What does Raja Harishchandra, the movie not the king, have to do with artist Raja Ravi Varma?
Raja Ravi Varma is suddenly the man of the moment. The pioneering painter from Kerala has a popularity that is only overtaken by the sheer ubiquity of his works. Unless you’ve been living under a stone, in a cave and far far away from any tea shops or Udupi restaurants, you’ve seen at least one reproduction of Ravi Varma’s many depictions of gods and mythological characters. And this year will see the release of at least two films—by Ketan Mehta and Shaji Karun—based on the painter’s life.
Ravi Varma was born into a family of scholars and artists in the little village of Kilimanoor in Kerala in 1848 (even though he was related to the royal family of Travancore, Ravi Varma was not really a raja in the titular sense. When a royal citation addressed him as “raja” later in life, Ravi Varma adopted the title. (We will never know if he went around singing “Varma is Kinng, Varma is Kinng” in glee).
Cover girls: A Raja Ravi Varma work.
As a child, Varma did what any kid would do; he drew pictures on the walls of his house. But while our parents made us sit quietly in a corner without dessert for similar artistic outpourings, Varma’s uncle, Raja Raja Varma, spotted his talent and sent him to Thiruvananthapuram to learn painting under the patronage of the king (the real one) himself. His highness Ayilyam Tirunal exposed the young Varma to famous paintings by Italian masters. This early exposure would greatly influence Ravi Varma’s work in the years to come.
Finally, when Ravi Varma out painted a visiting Dutch portrait painter at the court of Ayilyam Tirunal, his fame started to grow. From 1870, Ravi Varma began to be sought out by local and foreign dignitaries for his great skill at portraiture. So many letters came to him requesting appointments that Kilimanoor had to open a post office to handle the inflow.
Ravi Varma’s fame extended beyond Indian shores when, in 1873, he won the painting prize at the Vienna Exhibition. The royal citation with the “raja” salutation arrived and soon Ravi Varma was hot property.
Working in a European style applied to Indian mythological subjects, he was among the first to depart from the fantastical depictions of gods and goddesses in traditional art. Instead, he showed them as human beings.
In 1894, Ravi Varma decided to take his art mainstream and, like countless other enterprising Malayalis after him, moved to Mumbai, then called Bombay. He set up a press to bulk produce prints of his works, helping introduce the masses to his art.
The Ravi Varma Pictures Depot was set up in Mumbai and it used oleography to make reproductions. The press needed someone who could help with the photo-litho transfers used to make the colour prints and found the perfect fellow in an enterprising young man by the name of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke.
Phalke not only produced many stunning colour reprints but was also hugely influenced by the imagery of Ravi Varma’s work. Years later, on 3 May 1913, when Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra released at the Coronation Cinema in Mumbai, audiences immediately connected with Phalke’s depiction of mythical characters in a human sense. Indian cinema was born and Phalke’s genius can still be seen today in the latest episodes of Ramayan or Mahabharat on TV.
Phalke became the Dadasaheb of Indian film and that industry will now pay tribute to his inspiration, the Raja himself.
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