Hundred and twelve years back, an Indian artist thought of making the then contemporary art democratically available to anyone who had liked to have one at his/her home. Raja Ravi Varma was his name. The story of Ravi Varma Press may sound so fresh and contemporary even today when we compare the circumstances within which Ravi Varma had initiated a new ‘popular’ art movement in India. Though several historians of Ravi Varma’s life say that it was his ability to give ‘human’ forms to Indian gods and goddesses in the classical and the neo-classical European style, with draperies added or altered in the Indian ways that had helped the proliferation of his works amongst the general public for these ‘works’ satisfied their demand for ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ in their personal altars, one should not overlook that fact that Ravi Varma had been led by a perennial urge to see his works in all the households in Indian subcontinent. True, (Hindu) religion was the binding factor in a culturally varied geographical formation like India in the late 19th century. But Ravi Varma’s desire for making his works ‘popular’ was much above his need for giving ‘form’ to Indian pantheon. Religion was channel that he adopted insightfully so that he could remain in the good books of the (Hindu) patrons who had been relieved of their Mughal indebtedness in aesthetics and culture and was coming strongly under the democratic influences of British colonialism.
In our times when we lament the collapse of an organized art market and the irresponsible behavior of galleries in offloading their artists, once again Ravi Varma becomes a beacon and we have definitely got something to learn from his idea of making art democratic. This is a fascinating story. There are two Ravi Varmas; one, the Ravi Varma who worked based on the demands of the patrons and provincial governments. The second Ravi Varma was an artist in the modern individualistic sense who preferred his private studio to the atelier given to him by the royal court. Ravi Varma was as much as a civilian artist as he was a royal court painter. He was more like a travelling painter who moved from one kingdom to another not in search work but on invitation. Each time, he established his private studio where he and his brother Raja Raja Varma (who himself was an accomplished landscape and portrait painter) painted and chronicled their lives (mostly by the younger Varma) carefully giving a lot of attention to the business plans, proposals and funds. Had Ravi Varma found his satisfaction in remaining a court painter, he would not have even thought of establishing a printing press in 1894. Had he been painter of Hinduism alone, he would not have chosen a theme like ‘Birth of Shakuntala’ as the first print from his Pune press. Shakuntala was not a goddess. She belonged to the literary traditions of India therefore he was closer to the cultural memory of the populace.
(an Oleograph print from Ravi Varma Press)
The most important thing that Ravi Varma did was going against the normal logic of the market (that is, tightening the flow of commodities in the market and thereby increasing price); by making oleograph prints he decided to flood the market with his works (rather the works done by him and later multiplied by mechanical agencies). His logic interestingly, was much akin to the corporate logic of the present world; find the most populated market places in the world and introduce a new product for the cheapest and competitive prices. The best example is the mobile phone software and hardware markets all over the world. While the big corporates of Europe and America restrict their products in their own limited markets, through global economy flow, flood the most thickly populated markets like Mexico, India, China, Brazil and so on with hardware and software for cheaper prices. The more people consume, though the profit margin is less per consumer the aggregate consumption brings them mega profits. Consumers get competitive prices when the number of companies that provide same service in the same market. Ravi Varma, being the pioneer in making his print works cheaper, did not have to face much competition from other artists or companies. Varma made the works available and affordable. The culturally shared thematic in those works encouraged people to buy them and preserve them, if not worshipping them.
The competitive markets in the present world often use shared cultural values in order to sell their hardware as well as software. A product is not sold for its consume-ability but for its ability to satisfy a cultural need felt by a hollow population. The advertisements created by these product selling companies always play upon cultural festivals, religion, nationality, literature, celebrity icons and universally accepted values to pitch the products into the market. So when we buy a piece of chocolate, we are not buying a sweet confectionary but an idea of love and sharing. When we choose a telephone service provider over another one, we choose the idea promoted by the advertisement. Jewelry and gold are sold on the basis of human emotions. Insurance policies are sold through sentimental domestic values. A motor car could stand for nationalistic values for no reason provided the brain behind the advertisement has enough logic to connect with a four wheeler and an abstract concept called nationalism. Ravi Varma, as a keen seller of his works knew that a product is always sold and bought when a value is shared through that. Perhaps, he was the first businessman in India who did not have to advertise his wares for the products made cheaper and available were their own advertisement too.
(People in rural Maharashtra still cherish old oleographs from Ravi Varma Press- pic courtesy IE)
When art develops value in the market, because the movers and shakers of the economy know where what product should be idolized, it is natural that the common logic makes the sellers to make some products rare and unavailable in order to increase price, therefore we see the price of the contemporary art going high a few years back. When supply could not match demand, a lot of sub-standard look alikes started appearing in the market and those were also able eke out a price. Rawest of fruits could be sold as ripe ones with yellow packaging in a market blinded by profit making. In art too it happened. Instead of lowering the prices of the works of art, citing less availability of the quality works, the prices were hiked up to the skies. Raja Ravi Varma, in his time had done the opposite. In fact, there is no anthropological evidence to show that people were really waiting for Varma’s works to appear in the market. They were happy with crude idols, paintings done by artists from Kalighat, Batala prints of Kolkata, souvenirs of different kinds etc. Varma saw the market and he provided them with what they wanted but did not know it existed. This was a very clever marketing of one’s work through very democratic means. Varma moved vertically and horizontally in the market. The vertical movement helped him rise in stature and wealth amongst the patrons while the horizontal movement helped him to evolve the businessman in him and also gain appreciation from the larger audience, which he definitely had craved for.
Artists of any time need applause and public recognition. Indian art market and art market elsewhere made artists and art works rare and also facilitated their exclusion from the larger societies. Today with social networks, an artist could have a minimum five hundred followers from different parts of the world. But this scattered constituency of admirers never takes the form of real recognition in a tangible society within which the artist operates. Today’s artists are made through exclusion. But Varma became a celebrity by taking an inclusive approach. He, by making his works cheaper and available, worked in a corporate way, involving a lot of agencies and middlemen who too reaped wealth through commissions. In that sense Ravi Varma was not just an artist but a businessman at large. He was also functioning as a large museum operator whose approach was different than a conventional museum operator. While the latter asked the people to come towards the museums, the former took his wares among the people and made them buy, keep and look at them with reverence. If someone expects to meditate in the Rothko Museum, what does a person do when he looks at a Ravi Varma oleograph and goes into a deep prayer or meditation? Varma knew the answer.
(Ravi Varma press preserved)
That answer is still inaccessible or incomprehensible for many of the contemporary artists who still believe that they could sell their works for exorbitant prices either by select selling or by making their works rare. In whichever case, this situation gives birth to various cartels that handle works of art and its market, which would remain exclusive and undemocratic. After the collapse of the contemporary art market, we have several mid-career artists now selling their works from studios for finding funds to run their families, studios and other activities. They short sell their works compared to their prices in the boom market. Instead of balancing and correcting the market follies, this situation has further aggravated imbalanced situation though it is not seen in that light. Provided, if an art market boom happens again exactly the way it had happened a few years back, definitely the works that have been sold from the studios of the artists are going to coming back to the secondary market, collapsing the primary market. That means, we have to accept the fact that there will not be a primary market, which is a supreme market with right economic practices, in the future. Primary market will be replaced by art consultants, artists, curators and other middlemen. The secondary market will take the role of the primary market.
Though it would prove a difficult scenario for many, this future possibility would allow the artists much more autonomous than being the contracted slaves of the primary galleries, which has been the case till now. The same autonomy will come to the critical and historical authority of the critics, historians, consultants, connoisseurs and so on provided they could engage in the ethical practices in the newly evolving art market. The difference of such market from the existing market would be that this will not run on the profit making business model. While the artist and the consultant/curator could sell the work and divide their economic profits (not in the real profit of market logic), the dividend for the investor (if that concept remains in the evolving market) will be based on auction houses and other secondary market activities. In this scenario, artists will not be forced to do more works or less works. Internet could make them visible and the freelancing critics, curators and other operators could assess the works for the direct buyer. In the worst case scenario, the former gallerists could fall from grace and become ‘consultants’ without a gallery spaces to ‘show’ the works to the public and do community reach out programs! I do not know how many of them would come down to that! Intelligent galleries would control the price today and now.
(Sri Chithra Art Gallery Trivandrum, Kerala, where Ravi Varma's paintings are housed)
Raja Ravi Varma again shows the way. Varma was the first one to gain autonomy not only as an artist but also as a business man. He had to go through several trials and tribulations before he could really establish as a printing press owner who produced the prints of his works and pumped them into the market. The agents played smart and natural calamities forced him out of work. However, he could collaborate with visiting British artists to improve the quality of his prints. Varma was moving towards establishing his own gallery; rather a private museum of sorts so that the ordinary public could walk into the gallery and see his works. Despite the criticism that the succeeding generation of the Bengal school artists leveled against him that he was an artist who copied western naturalism, Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist who wanted his gallery/museum. The government of Travancore got into a contract with him in the late 19th century that he would make two paintings each per year for the government and against which he would be rewarded by a museum in Thiruvananthapuram. The government did not honor its word and an angry Varma wrote a strong letter to the Diwan and severed his contract after six years. Though the Chitralayam (Art Gallery) in the name of Ravi Varma came much later, Varma was the first one to fight with the establishment for his autonomy.
Our contemporary artists could a lot from Ravi Varma. First of all they could develop a dual system of working; in the first one, they could work for their patrons or sell works to the patrons and get their wealth for sustenance and furthering their art activities. In the second system, they could produce works for the consumption of the masses in dirt cheap price. If we go by the Varma example, only a common philosophical or cultural thread would make every Indian citizen an art collector. And the work of art should come in cheap prices. We do not live in Ravi Varma’s times. Technology and outreach have changed, so are the modes of consumption. To find a common thread like Hinduism would be politically incorrect in these days. During the post globalization scenario with high level of economic disparities, it is extremely difficult to integrate people in terms of politics or religion. Even nationalism would not do though a majoritarian political scenario is possible through that. So what could be the common factor?
(A signed serigraph by MF Husain)
The most logical answer would be this: art and artist are the common factors that would integrate a country aesthetically. How is that possible? To make this possible, the artist and art works should become a part and parcel of our finer cultural senses. May be hundred per cent proliferation cannot be achieved in this sense. But a majority could be inclined to art and aesthetics. This is possible only when artists are given due space in the society. Also art works should be given in cheaper prices. Again the question is how. It is possible if the artists become much responsible than statesmen. They should grow to the level of visionaries within the world of visual aesthetics. They should be constantly finding avenues of expressing their individualities as well as integrating the craft and folk traditions within their scheme of their works. Larger concerns of ecology and humanism should activate them to do their works rather than the amassing of wealth. Once the artists become those special creatures of nature, a country as a whole would take heed of them. This needs a larger sense of vision, madness, individuality as well as inclusionary thinking. Artists should become sages of their own merit and right. Once that status is achieved everyone in the country would feel like keeping a work by any one of the artists or a few artists of their choices.
It is possible only when a work of art is sold in cheap prices and could be made available in places where one would buy finer things to embellish their lives. We have innumerable printing devices and technologies today. Artists could make limited or unlimited edition prints and with the artists’ signature agencies could sell them. To sell a print, the maker of the work of art needs a wonderful life to be wondered at by everyone and the aesthetic presented in the work should be exceptional. There cannot be monolithic parameters in setting the aesthetic tone of a country which has one and half billion population. Our galleries have tried selling signed prints by famous artists. But such attempts have always failed or have not taken up the way they should have been, mainly because the artists’ as well as art’s constituency is limited and none prefers to buy a signed print when he/she could afford an original. Art could be saved only by people. When people take up art as mediums of sublimation in/of their own lives, art would become a part of their lives and then they would need more art objects to see constantly. Now its place is taken by screen savers, wall papers, cheap calendars and other innumerable visual materials. We need them to be supplemented with a little bit of art (we cannot replace the wall papers and ever changing screen savers completely).
(Why dont you have a work of art at home?)
Again, I would say, it is possible. If literature of the world masters could be sold for hundred rupees in the traffic junctions and in Columbia (when Marquez was alive), his book releases were also celebrated in the streets by road side vendors of his books, then an artist work also could be lauded by the mass provided if they are made available cheap. Cheap does not mean cheapness. Affordable does not mean that replaceable. They mean works of art that could be bought at will by anyone without thinking twice about the monthly household budget. Wouldn’t it be possible? In my view, it is possible. The poor folk of Indian subcontinent in the late 19th and early 20th century parted with a few annas to buy their Ravi Varmas. If so, the people who would spend a couple of thousand rupees for a Sunday meal would definitely think of skipping it for buying an interesting piece of art. And we have printing technology and also we have print making artists who make original works of art in an affordable medium. If there is a will there is way. If Ravi Varma could dream of a country where every house having a print of his work, then definitely we could too….A home, a print, if not an original piece of art.