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Raja Ravi Varma: The Modern Painter of Colonial India

There is no denial to the fact that the tradition of art in India is a strong and living force, which has continuously evolved over the centuries. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this tradition was fractured. Art historians are of the opinion that after the colonial encounter, there was a rupture in the continuity of the traditional Indian art. As a result of this fallout, there was a chaos as artists had no set of rules to follow. They began to experiment with Indian traditions and western mannerism and laid the foundation of modern Indian art.

When it comes to tracing the origin and evolution of modern Indian art, one normally begins the story of modern Indian artwork with the history of Abanindranath Tagore and the movement he began which later came to be called the Bengal School. But, many art historians are of the opinion that there is a need for looking back to the middle years of the 19th century, to the beginning of the first art schools in India because a new social and professional category of art and artists was born in that period. It is important to take into consideration that there was a new group of middle class professional artists who were very different from earlier craftsmen and artisans who came into the picture and who initially were practitioners of oil painting and a certain kind of academic realism and commanded the scene of that period. When one talks about such professional artists, the first name that comes to mind is that of Raja Ravi Varma, who became a figure of national importance.

Ravi Varma was born in 1848 and was related to the royal family of Travancore. His Indian artworks became immensely popular. He was an Indian who had mastered the western style of academic realism in painting. He painted grand portraits of members of Indian royal families. What made him extremely successful were his paintings depicting themes from the great Indian epics– the Ramayana and Mahabharata and from traditional Sanskrit literature.

Essentially, Ravi Varma’s importance came from using the Western academic style and bringing in the original Indian artwork having themes rooted in its mythology, religious aspects, its sense of color, sense of dress and ritual. The genre he created found immediate acceptance and popularity with the people. He was someone who exhibited all the technical mastery over the style which was in vogue and immensely admired. Through his paintings, he brought to the people myths and stories, gods and goddesses, all garbed highly in realistic human forms. Some of his paintings depict dramatic scenes where the characters appear to be playing out theatrical roles.

Ravi Varma was not only working within a colonial period, but was also trying to make his own place within the colonial regime. In actual fact, he was not a victim or a servant of that context. Rather, he was making major transformations through a new medium that he had learned of his own will and through a degree of symbiosis with what he understood European paintings to be. He had the intelligence and the skill to be able to make into any an idiom appropriate to the late 19th century in where major historical changes had taken place. He also began to make prints of his paintings, which made his work available to larger numbers of people. It was his avant-garde thinking that set him apart from his contemporary. He was one of the first academic western-style artists who were involved in trying to build a category which came to be considered as a national art for modern India. So, he was interested in working on Indian themes, specifically cultivating a new kind of taste for art among an Indian art public. 

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