We have been aware of Raja Ravi Varma's work for 10 years, but it was not until we acquired 27 vintage Ravi Varma prints that we took deeper look at one of India's most iconic artists.
Credit: Collection of Manu S Pillai
Ravi Varma was the pioneering Indian artist who successfully combined Indian subjects and iconography with techniques influenced by Western styles and techniques - namely perspective and composition.
His instantly recognisable themes focused on Hindu mythology, with portraits of gods and goddesses. He also painted studio portraits of aristocrats and maharajahs in traditional formal clothing along with paintings of everyday life.
Credit: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, Bangalore.
Ravi Varma was born in 1848, into a family with royal connections in Kilimanoor, close to Kerala's state capital Trivandrum, southern India. Showing artistic talent from a very young age he was taken to the court of the ruling king where he leant from the court painter. In 1881 he was invited to paint a portrait of Sayajirao Ill, the Gaekwad of Baroda. From then on he was invited by a series of princes and princesses to paint their portraits. Varma paid great attention to detail of textiles and jewellery and his use of colours evident in all of his work.
His appeal amongst wider Indians came in 1894 when he set up a lithographic printing press that made olegraphs - prints that looked like oil paintings. An estimate suggests that there are around 134 paintings by Varma which were made into serial lithographs by the press. And so there was an An explosion of classically styled art depiciting gods, goddesses from epic litrature and religious texts in millions of homes across India. The press was used to turn his paintings into calendars, posters, postcards, matchbox covers and adverts. He died in 1906, but his printing presses continued to reproduce his work.
After Independence, the popularity of his work declined and it was seen as mass-produced 'calendar art' from a by-gone colonial era. Interest in his work in the took off again in the 1990s. He inspired contemporary artists, film-makers and photographers. Today he is seen as a skillful charismatic and ambitious artist who brought art in the form of religious mythology and the people and places he visited across India to ordinary Indian people. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest Indian artists. His art influenced Indian literature, music, films, advertising and textiles, and even India's largest selling comic book series, the Amar Chitra Katha comics.
See a sneak peek at some of Scaramanga's collection of vintage Ravi Varma's litho prints. 13 of our prints are now available to buy here.