Ravi Varma: Representational Dilemmas of a Nineteenth Century Indian Fainter
Ravi Varma (1848-1906)1 is a prime aspirant in the Indian artists' passage to the modem; he is at the same time an obvious anachronism of the period,2 Handling this contradiction with poise, he joins the ranks of other anomalous figures in India's nineteenth century cultural renaissance who see their task in the same terms: of materializing through western techniques the idea of a golden past and then inducting this into a national project.3
Along with certain pervasive notions about India's civilizational role, national ideology brings a whole range of bold and tantalizing questions to the Indian consciousness. These are being lived out to this day. In the context of a national culture the story of modem Indian art can be told like an allegory, in the conscientious manner of the pilgrims' progress. It can also be told as a series of experimental moves where ideology and practice are often at odds and force unexpected manoeuvres. Indian artists still go riding on the backs of anachronisms, with the more adventurous among them turning this into an original act of self-definition. Sometimes, with the necessary elan, the ride becomes a critical exercise prodding the modern itself, or rather the fixed notions of that category, to diversify its possibilities outside the western mainstream.
We know of course that in India the modern is a deeply vexed value. Since Ravi Varma's time the modernizing impulse is best understood as the beginning of a historical self-consciousness under the twin banners of the past and future.4 The fact that the modern never properly belongs to us as Indians or we to it does lead to anxieties of misappropriation. But these are resolved in quite practical terms. In visual art, for example, eclecticism becomes a preferred option and the sense of aesthetic difference can begin to be resolved to our advantage—at least in the area of discourse.
Modern Indian art in consequence of this discourse is a tendentious affair and though the cause of this is quite precisely our colonial history, the consequences may