.
It was his uncle Raja Raja Varma who first identified the youngster’s exceptional talent in painting. Raja Raja Varma has taken him to the then king of Thiruvithamcore, Ayilyam Thirunal who took him under his wings. Later on, Ravi Varma got exposed to oil painting and took to painting vignettes from epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Even then, it was his simple renditions of everyday life like the ‘Pichippoo choodiya Nair Vanitha’ and ‘kannadi nokkunna Nair yuvathi’ which garnered much appreciation across the globe. Ravi Varma’s women were never the sultry seductresses, however many still believe that even screen goddesses cannot hold a candle to them. In those days the artists’ subjects often drowned in the adornments splurged on the paintings, while Ravi Varma’s portrayals be it a woman or mythical characters such as Jadayu and Hamsam, had a character of their own, says the book.More than anything else, Raja Ravi Varma, Kala, Kaalam, Jeevitham, with its coffee table book qualities is a collector’s edition with its spellbinding pictures and reliable narrative.