Art in High Places

Art in High Places

Contemporary artists reinterpret Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographs through popular culture.

Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings are unmistakable with their poised sari-clad women. His Damayanti Talking to a Swan oleograph shows Damayanti,looking out,waiting endlessly for the news of her lover Nala from the swan. In Atul Dodiya’s interpretation of Varma’s work,Damayanti,the protagonist is nowhere close to the silent and shy woman. Instead,it is a take on American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Ohhh…Alright… which shows a modern day woman with make-up,crisp and confident.

Dodiya is one of the 33 artists participating in the “When High and Low Art Meet” exhibition. They were asked a year ago to produce work inspired by Varma’s oleographs . “The idea was to do an exhibition on ‘low art’. Whenever there is mass production,the price of the artwork goes down. Varma was aware that his paintings commissioned by the royal families were not easily available for the masses. He decided to do oleographs to reach a wider audience. This is how the ‘high art’ of his paintings turned into ‘low art’,” says Rupika Chawla,the curator.

Each contemporary artist has made his/her own commentary on society today using Varma’s originals as a creative rung. At the exhibition,each artist’s work is placed next to a Varma. Waswo X Waswo gives a new twist to Varma’s Mohini where she is seen sitting on a swing,her hair flying in the wind. In Waswo’s digital hand-painted photograph Swinger,the artist himself is happily posing,in a suit,on a swing on one side while on the other,he is seen looking up towards the sky,clad in an ocean blue sari,reminiscent of how Varma clad his protagonists,Mohini and Urvashi. It is his way of looking at transgender sexuality,en route Varma. For the same oleograph,the artist duo Thukral and Tagra replace the leading lady with Wonder Woman in her short red costume while Superman looks on,with lotus flowers holding the woman afloat.

Artist Gopikrishna introduces cinema into his work. While photographs of Hanuman throwing his chest open to reveal Ram inside was one of the oleographs that Varma had worked on,in Gopikrishna’s painting titled Guru,the artist bares his chest to reveal his childhood hero Rajinikanth. In his note,the artist says,“Indian popular culture can be traced from oleographs to cinema. The intrusion to people’s heart using one’s art may be said to have begun by Raja Ravi Varma with his oleographs,which would often be found in Indian households. In popular cinema,Rajinikanth has captivated the hearts of innumerable people with his films and,at the same time,dared to reveal his true life and priorities.”


Varma had made a series of paintings on Kichaka Vadha (The Killing of Kichaka) which is an incident in the Mahabharata where Draupadi is saved from the hands of Kichaka by Bhima. Around the same time,a Marathi play KichakaVadh by Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar,the editor of the nationalist newspaper Kesari,opened in 1907 and ran full house until it was banned in 1910. Artist Pushpamala in her performance art poses as Draupadi. Her note reads,“Everyone in the audience knew that Kichaka was really intended to be the Viceroy Lord Curzon,that Draupadi is India,that Yudhisthira is the Moderate and Bhima the Extremist party”. From the narrative and the ironic,to the kitsch and the decorative,each of these artworks makes way for new expressions and imagery.

The exhibition is on display till December 2 at Lalit Kala Akademi and till February at Art Alive Gallery,Gurgaon