In Bangalore recently, encountered Raja Ravi Varma in every house and office I entered. It was rather unnerving at first, but then I got used to it, and just stopped noticing the pictures. Something like the way I used to see but not take in the calendars with pictures of sundry gods and goddesses hanging on every pan and vegetable shop. A befitting comparison in some ways, because one was so inspired by the other.
It is not that I have anything against hanging up paintings of Raja Ravi Varma.In fact, truth be said, his paintings are perfect for the purpose of interior décor – soft, sentimental, very pretty, often depicting a mythological story and perfect for color accessorizing with your curtains or walls.
But, they are not Art – they totally lack character. I would much rather have the vivid colours and primitive lines of a Jamini Roy, or the intricate geometric patters of a Madhubani painting. If a mythological story is to be told, I would rather have it told in weaves on the pallu of a Balucheri saree than in the painting of a beautiful woman with a pensive expression on her face - supposedly Damayanti waiting for her lover.
Defenders of Raja Ravi Varma, my mother among them, talk about the Western influences on his work and how he revolutionalised Indian painting. They choose to ignore the fact that he shunned the revolution taking place in European painting, and copied the style of the Pre-Raphaelites who sought to undo centuries of evolution. He did influence the course of Indian popular art like no painter could hope to do – he, single handedly gave a face to every single Hindu goddess and paintings inspired by his style have hung on practically every Hindu household able at any point of time to afford a calendar.
Raja Ravi Varma is popular, and most things beautiful and sentimental are popular. But please don’t call him a great artist!
And having said that, I have to confess I have a copy of one of his paintings hanging in my dining room wall. A painting gifted by my mother as a house-warming gift, and which my year old describes as “Aunty with a potato”-