On this day, 167 years ago, was born a genius called Ravi Varma in Kerala. But even today auctioneers and gallery owners say that his art is still one of the most sought after and in fact predict that the demand may rise in the near future.Ankush Dadha of Bid & Hammer Auctioneers in Bengaluru, says, “The desire among collectors to own a Varma painting is high as his works are not easily available.”
Interestingly, some of the lesser known and unusual works have come up for sale. “The painting depicting Maharaja Serfoji II, that was in our auction catalogue in 2010, was unique as he used the Tanjore idiom on canvas instead of board. We have also recently offered a very unusual work depicting a ‘man on a bullock cart’ that was done by Raja Ravi Varma in 1898 and was a deviation from his usual.”
One of the problems has been the large number of fakes in the market. “We are offered hundreds of works thought to be by Ravi Varma, but unfortunately most are fakes. There are certain principles and basic procedures that need to be followed to determine whether a work is genuine. For instance, in the case of the Maharaja Seroji II painting, we were convinced of the work’s authenticity when we found evidence in the book by Shungunny Menon in 1878 titled History Of Travancore.”
While the world knows Ravi Varma as a portrait painter, awareness is low about some of his works from his travels. “One of these came up at an auction by Astaguru three weeks back and got picked up very quickly at a hefty price,” says Sanjay Sachdev of Domus Art Gallery, which is based in Delhi and Kolkata. “Portraits were his forte and his mythological works are famous, but collectors now seem to be taking an interest in his other works. He is the only ‘national treasure’ artist from the south and the value of his works can only appreciate.”
To make his art more accessible, Ravi Varma had produced oleographs or prints. These are a big hit with afficianados. Mohan Sivanand, editor of Reader’s Digest, has three of these that he picked up from Mumbai’s streets. “It was in Dharavi that I spotted one. He quoted a price of Rs 20 but then he returned Rs 10 as balance. When I checked the price for an oleograph in a shop, they quoted Rs 75,000,” he says.
His legacy is invaluable, points out Mohan Sivanand. “He gave our gods shape and normal clothes. He popularised the saree at a time when Kerala women used to wear mundu and neriyathu. His paintings also had a great influence on Hindi cinema in terms of costumes and even scenes.”
No wonder the demand keeps going up. “When you compare the prices that works by other Indian artists like S.H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Amrita Sher-Gil are fetching, Raja Ravi Varma’s works are still under priced. The potential for an upswing is tremendous and over a period of 3 to 5 years we expect paintings by him to command their true value,” says Ankush.