Ravi Varma’s legacy in print

The oleographs went a long way in making Ravi Varma’s works accessible to the general public

In 2016, some of Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographs went on display in Bengaluru for the first time, thanks to the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation. Around 125 oleographs on display at the show belonged to city-based lawyer and art collector Ganesh V Shivaswamy. “Ravi Varma himself did not get to see all of them during his lifetime; most were printed after his demise in 1906,” says Ganesh.

As the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press completes 125 years in 2019, Ganesh, spoke about his collection of oleographs and his interest in art. Excerpts:

How did your collection begin?

The 127 oleographs wouldn’t have been part of my collection if not for my single-minded chase. My mission to look for the originals started when I was barely 13. Our family had Ravi Varma oleographs of Lakshmi and Saraswati, and when my aunt took the Saraswati, my mother Vimala Shivaswamy, asked me to look for a similar Saraswati. While rummaging in an antique store in Shivajinagar, I came across two more originals of the Saraswati oleographs. That find was the starting point of my journey.

Tell us about Ravi Varma’s print legacy

The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press in Bombay launched in 1894 with its first oleograph ‘The Birth of Sakoontala.’ That is how 2019 marks 125 years since print operations began. In 2018, while researching for my book on Varma’s print legacy, I came across documents, advertisements and other archival material pertaining to the topic. I will be giving a series of lectures where I will speak on the establishment of the press, its history and scope of influence.

Did the oleographs make Ravi Varma’s work more accessible to the common man?

These oleographs went a long way in building the Ravi Varma brand. The paintings did not engage with society the way the oleographs did. The paintings were created for the aristocrats and placed in rarefied environs. A few decades later, when the varnish darkened, the paintings became dull and soon were consigned to storage. Till the 1993 exhibition in New Delhi, these paintings remained hidden from society, while the oleographs became common in households.

How did Ravi Varma get around to oleographs?

Lithography was invented by Aloys Senefelder, a German, in the late 18th Century and the lithographic printing technique arrived in India in the 1820s. Ravi Varma was encouraged to establish a press due to the demand for copies of his paintings. In 1884, Dewan Sir Tanjavur Madhava Row suggested Ravi Varma have his pictures sent to Europe to have them copied. The ‘Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press, Bombay’ commenced operations in 1894. I was able to discover paintings as early as 1874 that were copied by Ravi Varma. The first oleograph printed was ‘The Birth of Sakoontala’ followed by ‘Laxmi’ and ‘Saraswati.’

What are your favourites?

My favourites are the oleographs of Krishna hiding behind Yashoda as people complain about him. In ‘Sita Swayamvar’, Varma got Sita’s age right, depicting her as a six-year-old bride clinging to her father, King Janaka.

Is your interest in oleographs restricted to Ravi Varma?

I also collect material from the Ravi Varma Press, including MV Dhurandhar’s works. I also have original paintings of C Kondiah Raju and K Madhavan amongst others.

Ganesh Shivaswamy will talk on Raja Ravi Varma’s print legacy at NGMA, on July 12, 6 pm. There will also be a screening of Raja Ravi Varma: Encounters with the Botanical on July 11, at 11.30 am and July 12 at 6 pm at gallery g, Lavelle Road, Bengaluru

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