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Ravi Varma Press (Profile)

Raja Ravi Varma (1848 –1906) is largely regarded as India’s first modern artist. Technically proficient in the contemporary medium of western academic realism and portraiture, he used this style to interpret ideas from Indian mythology; a pioneering contribution to Indian art world at that time. His work holds a mirror to a pan-Indian aesthetic of the 19th century, with his extensive research into the lived culture of various parts of India. 

One of his crucial contributions was to make affordable oleographs of his paintings, which democratised the realm of art. These prints increased the involvement of common people with fine arts and defined artistic tastes among common people for several decades. His aesthetic contribution continues to have a deep influence on image making even today in India, be it fine art, religious iconography or popular culture. 

Ravi Varma started a lithographic printing press in Mumbai in 1894 and later shifted it to Malavli near Lonavala, Maharashtra in 1899. The press was managed by his younger brother but in their hands it was a commercial failure, albeit very popular. In 1903, the press was sold to his printing technician from Germany, Fritz Schleicher, who continued to print Ravi Varma's (and later other) prints in thousands for many years, even after the death of Ravi Varma. Under the management of Schleicher and his successors, the press continued successfully until a devastating fire destroyed the whole factory in 1972. 

“They [the oleographs] carried Ravi Varma’s endeavours beyond palace walls and stately homes to the humble domain of the ordinary man. They stirred the imagination of a nascent India seeking its identity. A hundred years have gone by since this journey started and his images of Hindu gods and goddesses as well as countless other manifestations of calendar art have become part of India’s visual culture.” {Rupika Chawla, Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India (Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2014), 291.}

A hundred years later, his oleographs still continue to markers of Indian beauty, and present a rich matrix of subjects, and stylistic approaches to the art enthusiast.