In the mid-19th century, India was looking for its own unique identity as one nation. Meanwhile, its popular culture was changing under the influence of the West and the western-educated. During this time, Raja Ravi Varma was pioneering Western realism coupled with oil painting themes and techniques in Indian art — the first to deviate so sharply from the prevalent and popular Mysore-Tanjore school of art.
Ravi Varma was wooing an audience that was increasingly expecting Westernised representations of body and mass, as opposed to traditional flat-drawn symbolism, while staying thematically close to the Indian middle class. What captured people’s attention was that Ravi Varma’s characters, while essentially Indian in theme and style, could not be assigned to any particular region — their complexion was near-Caucasian, the richness of their attire and surroundings added an air of aristocracy associated with the oil portraits of the rich and powerful… Portraits of gods, goddesses and mythological characters created by Ravi Varma fuelled the Indian middle class’ imagination of the epics and prevalent religious mythology. Even today, when characters from the epics Ramayana or Mahabharata are depicted outside the realm of art, they are based on Ravi Varma’s paintings. In television’s wildly popular series of the epics, the actors were chosen and styled in accordance to what is now the definition of god-like appearance – Seeta, beautiful, bejewelled, and curvaceous; Rama, a handsome, almost seraphic god; and Hanuman, almost human, performing heroic deeds. In the age of mass production, few could resist such divine beauty and every middle-class home wanted the benevolence of Lord Rama, handsomely looking at their household with calm confidence.
The artistic style and mechanical production of thousands of religious pictures, and millions more made through them, all date back to Raja Ravi Varma. The artist promoted his work as a brand and started his own printing press in 1894 to meet the growing demand for his art. The oleographs printed and distributed by the artist at the time, were what we would place in the art cards, editions and originals (ACEO) category today. This genre of original commercial art prints, mass-produced and used for a variety of purposes, gave birth to a new genre called ‘Calendar Art’. Calendar Art came into being with Ravi Varma’s art prints, which, though not used exclusively for calendars, were the first instance of fine art being made accessible and available to the middle and lower classes.
Calendar Art kills the patuas
There was another important reason for the meteoric rise of Calendar Art in popular culture. In the mid-19th century, representational techniques and printing technology were being revolutionised. The mythological representations of the Kalighat patuas and bat-tala print-makers, were now being relegated to an artisanal status. The art-schooled artists mostly came from an affluent, elevated social status, and they propagated the western style representation of Hindu mythological scenes, as in Ravi Varma’s realism.
Towards the end of the 19th century, multiple artists, many famous in their own right, were painting in Ravi Varma’s style. The most popular images used as Calendar Art (not always for actual calendars, but as litho-prints) from Ravi Varma’s Ramayana episodes, are Rama’s Pattabhishek, Rama Conquers Varuna, Jatayu Slayed, Seeta in Lanka, the uber-popular Hanuman Returning from Lanka, and Maruthi (the depiction of Hanuman flying with an entire hill on the palm of his hands, while attempting to find the life-saving herb, Sanjeevani).
Ravi Varma’s use of layered oil paints for gold ornaments and shimmering jewels, rich textures of brocade and zari made by the pasting technique, lent itself well to Calendar Art which came to be defined by its richness, detail and ornamentation. With the technological advancements in mass production, some artists were making reproductions, while others were painting close adaptations and these images from the Ramayana came to define the heroes of the epic. They are represented in the same style to this day in the Calendar Art form.
Winds of change
Though Ravi Varma’s scenes from the Ramayana have been mass-produced repetitively and derivatively as Calendar Art, it has not stayed static. As oleographs gave way to litho-prints, Calendar Art provided a shared popular aesthetic for the entire middle class, as well as the urban and rural poor. By the early 20th century, Calendar Art had separated itself from the ‘westernised’ public sphere, and had evolved into a shared idiom for the Hindu middle class. But it was now oscillating between the realms of ‘fine art’ and ‘commercial art’. While art-school educated artists (Kondiah Raju and MS Pandit) leant towards ‘fine art’, the imagery remained the same. Ravi Varma’s artistic representation of Rama, surrounded by all the protagonists of the epic (in Rama’s Pattabhishek), or Seeta’s resplendent beauty, became limiting and binding within the Calendar Art genre. It had to be the same images, or it would not be Calendar Art, thus limiting mythological imagination as well as aesthetic judgement to a large extent.
Seeta sings the blues
While the buyer of Calendar Art had suspended aesthetic judgement, (how could he criticise an image of god?), one major change was made with regard to female mythological characters, including Seeta. In Varma’s paintings, the woman, though at the centre, averts her gaze from the viewer. This was the case in all the paintings depicting Seeta. In Jatayu Slayed, Seeta is horrified and looks away, in Rama Crossing River Sarayu, she seems lost in her thoughts and does not meet the onlooker’s gaze and even in Rama’s Pattabhishek, where she is facing the viewer, her gaze still does not meet the viewer but looks past him. In the revised imagery of Calendar Art, this changes. The central figures have to look directly at the viewer and in most cases, these episodes from the Ramayana are edited or replaced by images of goddesses, such as Lakshmi or Saraswathi.
Of all the calendar icons from the Ramayana, the paintings that changed the least, but evolved the most, are those depicting Hanuman. Though subject to over-ornamentation, super-imposition (the ever-popular depiction of Hanuman tearing open his chest to reveal a picture of Rama and Seeta) the associated attributes of courage, speed, loyalty and super-human strength have sustained Hanuman’s (Maruthi)’s success — more so as Calendar Art took on the role of advertisements, not for products per se, but for businesses.
Balendranath Tagore praised the quality of ‘bhava’ (emotional expressions) in Varma’s depiction of Rama.This formulation evolved in the later calendar artists of 1950-60, as a different interpretation. Lord Rama and Lakshman slaying Ravana in the battlefield are still depicted as heavy-lidded, with a calm countenance, in an effort to keep the ‘bhava’ intact. A beatific smile and a soothing halo accompany portraits of Rama in every situation in later Calendar Art. The bodies slowly become much too smooth and small in proportion to the head, to further highlight the divine facial features.
Over time, the calendar artist has abandoned realism, the bedrock of Calendar Art, due to the business of all things sacred. For example, the Sivakasi printers, forerunners of Calendar Art, have made it their signature look to enhance the colours to ultra-rich, by adding a pink or yellow wash to the paintings, with golden and high viscosity paints to depict ornaments. This is also indicative ofthe over-emphasis on ornamentation in Calendar Art — because not much else can be changed, gaudy decorations become an attempt to blend Varma’s western realism with an Indian decorative appeal.
The past few decades have seen the art form overtaken by modern art and relegated to the ‘common man’, pushed from the realm of art to the realm of kitsch, just as Varma’s realism had once replaced the patuas. However, the strong suit of Calendar Art is that it has to be renewed annually and every year, the custodians of Raja Ravi Varma’s legacy keep this fluid art form moving.
Sreetama Ray is a self-taught artist and illustrator based in Gurgaon, working out of a small home studio. Her art has been featured in several online art forums and magazines. A former journalist, Sreetama also writes about arts and aesthetics, promoting new or amateur artists. She currently holds a full-time position as a communication specialist for a multi-national company.
For a glimpse of Raja Ravi Varma’s work on the Ramayana, look at our Photo Essay section and view these videos: