Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) hailed from an aristocratic family of Kilimanoor in
Travancore, Kerala. He was essentially a self-taught artist and at the age of thirteen he joined the Court of Trivandrum, where he observed and learnt the use of oil paints.
Adventurous by nature, Raja Ravi Varma and his brother travelled extensively in India and observed diverse cultures, costumes and jewellery, which is visible in the diverse artworks that he went on to create later.
Raja Ravi Varma was sure that he did not want to limit his art to palaces. In 1894, he initiated a lithographic press with German machinery in Bombay in partnership with Govardhandas Khatau Makhanji.
Like many businesses, Ravi Varma Press faced ups and downs and was also temporarily closed down. The press initially had the name ‘The Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press Bombay’ which in a short period changed to having only the abbreviations of F.A.L. Press-Bombay. The names of the press changed according to the place from where the press was operating like Karli, Karla, Lonavla and Malavli. It was during the period of the press at Karla-Lonavla that paintings of other Indian artists like Ramanujam, Venkatesh Rao and some others were printed here. Chromolithography is basically a type of lithography, in which multiple stones are used, one for each color. The printers keep the images in register by getting the correct position of colors and merging the overlaying colors properly.
Simply put, oleographs are colored lithographs executed with a touch of oil paint, making it look like a painting. It would be worth noting that the chromolithography tradition and the work of Raja Ravi Varma and his contemporaries in India unquestionably laid the foundation of popular art.
Each oleograph has the information strip printed at the bottom (see above), which gives
information on the Press, Title, Registration Number and other important details. These
strips are quintessential in establishing the history and authenticity of these oleographs.
Unfortunately, in the early 1900s people did not care much about these strips and cut them
out for framing purposes or did not think that they would be important in any way. There
are efforts being made to document the number of surviving oleographs but there is no
record available so far. Surviving pieces with the strips intact are surely not many and those
with authentic zari work even fewer and rarer.
ZARI WORK OLEOGRAPHS
Initially, people felt that the figures were too voluptuous and possibly inappropriate to be
displayed at home. People also painted on the oleographs to further decorate them. Hence,
the tradition of further dressing the deities in clothes or zariwork emerged in which people
further decorated these oleographs by embellishing them with silk, zari, thread, pearls,
mirror, gold and silver powder, etc. Also, this further accentuated the decorative aspect
and made the oleographs individually unique. This technique of ‘dressing’ prints
developed in the late 19th century and the work was mainly done in Tamil homes and,
Burma emerged as another centre for this work. Serendipitously, the zari work oleographs
have helped in establishing and documenting fashion trends of a bygone era.
One of the best way to establish the authenticity of a zari work is to see the reverse. The
network of stitches on the reverse gives one a good idea of the ageing and also one may
look for browning or glue stains as over the years glue turns brown.
These oleographs have great antique value and are being collected, documented and
researched by collectors and institutions all over the world. The survival rate of these pieces
is rather low, hence they are very scarce. They range from eighty to a hundred years,
depending upon their period of printing.
Many of the works being presented are genuine oleographs from Ravi Varma Presses
or as mentioned, and the zari work on them is also vintage. Each piece is unique and
cannot be replicated. There has been no restoration or retouching whatsoever.