I am indeed indebted to Dr. D. Jegat Ishwari, for honouring me with an opportunity to write the Foreword for the book 'Raja Ravi Varma - Oleographs catalogue', a pioneering work carried out by the author. To an art historian this collection of Oleographs untiringly and painstakingly collected is going to be a boon to understand the works of Raja Ravi Varma.
This nineteenth century artist had brought about a renaissance in the traditional contemporary art of his time. Born in the royal family of Travancore his work was not limited just to the elite section of the society, but it was made available to all in the form of oleographs, for which he bought machinery from Germany. He adopted various themes taken from devotional and mythological stories. He could master the technique in painting figures to give a three dimensional illusion and a sense of depth. He had brought about a balance and elegance in composition. His works are not limited to south India alone. Today we are able to retrieve only some of his works and thanks to people like D. Jegatlshwari for their dedication and interests to save this priceless heritage of Indian art, one is able to cherish and enjoy the same.
I am thankful and appreciate Dr. D. Jegatlshwari for bringing out such a useful and rare book and also wish that her hard work will be duly acknowledged across the world.
The book 'Raja Ravi Varma - Oleographs catalogue' written by Dr. D. JegatIshwari comprises of 110 oleographs/subjects of Ravi Varma's paintings mostly featuring Religious, Epic, Puranic themes and women in various trysts. The oleographs range from 80 to more than 100 years depending on the period of printing.
The author has taken much efforts for writing this book for more than two years. The book also consists of appendices of postcards of oleographs printed in India and abroad, older versions for extra reference, complete plate details, glossary of sanskrit terminologies, etc., giving a complete idea about Ravi Varma's Oleographs. We hope that the book will receive a wide recognition and acknowledgement.
Ravi Varma koil Thampuran, later to become Raja Ravi Varma hailed from the aristocratic family of Kilimanoor, a small town in Travancore of Kerala state in south India. The family had matrimonial ties with Travancore royal family. Ravi-Varma was born on 29th April 1848, to Ezhumavil Neelakantan Bhattatripad and Uma-Amba bai Thampuratty. His father was a Sanskrit scholar and an authority on the Vedas, his mother was an erudite lady. He was home - tutored in Malayalam and Sanskrit, gained mastery over English later in life. He grew up in the traditional environment of listening to the vedic hymns, classical music and watching the performance of the kathakali - a native dance drama. He was the eldest of the three brothers; Godha Varma, Raja Raja Varma, and sister Mangalabai Thampuratty.
Ravi Varma's youngest brother Raja Raja Varma, twelve years his junior, was himself an accomplished artist and the first Indian landscape painter. Being a fluent writer in English, he was the first among Indian artists to maintain a diary. He accompanied Ravi Varma throughout his life to all parts of the country, attending to his personal needs, managing the financial affairs and also helping him in painting the natural background sceneries. He abdicated any separate claim for himself in Ravi Varma's works.
Even at the very young age of five or six, Ravi Varma had the penchant and rudimentary skill to draw pictures of animals and vignettes of everyday life with coal, chalk-piece on the walls of the palace, which was observed by his uncle Raja Raja-Varma, who was an artist of the popular Tanjore style of paintings. Though it was meagre, he taught his nephew early lessons in painting. At the age of thirteen, Ravi-Varma was taken to the king Ayilyam Thirunaal of Trivandrum by his uncle. The king, a patron of all arts, gave permission for Varma to stay in the palace and develop further skills in drawing and painting. It was there that Ravi Varma observed the court painters at work with the new medium of oil paints. At seeing the Italian paintings, he was intrigued and thrilled to find that those three-dimensional paintings in the palace collection were quite different from the native mural paintings he had seen on the walls of the temples and other places. There was depth, elegance, lighting and harmonious blend of the oil medium in those paintings. He desperately wished he could get mastery over the European techniques of chiaroscuro and perspective. Ravi Varma sought the help of Ramaswamy Naicker, the palace artist. But he refused to teach him the skills of oil painting, lest Varma should become a formidable rival for him.
In the year 1866 at the age of eighteen, Ravi Varma was married to Poorooruttati Naal Thampuratty of Mavelikkara palace of Travancore, the couple had two sons and three daughters. In 1868 Theodore Jensen, a Dutch painter, visited the palace of Travancore to paint the portraits of the Maharaja and his consort. The king requested Jensen to teach his protege some lessons in the intricacies of European style of Academic Realism. The request was turned down as he did not want an Indian student, however, he was magnanimous enough to allow Ravi Varma observe him painting. The young artist watched him closely at work for about a month but the art of mixing the colours was kept a secret from him, which he learnt all by himself.
Though Ravi Varma did not learn much from him, he had just the satisfaction of having had a preceptor (guru) in accordance with the Hindu tradition. He was a self-instructed artist and it took him nine long years to master the principles of perspective and mixing of colours. The medium of oil on canvas and the illusionistic techniques of light and shade enabled him to emulate the real in the pictorial. The first commission he received was for painting the family of a sub-judge of the Calicut court in 1870. When Ravi Varma painted the portraits of king Ayilyam Thirunaal and his wife, the king presented him the Bangle of Honour (Vira Sringhala), which was the highest honour given to an artist by the court.
In 1881, Sayaji Rao III ascended the throne as the Gaekwad of Baroda, Ravi Varma was invited as a guest for the investiture ceremony. The artist and his brother Raja Raja-Varma were accorded warm welcome. During his sojurn of a few months in Baroda, Ravi Varma painted the Gaekwad in the Investiture robes and the family members including Sir T. Madhav Rao, who was the Dewan (minister) of Baroda. He also received commission for puranic and religious themes like Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Nala-Damayanti, etc. On his return to Kilimanoor palace, Ravi Varma painted the portrait of his uncle Raja Raja Varma and placed a purse containing five thousand rupees at his feet as 'Gurudakshina' to him. He utilized this short period in Kerala for probing through the puranic, mythological lore, making the Sanskrit Pandits recite religious scriptures, expound the full thematic import and fervour of their contexts, which were later envisaged in his artistic imagination and transformed into monumental works of art. This practice continued throughout his life.
In 1885, Ravi Varma and his brother went to Mysore at the invitation of Maharaja Shri Chemma Rajendra Wodeyar, where he was received with all honours. The artist painted life size portraits of the king and his family members. In appreciation of the portraits executed, Ravi Varma chose two elephants from the array of royal elephants offered to him for selection and sent them to Kilimanoor. With the least facilities available those days, Ravi Varma and his brother toured extensively throughout India to study the diverse, disparate cultural aspects, costumes and jewellery of the people, which gave rise to the cultural renaissance of India through his paintings. This extensive tour across the country enabled them to view divergent natural scenes, backgrounds and also to decide to drape his heroines in sarees.
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