When Raja Ravi Varma began the Ravi Varma Lithographic Press in Bombay of 1894, he revolutionised the production of his art to blur the borders of class and wealth. India’s first modern artist, Varma continues to be known for his western, classical representations of Hindu mythology. With the inception of his printing press, the artist’s humanised depiction of gods and goddesses travelled beyond the surfaces of costly canvases, and into the prayer and living rooms of the common man’s home. In its ongoing exhibition titled “Ephemera 2015”, Mumbai-based gallery Artisans’ in Kala Ghoda celebrates the master’s popular iconography with a collection of oleographs, chromolithographs, offset prints and postcards by him as well as his successors.
With a total of 90 vintage prints, the exhibition spans from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century, showcasing how Ravi Varma’s rendition of the divine flooded the imagery of advertisements, calendars and Bollywood posters. Radhi Parekh, director of Artisans’, explains the impact his art had on new media, “There is a certain power that these prints had in order to be continued and produced in such large quantities. There is certainly a connect they held with the audiences.”
Driven by commerce and mass consumerism, the prints are testament to how Varma and his successors gave birth to an Indian kitsch aesthetic. While the prints may not identify as art in its formal sense, they have evolved into unique carriers of history and culture. “They represent a point in time that is symbolic of the coming together of so many communication technologies at the turn of the century; print-making, photography and the proscenium stage, amongst others”, says Parekh, who has sourced the collectibles largely from south India and exhibited it in a space that started in 2011 as a point of convergence for art, craft and design in the city.
As the legendary artist’s iconic interpretation of the godly meets with the charting of a 1938 calendar, or the advert of a Vinolia soap, his legacy is left behind not only in his own works but also in the practices of others.
The exhibition and sale of the prints is on July 18 at Artisans’ , Kala Ghoda, Mumbai