Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Raja Ravi Varma

The demi-god vulture Jatayu is struck down by the demon Ravana, as Jatayu attempted to intercede in the demon's kidnapping of Sita.

Today's birthday guy is an artist I never heard of but the style is very familiar - an Indian version of late Victorian painting, skillful, realistic but a bit too sentimental (IMHO). I remember seeing these prints in all the Indian stores in San Francisco. Obviously prints of Indian Gods and Goddesses are very popular.

Raja Ravi Varma was an Indian painter from the princely state of Travancore who achieved recognition for his depiction of scenes from the epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. He came from an artistic family; his father was a scholar and his mother a poet. He studied art with both Indian and European (Dutch) artists.

 "Galaxy of Musicians", Indian women dressed in regional attire playing a variety of musical instruments popular in different parts of the country.

His paintings are considered to be among the best examples of the fusion of Indian traditions with the techniques of European academic art. Varma is most remembered for his paintings of beautiful sari-clad women, who were portrayed as shapely and graceful.

Shakuntala, a character in the epic Mahabharata

In 1892, the Maharaja of Baroda commissioned him to create a series of mythological paintings that were Indian in their essence. At the end of it, Varma created what we know today as the traditional Indian woman who is curvy and buxom,” said Deepanjana Pal, the author of “The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma.” “The images were a composite created out of what he saw during his travels – the skin color was from north India, the way the sari was draped was Maharashtrian and the jewelry was usually from south India.”

Unfortunately, he overextended himself by setting up a printing press and went into debt. Toward the end of his life, he sold it off to Fritz Schleicher, a German lithographer, who turned around its fortunes by using these mythical figures on advertisements, flyers and ultimately calendars. The works, in this popularized and homogenized form, quickly inundated the market and are still popular today. These forms - of shapely women and men with six-pack abs -  erased the previous, more complex and diverse imagery.

“I would even go to the extent of saying it is the Westernization of the heroes,” the Indian cultural critic cultural critic Ashis Nandy said, “so much so that it is very difficult to imagine anybody but a north Indian playing Rama now if there’s a new version of the ‘Ramayana.’ I cannot imagine a Manipuri dancer playing Rama. That kind of diversity is totally gone.” (NY Times, June 2013).

Raja Ravi Varma died in 1906 at the age of 58.


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