Just a flick of the wrist—and you could enjoy your favourite Raja Ravi Varma painting at any time. That’s the first thought that springs to mind when you see the watches embellished with intricate details and vibrant colours—miniature art pieces that are a testament to the wizardry of Indian craftsmanship and creativity. ‘Radha in the Moonlight’ stands out from the rest with its luminosity and radiance, as you are transported to the waterside where Krishna’s consort waits on the rocks for him with love and longing. So vivid is the scene that you could forget for a moment that you’re looking at a watch dial. Some of the timepieces have a traditional three-hand setup that may disturb the image; but this one uses a disc to tell the time, with the crown set with a sapphire stone.
The art-meets-luxury experience that marked the collaboration between the Palace of Kilimanoor’s Temple of Art and the Jaipur Watch Company, was held on the emerald lawns of the Taj Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur on August 5. Home to one of India’s legendary artists, hailed as the country’s first modernist painter—Raja Ravi Varma—the Palace of Kilimanoor (where the 19th-century artist known for popularising images of Hindu gods and goddesses was born, and where his art estate belonging to the royal house of Travancore is housed) continues to preserve his legacy.
It was a celebration of two milestones—Raja Ravi Varma’s 175th birth anniversary year and Jaipur Watch Company’s 10th anniversary. The best way to mark the milestones, they deduced, was to launch the Raja Ravi Varma collection of wrist watches— each one a canvas that pays homage to the pioneering painter. There are just 112 of these limited-edition watches, which could justifiably be described as wearable calendar art designed for contemporary consumers, who are both art aficionados and watch enthusiasts.
To recreate the paintings on watch dials to perfection, Jaipur Watch Company signed an MoU with Kilimanoor Palace Art Trust and accessed high-resolution images of 14 of the oleographs to adapt them into round dial watches. The 40mm watches have a Miyota movement and cost `65,000 each. Thanks to a special machine imported from Japan, they recreated oleographs with colours and tones like the selected painting, on the watch face. Each wristwatch carries a certificate of authenticity signed by Rama Varma Thampuran, the artist’s descendant who heads the Kilimanoor Palace Art Trust.
Gaurav Mehta, founder and CEO, Jaipur Watch Company, has long been enamoured by this artist from south India. As an avid history buff who grew up surrounded by his calendar art, Mehta believes that Varma’s paintings and prints are still deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of India. “They are often reproduced, adapted and referenced in various contemporary contexts, including books, films, textiles, jewellery and popular media, making him India’s first brand,” says Mehta. “He set up the Raja Ravi Varma Press in Bombay to ensure that his divinity and mythological paintings reach the masses. Each of his oleographs carried his seal and signature, which left no doubt about what a big brand he was.”
Mehta was inspired to create the Raja Ravi Varma watch collection when he realised that many young Indians today celebrate European artists, but are unaware of our local legends. He reached out to Sachin Kaluskar, who owns the largest collection of Varma’s oleographs and, through him, to Rama Varma Thampuran. Rather than place the design on the watch dial, they decided to have it on the sapphire crystal’s interior surface. As a result, the print displays more clarity and less distortion.
“Needless to say, compressing and printing Varma’s paintings on a watch face was not an easy task. Instead of printing the design on the dial of the watch, we have printed it on the inside of the glass, which is a sapphire crystal. To enhance the visibility of the painting even further, we have placed a plain white enamel dial on the back,” explains Mehta. The team preferred to preserve the existing cracks and imperfections in Varma’s paintings, exactly as they are, to maintain their authenticity. It took them seven months from the date of conceptualisation to date of launch.
Raja Ravi Varma is also known to have inspired jewellers and weavers of his time, who adapted motifs, patterns, even the entire design of a piece of jewellery or the way a sari is draped around one of his subjects. Hermès was one of the first global brands to be inspired by Varma’s painting of an elite Nair woman, and created a similar dress drape with a Parisian twist from Kerala’s traditional gold-and-white sari over a decade ago. This year sees a revival of interest among designers and brands, thanks to the fact that it marks the 175th birth anniversary of the artist whose cultural legacy continues to endure.
To mark Sustainable Fashion Day at Lakme Fashion Week, couturier and crusader of India’s rich heritage Anju Modi created a sensation with her designer garments inspired by Raja Ravi Varma’s “favourite” muse. Titled Damayanti, her collection of saris, lehenga-cholis, jackets as well as pre-stitched saris with designs reminiscent of those seen in the iconic artist’s paintings, was created using a specialty fibre derived from wood chips/ pulp, lending the fabric a biodegradable quality. This collaboration was also significant as it marked 30 years of sustainable fibre innovation by Tencel, which coincided with Modi completing three decades in the fashion industry.
Inspired by the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, whose recurrent subject was Damayanti, Modi’s look for the show reflected the Western techniques and styles that have been pioneered by the artist. Richly ornamented with embroidery and draped in various traditional forms, the saris in vibrant hues were edged artistically with contrasting shimmering borders that faithfully reproduced the look of Varma’s artworks. The luxurious yet sustainable fabric added to the grace and elegance of the collection.
An ardent admirer of Raja Ravi Varma’s work, Modi had long dreamt of incorporating his style into her designs. The inspiration for her “ode to Raja Ravi Varma” is Damayanti, who (she believes) was his favourite muse. “Her grace and elegance are what intrigued me,” insists the couturier. “A painting of a beautiful woman sitting by a pillar, staring at a swan, playing the sitar, or wandering in a forest is found in many Indian households. There may be variations, but the essence remains the same—the beauty in her expressions, even the dreamy backgrounds, colours, etc.”
The designer kept the mood of her story quiet, dreamy and warm by using colour combinations of violet, burgundy, pine green, etc, that were soothing to the eyes and were complemented by the textures of the fabric. Her interpretation of the artist’s vision converted his paintings into real female characters portraying Damayanti. Models striding bare feet with their ankles clad in intricately designed payals and their soles coloured in henna, took viewers back to India’s past. Saris, cholis and jackets with drapes on one side and matching shawls on the other, recreated the aura of upper-class Indian women showing off their jewellery.
One of the reasons why Modi had felt drawn to Varma’s work is because she believes he always celebrated the women of that time. “The way he has captured their grace, elegance and allure in his paintings, is immensely beautiful and unreal. Damayanti was one such lady, the most famous one rather. My collection, Damayanti is an extension of what I believe was the artist’s intention. It celebrates modern-day women through silhouettes that enhance their grace and complement their individual personalities.”
It became easier for her to translate the beauty of the paintings into her collection because of how immensely fluid, lightweight and breathable the fabrics were, admits the designer, for whom Damayanti is more than a mere collection. “It is my way of honouring Raja Ravi Varma,” declares Modi. “Incorporating his style into my creations has been a long-held dream. I hope the viewers saw the silhouettes through his lens. We tried our best to transport our audience to the time when Damayanti existed, and to the lovely woods where she wandered with her friends.”
Modi recreated the magic of Varma’s paintings through embroidery on lightweight fabrics, while textile designer Gaurang Shah interpreted his paintings through weaves. Probably his most challenging project, Shah’s dream came true when Santati was unveiled at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The exhibition showcased the recreation of Varma’s paintings on saris by 20 artists using the jamdani weave technique. Each sari took between six months to two years to weave.
Shah chose the artist’s lesser-known paintings. Out of a shortlist of 54 oleographs, he and his team wove 33 saris with paintings by Varma on the pallu—all interwoven in khadi using natural dyes. The paintings were chosen in three categories: women in Varma’s paintings, gods and goddesses, and stories.
“Raja Ravi Varma used only natural colours for his paintings in combinations of four primary colours. We opted to do it with natural dyes to preserve the ethos. While a few of the saris took three months, the ones with intricate paintings took more than 10 months to create,” says Gaurang Shah, designer
Share this on
It took over six months of research before work could begin, as the designer had to oversee the creation of 600 shades of colours and the dyeing of over 200kgs of yarn—so that they could replicate the paintings in khadi and recreate the same colours on the woven pallus. “Our choice of the Srikakulam jamdani technique made it possible to create the entire pattern without repetitions,” says Shah.
The team had to overcome some unique challenges. The first thing they observed was that Varma’s paintings are composed of curved brush strokes, and it was a mammoth task to train the weavers to reconstruct his masterpieces. Even a small painting had to be blown up to almost 40 inches to capture the details, shades of colour, texture and patterns. It was also difficult to find the right pool of weavers to work on the saris—weavers who were masters of on-paper jamdani, where six metres of paper (the length of a sari) are printed and placed under the warp, so that they can look at the pattern and weave accordingly. They managed to identify and engage 20 families for the task.
Besides using 150 counts of fine khadi, finding the right dyes and matching them according to the saris was another challenge. In some saris, they found that the artwork became visible on the reverse. At times, the colour combinations did not turn out well. So, they had to rework their strategy, design and loom setting to get the closest replica.
Creating shades of yarn colour in natural dyes was in itself a painstaking process, as the colours ranged from luminescent to pastel pinks. Replicating the fall of their clothing as well as the facial expression of every character in the paintings through jamdani weaves was probably the biggest challenge. But Shah persevered and succeeded, just as he did for an arts and culture exhibition in Delhi (and in Hyderabad and Ahmedabad later) that paid tribute to Gandhi’s philosophy. The intricacy and magnificence of Indian weaving is as evident in these saris, as is the enduring influence of a legendary 19th-century painter on a versatile 21st-century designer.