Attending an exhibition of lithographs by the great Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran (29th April 1848– 2n October 1906) turned out to be an enchanting experience. I chose a Saturday (16th July) to attend the premier event because on that day there was a gallery walk conducted by the curator of the show Ganesh Shivaswamy.
Raja Ravi Varma is a household name in Kerala and most of South India. His stunningly beautiful paintings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and scenes from the epics adorn the walls of most homes here. So mesmerising are his works that when people pray to any of the deities, the picture of the deity that appears in their minds are the ones painted by Ravi Varma. And the many calendars that have his paintings are not discarded; the pictures are framed and hung on the wall for posterity.
Born into the royal family of Travancore, Raja Ravi Varma’s talent with the brush was noticed very early in life. He trained at Madurai in water colour with Rama Swami Naidu and then in oil painting under Dutch painter Theodor Jenson. He made the best of his training and some of his paintings bear the influence of his European stint.
Contemporaries of the painter and the generations born after him can consider themselves blessed because most of his paintings were replicated by the process of lithography and made available to one and all. For this purpose, Ravi Varma had set up a lithography press in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1894. The press was later moved to Malavali near Lonavla. In 1901, steeped in debt, Ravi Varma had to sell off the press to his technical supervisor Fritz Schleicher, a German. Unfortunately, the flourishing press was gutted in a fire in the 1970s in a suspected sabotage. Remnants of the press can be seen at the location.
One-hundred and twenty-eight of the 131 lithographs that are on display are from the collection of Hema and Ganesh Shivaswamy, one from the collection of Aniruddha Haldipurkar and another from the collection of Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Manipal.
The exhibits have been classified into seven groups – Ramayan, Mahabharat, Krishna, Divinities, Rishis and Rajas, Mythologies and Plays, and Damsels and Nymphs. In addition to lithographs, the exhibition has on display a few original sketches by the artist.
There are more than 30 works in this section starting with the story of how River Ganga came into being.
There are paintings of eight of the Dasha Avatars in unique perspective. The Dasha Avatars are the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu. Particularly brilliant is the painting of Varaha Avatar, a boar, which is seen holding Mother Earth on his tusks.
Lord Ganesh is depicted as Shakthi Ganapathi posing with his consorts Ridhi and Sidhi.
There are two paintings of Goddess Lakshmi:
-As Gajalakshmi seated in Padmasana.
-As Lakshmi. This painting adorns many calendars and is one of the artist’s most popular works.
There are three paintings of Goddess Saraswathi:
-An 1894 painting of Goddess Saraswathi playing the veena alongside a peacock.
-Another picture of the goddess with a deer in the frame.
-The goddess astride a peacock.
There are two paintings of Lord Subramanya:
-Astride his vehicle, the peacock, along with his consort Devasena.
-Subramanya along with his two consorts Devasena and Maha Valli.
There is a painting of Tara Devi, a tantric deity, ferrying across the ocean of suffering! Tara Devi is popular in India, Mongolia, and China.
A painting of the Hindu pantheon of Gods is stunning. The painting has a) Shiva and his consort Parvathi, b) Ganesh, c) Devi or Shakti, d) Lord Vishnu and e) Surya.
The section has 18 scenes from the epic Ramayana:
A very striking painting is that of the story behind Ahalya’s curse: Lord Indra is seen ascending the earth astride his vehicle a horse. Enchanted by Ahalya’s beauty, Indra, disguised as Sage Gautama (Ahalya’s husband), enters the ashram. Ahalya is fooled into thinking Indra is her husband. When the sage returns to the ashram he is enraged to see his duplicate and curses Ahalya turning her into a stone. Later, he cools down when he learns about Ahalya’s innocence and proclaims that she can be relieved of the curse only by Rama.
Another painting “Ahalya Shaap Vimochan” shows Ahalya being released from her curse.
In “Sita Swayamvar”, Sita is shown as a mere six-year-old! That was supposed to be her actual age when she got married to Rama.
The “Dashratha Kaikeyi Vilap”, a highly appreciated painting, shows Kaikeyi lying sprawled on the floor and King Dashratha trying to mollify her.
In a painting of Ravan and Sita, Ravan disguised as an ascetic looks sleazy.
Also in the series is “Jatayu Vadha”, one of Ravi Varma’s famous paintings depicting the tragic scene where Jatayu, a huge bird, who comes to the rescue of Sita when she is being carried away by Ravan, getting killed by the demon king.
There is a painting of Sita in a forest of Ashoka trees surrounded by Asuris Ekajata, Harijata, Vikata and Durmukhi.
It is hard to take off your eyes from a painting showing Rama vanquishing the ocean even as Varuna tries to cool him down.
There are around 10 paintings in this series.
The painting of Shantanu and a bare-breasted Matsyagandha will take you by surprise. The painting has been placed alongside an original sketch of another painting of Shantanu and Matsyagandha which the artist has painted in another perspective. The sketch is easily more beautiful than the painting because Matsyagandha’s face looks angelic.
The painting showing Bhishma’s oath stands out. Here the astonishment on the face of a royal representative on hearing Bhishma’s oath has to be seen to be believed.
There are four paintings of Damayanti:
-Damayanti is shown waiting to hear about her beloved Nala.
-In the painting “Hamsa Damayanta Samvad”, a swan is seen bringing in a message to Damayanti from Nala.
-In another painting, a swan is telling her about Nala’s virtues.
-The fourth is a sad scene showing a boa constrictor and Damayanti. The boa constrictor swallowed her when she was lamenting about Nala leaving her.
There is a work showing the infamous Draupadi Vastrabharan.
There are around 17 paintings in this series.
Adorable is the painting showing Yashoda milking a cow with an infant Krishna hugging her. Also in the series is an 1896 picture of Yashoda and Krishna with embellishments. In the same picture are a cow and a calf. Also adorable is a painting of Yashoda with infant Krishna sitting on her lap.
It is hard to miss a painting of Krishna looking oh-so-cute and feigning innocence after tearing off a gopika’s saree.
“Krishna Leela” is a naughty painting which shows Krishna hiding the clothes of Gopikas and refusing to give them back.
Rishis and Rajas
There are around 23 paintings in this series:
Significant in this section is a painting of the Maharaja of Mysore Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar and another of the Maharaja and the Maharani on their wedding day. The monarch was a great patron of Raja Ravi Varma’s works and commissioned him to do a series of works at the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore.
Other paintings of rulers that are show in this section are that of the Nizam of Hyderabad Mahbub Ali Khan Asif Jah II; Goverdhan Lalji of Nathdwara, a holy place in Rajasthan famous for a temple of Srinathji; and Chatrapathi Shivaji.
The paintings related to Rishis include a series on Shakunthala. The painting “Vishwamitra Tapobang” shows the European influence on Raja Ravi Varma’s works. Here Kama, the Hindu God of Love is portrayed like Cupid. The birth of Shakunthala shows her being abandoned by her mother Menaka; Shakunthala was later adopted by Kanva rishi. Another painting shows Shakunthala and her sakhis (or friends) Anusaya and Priyamvada. There are also paintings of Shakunthala and Dushyanta and Shakunthala and Menaka. “Shakunthala Pathralekhan” shows Shakunthala penning a letter on a lotus leaf to Dushyanta.
Also in this section is a painting of the great Advaita philosopher and saint Adi Shankaracharya and his disciples.
Damsels and Nymphs
Women were undoubtedly Raja Ravi Varma’s favourite subjects. The women in all his paintings are extremely beautiful. You can see lot of them in this series: Mahashwetha, a Malabar lady in traditional mundu; Parsi ladies; Indira, a Marathi lady; Tara, a Tamil Brahmin lady; Mandodari, a Tamil Brahmin lady; Kadambari, a young woman playing a sitar [this was Ravi Varma’s last painting before he died in 1906]; Sharada, a Malabar woman; Madri, a Marathi lady; Rambha, an apsara; Tillotama, an apsara, depicted as half-nude; Urvashi; Vasantasena.
The three emotions of women are depicted in Susheela (modesty); Manini (arrogance) and Manorama (introspection).
The section on women also has a series on nymphs. Here, Padmini or the lotus nymph and Varuni, a bare-backed beauty, stand out.
Mythologies and Plays
I found it rather difficult to spot this section. If I am not mistaken, this one has only three paintings:
-Rathnavalli, a beautiful woman, who is the principal character in a play of the same name.
-Usha’s Dream: Usha, daughter of King Banasura, dreams of her prince charming who turns out to be Aniruddha, son of Pradyumna who is the son of Lord Krishna and Rukmini.
-Chitralekha, Usha’s companion, in response to her dream sketches pictures of various princes.
The exhibition which is organised under the patronage of the newly formed Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation is on till the 14th of August 2016.