This figure so venerated today, was once a rebel. He was charged at Bombay court with cases of obscenity, offending public morality and hurting religious and cultural sentiments of people. There were reports that his printing press was set on fire.
When I obsessively started studying his work, I was only 14. This portrait I had cut out of a magazine and stuck on my wall beside the Periodic Table. It was not a full length portrait, only bust size, but one could feel that the lady was short and stocky. Today when I look back, it was probably the lack of a mother figure in my life that made gazing at her such a comfort.
The rebel artist was patronised by the House of Travancore. In fact, the intimate connection of his family with that of the royal family had a lurid past, on which I dare not speculate for fear of being accused of //obscenity, offending public morality and hurting religious and cultural sentiments of people//.
This man single handedly shaped the spiritual imagery of entire generations. His depiction of the gods and goddesses reached every nook in the country. They were hung proudly on the walls along with the portraits of statesmen who had led the country to freedom.
When I read C. Rajagopalachari’s narration of our mythology, every sentence, from love to battle, were painted in my mind with the delicate and rebellious brush strokes of Raja Ravi Varma.
Even though his lithograph printing workshop that had made the Gods affordable for the masses, was burnt down, billions of calendars with his work were later printed. My father worked for a company that printed the same Goddess every single year in their calendar and they still do so.
Uniformly lambasted by critics, his work dismissed as ‘kitsch’, Shri Aurobindo went so far as to say “the grand debaser of Indian taste and artistic culture”. And yet The Raja of an artist brought the gods to the poorest, and became the great equaliser of our times.
Yesterday I had used his name rather frivolously to spin a tale of my own. I therefore pay my humble tribute to the great artist today. Raja Ravi Varma lives on in my atheist heart.
The Lady on my Wall