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Royal painter of Gods:The 'Calendar Art' of Raja Ravi Varma
Wherever in India or elsewhere our home was, our puja rooms or puja corners had framed painting reproductions of our favourite gods and goddesses. Some were in bigger frames and some in smaller ones.

These images got so deeply ingrained in us, that if at any public function an invocation to Saraswati was sung, we 'knew' exactly how the goddess of learning and fine arts looked like. And we sought her blessings! (See inset)

If a folk song or a classical piece sent us into raptures, about the Krishna the bansidhar, the makhan chor , the govradhan giridhari , or the Krishna of  'mohe panghat pe Nandlal' ched gayo re', we 'knew' exactly how His divine 'leela' was playing itself out! This ran parallel to my schooling under the British, when I learnt the Bible much before my formal acquaintance with our own religious scriptures. Nevertheless, the iconography of our puja rooms has remained with us.

Who was this intrepid painter, who not only painted the entire Hindu pantheon, but also painted most of the characters from our rich Puranic stories, like Nala Damyanti, Menaka and Vishwamitra, Shakuntala, Satyavan Savitri and Yama, etc? It is difficult to imagine, that this work of literally epic proportions, was the handiwork of just one man - Ravi Varma (1848-1906). He married a princess from an extremely talented royal family of Travancore (today's Kerala). The British bestowed the title of 'Raja' on him.

A British administrator recognising the trend setting nature of his paintings, arranged for them to be exhibited and they gained immense popularity. Influenced by European paintings, Ravi Varma departed from the traditional flat Indian miniature styles and 'brought realism' to the heavenly subjects. His paintings won accolades at the World Exposition in Chicago. 

Using human models for his subjects, he made Gods and Goddesses more accessible to the common man. Demand for his paintings grew to such an extent, that the Dewan of Travancore advised him to go to Bombay, and start a lithographic press. Till then glossy high quality poster size prints came from the famous presses of Heidelberg, Germany. And they were costly. 

In 1894 Ravi Varma started a press in Ghatkopar, Bombay. The prints were bought by both the devout and the art collectors. However, financially the venture was a failure. His German technician bought over the press and started churning out each print in larger numbers - to an extent that they even appeared for sale on the pavements. This was a significant moment in the history of Indian art. Till then, gods and goddesses had been the presiding deities in temples, but Ravi Varma's affordable prints brought our favourite deities into our puja rooms!

Thus a new Indian art form, the 'Calendar Art' was born!

Unfortunately, the relocated press caught fire in 1972. Many of Ravi Varma's original paintings were lost to posterity. Nevertheless, Raja Ravi Varma's prints reached the masses, and ironically their exclusiveness was lost. The high brow art collectors now derided the same paintings as 'Calendar Art'!  

Neither the art world, nor Ravi Varma would have imagined, that the high visibility of his paintings during the freedom struggle would galvanise national and cultural identity. Writes a commentator: '…. in the discourse of political and popular culture, pictures very often act as a catalyst to transform an idea into its practical praxis'. Inspired by Ravi Varma's depictions, a spate of mythological movies followed, starting with Dada Saheb Phalke's 'Kaliya Mardan' to the present mythological serials on TV. 

Other artists of calendar art followed. During the freedom movement, 'the mass circulation in Indian consumerist society profoundly transformed the patterns of communication with individuals, society and with gods in both private and public spaces. The cheapness and ease of production turned them into weapons of anti-imperialist propaganda, that inflamed nationalist sentiment through eulogizing portraits of militant rulers like Shivaji ,Maharana Pratap who fought to overthrow foreign rulers, cultural nationalists like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee or Tilak and  freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose etc. who sacrificed their lives for 'Mother India'.The sacred art morphed into a political tool. 

A contemporary commentator Pinney, referring to 'The cow and 84 deities' a painting published by Ravi Varma Press wrote:  'During the 1890's, the cow which is a sacred and sentimental symbol for Hindus had become a supremely charged sectarian emblem of a Hindu nation. The cow protection agitation was accompanied by a swell of lithographs in which, the cow becomes a proto-nation, a space that embodies a Hindu cosmology….in the use made of these images, a more discriminatory message was stressed in which the cow came to represent a Hindu identity and nationality that required protection from non-Hindus. The riots of 1893, indeed, assumed an overtly communal flavour'. 

The artist in Raja Ravi Varma would never have imagined that the art works created by him, would one day become instruments for stoking strife!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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