Raja Ravi Varma in the Realm of the Public
D JR. Nandakumar
Though the revival of Ravi Varma is not older than a decade, the current art-historical scholarship and curatorial establishment turning to him and appropriating him within the narratives of institutionalized modernity is by now familiar enough. (In this respect the exhibition and catalogue organized jointly by the National Museum and Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, in 1993, is sure to have done its share.1) While a contemporary viewer, in spite of this, may still feel justified in his attitude that Ravi Varma's canvases are a 'passionless employment of performed devices'2 which he has seen better done, to contextualize him for that viewer is a legitimate task of art history.
Though it was the cultural milieu, the elitism of courtly life and the neoclassic sensibility characteristic of the princely state of Travancore that were the formative influences on Ravi Varma, what he looked forward to and addressed himself to was the larger pan-Indian scene. The historical context of Ravi Varma's art is located within the cultural disorientation and contradiction of value structures that prevailed among the English-educated, loyalist and pro-British middle class as well as within the court. Following the suppression of the great rebellion, factors such as the defeat of Indian feudalism, the rise of an ambitious bourgeoisie and an increasingly oppressive imperialist force, together combined to make the courts both sanctimonious abodes of tradition as well as arbiters of modernity. The self-deluding undisturbed calm of these courts made them the nerve centres of culture in Travancore, as elsewhere.
The conflict of values when faced with alien cultural inputs and the cultural counterposture that veered between self-pity and self-defensiveness was the undercurrent of the cultural movements of nineteenth-century Travancore, no less than in other parts of the country. This conflict was largely mediated by internalizing those values in an ambivalence between an apology and a defence whereby they became undifferentiated in the continuum of colonial experience. When there was a lot of talk among the elites about tradition, history and the larger perspective of national heritage, the terms of reference being popular beliefs and textual