About 60 kilometers from Pune going towards Mumbai (Bombay), there is a small village called Malavli. If you walk out of the train station and ask any local villager you happen to meet first, “Where is the ‘Press’?”, he will promptly direct you to where it is. He will also go ahead and tell you with grief “But there is nothing left in there and they won’t let you get inside the building.” The Press that he is referring to is a Lithographic Press established in 1899 by one of the greatest Indian painters, Raja Ravi Varma (b.1848-d.1906).
Raja Ravi Varma is a revered Indian artist who initiated the renaissance style (more of a ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ style) depiction of Indian mythology and Hindu gods through his sparkling and bright paintings. He lived for 58 years, but his enormous contribution to various aspects of Indian art has made an ever lasting impact.
Raja Ravi Varma was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala and traveled and painted across the country and abroad. Highly enterprising and visionary artist, he imagined the concept of mass-circulation. Until then art (painting form) had a restricted patronage from the elite class of Indian royals of various states (Maharajah’s). But Raja Ravi Varma changed this picture with the litho press he imported from Germany and established in Mumbai (it was shifted to Malavli later). His prints of highly realistic, figurative depiction of the mythological figures and Hindu gods and goddesses were an instant hit with the masses. It was for the first time that people were looking at colorful two dimensional avatars of gods which were also available to be framed and hung in their households. It was a radical change and the prints went on to be admired and worshipped as well.
Many families in India have preserved these original lithographs purchased by their forefathers. They are of course very rare, but if you happen to see any by chance you cannot miss the beauty of the painting and the historical significance that lies hidden within it. One of my good friends, Mr. Mandar Bhopatkar in Pune, has a set of very carefully preserved original prints of Raja Ravi Varma which had been acquired by his grandfather. The prints shared in this post are from his precious collection. My sincere thanks to Mr. Bhopatkar for permitting me to share these prints here, and also thanks to my dear friend Prathamesh who did the great photocopying.
1. Raja Ravi Varma: He is greatly admired in India (partially because of cultural acceptance of his prints) by people. But he is also sometimes criticized for being too emotional and dreamy about his subject matter (similar to the reasons why Pre-Raphaelites are often criticized). Many of his original paintings (oil on canvas) can be seen in various museums in India, they are really outstanding. He was wrongly criticized as a mere ‘calendar artist’ by some critics who perhaps reviewed his relatively flat lithographic prints and ignored his original dynamic oil paintings.
2. The Press: Currently, the estate housing the press is a private property with no access to artists, historians or visitors. Some of the original German machines, prints and lithography stones are permanently exhibited in the museum at Manipal, India.
Finally, this post was primarily to introduce Raja Ravi Varma’s idea of mass reproduction of art in India around a century ago. His work, his legacy and its impact on Indian art will require a dedicated post which I hope to cover some other time.
Museum picture courtesy: Heritage Village, Manipal, India, Litho-prints Pictures courtesy: Mr. Mandar Bhopatkar, Pune, India