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Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation Launches Chronicle-exhibition of Raja Ravi Varma’s Oleographs

Updated: May 21, 2020

Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture presents an exhibition at par with excellence, covering a chronological timeline and exclusive chromolithographs by Raja Ravi Varma. This educational partnership was launched on 21 September 2019 by Her Highness Shubhangini Raje, Rajamata Ji of Baroda at the

Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Baroda.

Ganesh Shivaswamy is a litigating lawyer and to our pleasant surprise, he is the fifth generation to his familial career. With an intense curiosity in Raja Ravi Varma’s chromolithographs, his foundation celebrated 150 years of the artist's professional career. In addition, Mr Shivaswamy is also researching and writing a book on the social, religious and aesthetic impact of the Ravi Varma Press.

Pozo Art had a series of question and answer sessions over email with Mr Shivaswamy and it was indeed a pleasure to realise his deep regard for the master artist, a rudimentary map of this project and expansive intentions of the Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation.

Ganesh's first chromolithograph from the Ravi Varma Press of Saraswati when he was 13

You are a litigating Lawyer. We are interested to learn about the onset of your journey in Art and especially

Raja Ravi Varma?

I started collecting oleographs from the time I was 13. I collected my first chromolithograph from the Ravi Varma Press of Saraswati. My foray into art commenced as curiosity, which then gradually escalated into a fairly large collection of oleographs from the Ravi Varma Press. I also started structuring my collection and then realized it was sufficiently comprehensive to curate it into a catalogue. To commemorate Ravi Varma's centennial death anniversary in 2006, I created the first online catalogue of his oleographs. And, for a long time, this was the only substantial resource on his prints.

“I like Popular Art, which converses with people. To me, if art is exclusive it is excluding. What is art if it cannot be viewed by many? Also, this whole notion of concentrating art into the hands of a few appears as appalling to me as saying education, nutrition or religion must be in the hands of a few. So, the part which relates to the common man interests me. For additional reasons, I love to understand how the public reacts to art.”

Left to right: S Shivaswamy, Ganesh Shivaswamy, Dr Ratan Parimoo, Her Highness Shubhangini Raje Rajmata Ji, Her Highnesses Radhika Raje Maharani Sahib, Vimala Shivaswamy

Hailing from a congenial law background, where according to Mr Shivaswamy one feels secured of having the essential support by the fellowmen. However, he feels that this fraternal backup appears to be absent in the system of Art. Ganesh selectively remains academic in the art scenario and we posed a few questions regarding his unflinching infatuation towards the subject.

What is it about Ravi Varma’s paintings or lithographs that has gotten you so intrigued?

Oddly, I have no answer. However, Ravi Varma seems to have become a part of my identity, to an extent that the community doesn't know that I am actually a lawyer by profession. There were many attempts by few to try their best to push me entirely out of pursuing research on the artist space because they felt Ravi Varma was their monopoly. While I never really resisted or cared for their manifestations of deep-seated insecurity, it just so happened that I kept resurfacing on the scene. The hand of destiny perhaps? On that note, what was initially excruciating, I now find it entirely amusing.

The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation was instituted in June 2019 in Bengaluru, India. The Foundation aims to catalogue, document and preserve the identity of Indian Art and Culture and private collections. The foundation believes that private collections are significant because they are attributed with personal anecdotes and imbued with the experiential element, which is absent in institutional collection as such. The project had to be reformatted to suit online viewing due to the present pandemic situation.

Left to Right: Ganesh Shivaswamy and Her Highness Ashwathy Thirunal Gouri Lakshmy Bayi of Travancore

“We were however thrown into a blender and the switch was turned on by the COVID-19 pandemic. What was originally designed as a physical launch at the Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum on April 11 became an e-launch on April 25! It was decided to proceed as it would benefit everybody, who would explore through the internet.”

Could you share your anecdotal experiences about the Google Arts and Culture project? We learned that your plan of sharing 50 images soared to more than 200s...

The next day of launch, when the Google team and I met Their Highnesses the Maharaja and Maharani Saheb, to thank them, I shared my idea to commemorate 150 years of Ravi Varma's professional career by launching paintings and sketches. Their Highnesses immediately agreed over a cup of excellent tea. I had commenced by phrasing the commemorative as "150 years with 50 paintings." I already had these images for my proposed book but I felt the need to take permissions specifically for the Google Arts and Culture project.

At this juncture, I must mention that a few people were hesitant, which did not discourage me. The reason is that every person I reached out and asked (even those who declined to give permission) took the time to either reply by email or call me and explain. In one case, a collector called me over a coffee and spent over two hours only to explain the reason for the hesitance. In my view, the very fact that they engaged in the process, even to decline, meant they respected the cause, the process and thereby formed part of the commemorative. From that point of view, 100% of the people participated in the process and celebration.

A larger statement started emerging and this is what I now call a "Collective Enthusiasm." Mutual trust, respect and cordiality became the backbone of this commemorative.

Upon realising the demand of Ravi Varma’s art, T. Madhav Rao, initially the Dewan of Travancore and then Baroda, insisted him to get his paintings oleographed in Europe. His paintings largely comprise Hindu pantheon, depicting Puranas and scenes from two epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Hence, in 1894, Ravi Varma with the companionship of his brother Raja Raja Varma launched a lithographic press in Ghatkopar, Mumbai. The press turned out to be a commercial failure and was eventually sold to Fritz Schleicher, a German who worked as a printing technician with him. Schleicher successfully ran the press, selling the prints. However, in 1972, a fire outbreak destroyed the factory as well as original lithographic prints by Ravi Varma.

Considering your study of the subject, why do you think Ravi Varma Press in Ghatkopar,Mumbai did not fare well?

Clearly, fame or artistic abilities were no match for the acumen required in business. More importantly, he and his brother were almost entirely in absentia. Naturally, a business with the boss absent most of the time would die like a plant with no sunshine. Without a boss present at the helm, there would be no sense of discipline or motivation. So the Press did very badly during its ownership under Raja Raja Varma.

Standing at the junction of company style painting and Indian modernism, how did Ravi Varma cope in his artistic pursuits?

Well, one interesting anecdote is when RRV was asked to paint these large canvases for the Udaipur Maharana with a strict mandate that he makes it in the miniature style only. One can imagine the mental conflict in the mind of the artist when his skill was only to enlarge these miniatures.

Oleograph of Goddess Laxmi

Enquiring about the possible interconnection between Pop Art and Popular Art, Ganesh asserts , “Pop art in America is different from Popular Art in India. To a critic or an art academician, these parallels may be of some interest. But to a common man who felt the triumph of breaking a religious barrier and happy to bring a god or a goddess home, it was a life fulfilling moment. It became even a poor man's chance to reach out to the divine. To them, it was more than art — it was worship. I don't think American Pop art was ever viewed in such an intense manner”.

How did Raja Ravi Varma influence his contemporaries? If he would not have received so much fame and honour, then which artists could have replaced his popularity?

Many artists took inspiration from Raja Ravi Varma. These artists have too long remained in the shade of the Ravi Varma umbrella. The time has come to acknowledge their contributions to our visual heritage. The list is large but worthy of mention would be Mahadev Vishwanath Dhurandhar, S M Pandit, K Madhavan, etc

The Ravi Varma Press had subsumed a number of artists making their prints all "Ravi Varma Prints." This is despite the fact some of them had painted many more pictures than Ravi Varma. Keep in mind Ravi Varma started late and died young. Had the Ravi Varma Press not been established, artists like Mahadev Vishwanath Dhurandhar would have swept the Maratha speaking regions. South India would have been shared by people like C Kondiah Raju, S M Pandit, K Madhavan, etc. However, it is difficult to imagine what pictures they would have evolved without the Ravi Varma Press as they were influenced by these images.

According to Mr Shivaswamy, Art litigation is a rare and niche segment in the litigation space. With a gradual rise in prices, he believes that there is a huge possibility of future litigation in the field. However, he states, “until and unless the art academic space develops into a strong system, no legal system will be able to support the disputes”. Owing to the expansive repertory of knowledge, the judiciary will unarguably need assistance from the art community in addressing these cases.

“I feel the law (although quite old) is very strong as it has evolved over the decades. Art academia and scholarship need to now catch up. Usually, one would say science is ahead of the law, but insofar as art litigations are concerned, scientific and aesthetic work needs to catch up.”

What are your comments on authentication of artworks to avoid unsolicited merge of fake and real?

The Antiques and Art Treasures Act is the only legal entity which can certify. No private entity can issue a 'certificate'. Whatever they may call it, it will only be an opinion. An opinion is nothing more than just an opinion. A lot of work needs to be done for the purpose of authentication, which would be the subject matter of an entire thesis, I suppose.

Deeming the fact that art litigation is a rare and niche segment, what do you think could be future legal causes in Art, which could crop up?

Art is acquired for two reasons: building a collection for aesthetic and academic reasons and building a collection for investment purposes. And, authenticity is crucial to both factors. Therefore, the authenticity of the work would be the first reason why litigation may arise. The second and fairly recent trend is economic offences.

People like Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallaya were also collectors of art and they even had paintings by Raja Ravi Varma in their collection. Art collections, therefore, become part of the larger litigation space as reimbursements are tried to be effectuated by selling their art collections.

Repatriation is another aspect, which is gaining momentum across the world. As of now, these are being done through diplomatic and ethical dialogues. It will not be too far before they become adversarial processes.

What would you say is the purpose of art in one's life/ community?

To quote Samuel Butler "The whole world, without art and dress, would be but one great wilderness." India is one place where Popular art permeated into the common man's home like none other. To bring relief and happiness should be the aim of art and to make us feel that we live in a better space.

We urge you to perceive and comprehend the Raja Ravi Varma exhibition at Google Arts and Culture here and explore the fabulous oeuvre for learning as well as an inspirational plunge.

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