Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ravi Varma the Radical? Part 1

'Radical' is among the most overused and misapplied terms in academia. It has the feel of a shibboleth: only those who employ it can gain acceptance in the world of cultural theory. Sprinkled liberally through a text, the word transforms the most conventional ideas into incendiary-sounding propositions, in the way that monosodium glutamate imbues even thin soup with a hearty, meaty taste.
These thoughts are spurred by Ketan Mehta's film-in-the-making, Rang Rasiya, a biopic about the late nineteenth century painter Ravi Varma. As part of the publicity surrounding the movie, there's a plan to produce a reality show / talent contest for young artists. The art critic Rahul Bhattacharya, who has been working with Ketan Mehta, sent out an email publicising the film and its television spin-off. His note and the text on the competition's site bathes Ravi Varma as well as the proposed show in the glow of radicalism.
Bhattacharya writes that Ravi Varma "succeeded in bringing art out of the clutches of the aristocracy and the orthodox temple priests, making art an integral part of popular culture. Often celebrated as a reformer who brought God outside the confines of the temple, Raja Ravi Varma was successful in radicalising and energising the relationship between the audience and the painted image."
Was Indian art ever in the clutches of the aristocracy and temple priests? Was it not part of popular culture before Ravi Varma's time? Only a dreadfully narrow definition of art would allow these assertions any validity. And nothing can justify the statement that God was confined in temples before Ravi Varma freed Him. Even a cursory reading of Indian history reveals that, for centuries, divinities have been worshipped in every conceivable place: in groves, in caves, on mountains, on river banks, in homes. One of the defining features of Hindu religiosity is the variety of forms taken by worship of the divine.
Arvind Rajagopal, who teaches media studies at NYU, believes that Ravi Varma was the precise opposite of a radical reformer. He has written: "Varma's oleographed paintings of gods and goddesses, made in an enormously popular naturalist "realist" style, were promoted by the royal house of Travancore to create a Brahminical cultural lineage rivaling that of the British. Simultaneously, this attempted to deflect insistent demands for social reform from below by illustrating an idealized myth-history of a golden age whose rulers practised a steadfast benevolence, culminating in the present" (Politics After Television, page 97).
In Rajagopal's view, Ravi Varma cast Hindu gods and goddesses in new forms suited to the puritanism of the nineteenth century Hindu renaissance. These forms were then adapted to cinema by the likes of Dadasaheb Phalke, and the iconography found its culmination in the enormously popular televised epics that, Rajagopal believes, served the agenda of Hindutva.
If the Rang Rasiya crew push the idea of Ravi Varma's political radicalism too far, Rajagopal, in my opinion, overstates the case for a Brahminical, Hindutvavadi reading of the artist. But let's stay with Rang Rasiya, and consider the reality series that might accompany the film's release. Called the Rang Rasiya Freedom of Expression Movement, the project aims to "bring about a socio cultural movement which discovers new talent, and brings contemporary art into the discursive domain of the middle class. It attempts to create a domain for contemporary art outside the current dominant systems."
In other words, not content with radicalising Ravi Varma, Bhattacharya is suggesting that Reality TV is politically radical as well. He speaks of moving out of the dominant system of contemporary art viewing, but says nothing of the implications of moving into a system governed by corporate media houses. This kind of doublespeak would be laughable if it weren't troublingly pervasive within the Indian art world. People familiar with the society will know a number of artists who spout phrases like 'resisting commodification' while blithely exhibiting their work in the most commercial galleries across the country.
I will continue this discussion on radicalism, elitism and democracy in a bit. There's so much to say, one post can't do it justice.


torntash said...

I got wind of this project some time ago and thought it most unfortunate. The irony is that Ravi Varma, a consummate professional of the sales pitch in his own lifetime, must have his ashes in a tizzy with such an inept use of his legacy.
Radical Ravi Varma? Barring some nice alliteration there is very little going for the phrase.

parotechnics said...

Hmmmm. Those middle classes they are always The Rising.. somehow the entire mercantile quality of the enterprise seemed of a piece of with what little I understood of Ravi Varma's character from watching the film. But what do I know. And I guess it doesn't make for a good sales pitch, hee hee