Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) is India’s original pop artist—he pioneered mass reproduction of art in the country and, fittingly, was its first artist with a “mass market” appeal. A hundred years later, he is still very much in vogue. Exhibitions of his works are held often, and books on him and his paintings seem to come out with unerring regularity—celebrated director Ketan Mehta has even made an as yet unreleased Hindi film, titled Rang Rasiya, based on his life. The latest example of his popularity is the recently published book The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma by journalist Deepanjana Pal.
Evergreen: (left) Krishna Shistai is available with Ashok Agarwal; a Ravi Varma-inspired figurine at the Neemrana store. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
While the subject of Ravi Varma’s paintings were usually traditional—Hindu gods and goddesses; scenes from the Ramayan, Mahabharat and classical literary texts such as Shakuntala—he is known for having introduced European-style realism when depicting them. And he is even better known for having introduced to India the technology for making oleographs (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a print textured to resemble an oil painting”). The different presses he set up in the latter half of the 19th century mass-produced oleographs of his oil paintings.
These days, more than a century after his death, a new generation of collectors, who might not have the means to buy an original work of contemporary art, can still acquire an authentic Ravi Varma—his oleographs usually sell for Rs500-20,000. They have been gaining steadily in value over the past two decades, are relatively affordable and still available in the market.
Mixed media: A Dampati (couple) figurine, inspired by Ravi Varma’s oleographs, at the Neemrana store. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Aman Nath, art collector and co-proprietor of the Neemrana chain of hotels, whose Neemrana shop in Delhi’s Khan Market sells Ravi Varma’s oleographs, calls the growing interest in these a manifestation of “glocalization”. As the post-liberalization, confident Indian goes increasingly global, he is also developing a new awareness and taste for his heritage. Nath began buying Ravi Varma oleographs 30 years ago, when “calendar art was something you only found hung in servants’ quarters”. At the time, he says, he paid “Rs15 for the big ones, and Rs5 the small ones”.
Among the few dealers in Delhi who sell Ravi Varma oleographs is Ashok Agarwal—though Agarwal, who restores and sells antique furniture, sees himself more as a collector than a dealer in oleographs.
He would come across the prints while scouting for furniture in old houses in Gujarat and Rajasthan and buy them. He says buyers in the Capital rely on word of mouth on where to find them.
Agarwal’s collection of oleographs, complete with disintegrating frames of seemingly the same vintage, include some classic Ravi Varma prints such as Krishna Shistai—the original oil painting is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; it depicts the episode in Mahabharat where Krishna is being insulted and threatened by Duryodhan in the court of the Kauravs, where he has gone as an envoy of the Pandavs. Showing a print of the semi-nude apsara Tilottama, Agarwal remarks that “sensuous” subjects tend to fetch more than prints of gods and goddesses.
Over the years, Agarwal has developed quite an appreciation for Ravi Varma the painter, as well as Ravi Varma the professional, who had the vision to import German machinery and hire a German manager to run it. He draws attention to at least five shades of red in the cascading folds of a woman’s sari, each shade depicting sunlight being deflected at a different angle.
In another oleograph, Arjuna Subhadra, he points to the willing coyness in Subhadra’s downcast eyes. Buyers at the time who could afford to pay more demanded embellishments in their prints says Agarwal, showing oleographs where zari trimming and gota have been stuck on to the subjects’ attire.
Agarwal points to the growing interest in arts among the young, more of whom now have disposable income and better houses. Oleographs are a good buy for them as they are within their budget, and are old as well as undeniably genuine.
“(Original) Ravi Varma’s paintings go for crores,” says Sanjiv Jain of RS Books and Prints, which operates out of a house behind the South Extension market in New Delhi. “For the collector, (an oleograph) is the cheapest Ravi Varma you can get a hold of.” According to Jain, an oleograph’s going rate depends on four factors—the size of the print, its rarity, its subject and its condition.
Until seven years ago, he says, you could get one for a few hundred rupees, but then demand shot up. The jump in prices was part of a larger trend. “The years 1998-2008 saw an extended boom in the art market,” observes Jain, who deals primarily in antiquarian books, but actively began collecting Ravi Varma oleographs 15 years ago.
His buyers are usually wealthy Indians, many in their 30s and 40s. Until 2007, a significant percentage of the buyers was “small businessmen” who bought only to resell the prints in future at a profit. For them the Ravi Varma brand was, and still is, a sure bet. As Jain explains, “The number of oleographs is limited and the number of buyers is going up—naturally, demand can only go up.”
Jain’s buyers come from all over India, not just Delhi—places such as Jaipur, Chandigarh, Pune and Hyderabad. He recalls an NRI buyer, who he says was “south Indian” and couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. The young man, who impressed Jain with his knowledge, bought six oleographs for around Rs80,000.
Jain dismisses fears of fakes floating around in what is an unregulated market that operates on trust. It would be hard to fake the paper quality of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he says. And since oleograph technology has become obsolete, making a fake wouldn’t be worth the returns.
A more germane concern is their preservation. Jain says that mounting them on acid-free mount boards, air-tight framing, avoiding direct sunlight and repacking them—i.e, pasting them with acid-free gum on to handmade, acid-free Japanese paper lining—does the trick.