“This picture is among my earliest memories.” Jay Varma removed his glasses for a snapshot and struck a dignified pose in front of a splendid lithograph of Vishnu, flanked by two Lakshmi goddesses, riding the giant bird god Garuda. “My grandmother, the last queen of Travancore, had this very image hanging over a doorway in her house. As children, we used to sit beneath it and listen to her tell stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana.” In the print, Vishnu-Garud Wahan, Garuda, clutching a Naga (snake god) in his talons, spreads his solar orange wings wide in gold-tinged heavens. On March 4, at the International Print Center New York in Chelsea, he seemed to fly head-on into the small crowd that had gathered to celebrate the opening of “Seeing God in Prints: Indian Lithographs from the Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté.”
Varma is a Philadelphia-based artist who traveled here for the occasion; he is also the great great grandson of Ravi Varma (1848-1906), who was responsible for Vishnu-Garud Wahan. Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist to become well-known for creating oil paintings in a Western style, and he established a press in 1894 to reproduce them, the Ravi Varma Press in Karla Lonavla. His lithographs of Hindu deities became so well-known that god pictures are sometimes referred to as “Ravi Varma” prints, though he was but one of many making them around the turn of the 20th century.
In India, colorful mass-produced images of the Hindu gods are ubiquitous, in homes and shrines, shops and conveyances, festooned with marigolds and glimpsed through incense. To worshipers, they are instrumental in achieving darshan, or direct contact with the divine, in daily devotions. While ultimately their lineage may be traced back to early miniatures and temple reliefs, in their incarnation as widely disseminated, hugely popular icons their origins lie in the third quarter of the 19th century, when chromolithographic publishing in India began. At first Indian publishers sent original artwork off to Europe to be reproduced (there are several such examples in the show, including a pair depicting the enthroned Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh, one made in Italy and the other in Germany, which demonstrate the stylistic variations that occurred). But by 1878 the first chromolithography shops had been founded in the subcontinent itself and, by the 1880s, the industry was flourishing, spurring a veritable renaissance of popular sacred imagery.
It is extremely difficult to find vintage god prints in pristine condition. (They are referred to in India as “god photographs,” indicating the belief that they are true representations of the deities.) Time has not been good to them. The weather is hot and damp, and the prints are frequently framed flush to the glass and hung in bright light. Paper gets brittle, and you hardly ever come upon prints without tears and holes, large and small. Bugs eat them and people put them to hard use, sometimes embellishing them with sequins and fabric. When Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté, themselves print publishers (of Baron/Boisanté Editions, based in New York) and knowledgeable about print mediums, came upon some fine early examples during their first trip to India in 2000, their curiosity was piqued; like most visitors, they delighted in the god pictures that are everywhere, but had never thought about them as having a history.
They took a closer look. Originals like Ravi Varma’s Vishnu-Garud Wahan were hand-painted on multiple stones, one for each color, and printed in deeply saturated hues; tiny chromatic strokes stipple the surfaces, prompting an optical buzz. To see really great examples, with no sun-fading or foxing, is to experience something nearly alive—exactly the point, given their intended function. To see 31 of them together, as one is able to do at IPCNY, is a rare opportunity. The show is the sixth in an ongoing series of internationally-themed exhibitions the IPCNY has mounted since its founding in 2000. “Seeing God in Prints” is curated by Andrew McCord, an independent writer and art critic specializing in Indian culture, who has written the brochure that accompanies the show (along with a very entertaining account of collecting the works, by Baron).
Shiva and Vishnu appear most frequently, along with their many incarnations. Often the gods are hieratically composed, seated on golden thrones and rising from lotuses, accompanied by consorts and offspring (the charming elephant god Ganesh is a favorite subject), and brandishing attributes. In a number of images, Shiva meditates, the river Ganga spouting from his topknot. There is an especially lovely portrait from the 1930s in which, young and haloed and wearing a smile as ineffable as that of the Mona Lisa, he is seen from the chest up, a cobra wound around his neck. There are well-known scenes of the playful Krishna playing the flute or surrounded by bathing gopi goddesses, whose saris he steals; the terrifying destroyer Kali, bedecked with skulls, stomping on Shiva in the battlefield; Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, as alluringly balanced on her lotus as alluringly as Venus on her clamshell. Hanuman, the monkey god, strides purposefully through the world, carrying in his hand a mountain containing a magic healing herb. Some of the works are schematically folksy, as in a scene of Durga brandishing weapons in her ten arms, astride a tiger, by an unknown artist of the Ravi Varma Press; while some offset lithographs dating to the end of the period covered are lush and elaborate, with characters who look like they might have stepped out of a Bollywood movie.
For Baron and Boisanté, learning about the prints has become something of an obsession, as have their yearly treks to India, where they seek them out at a wide variety of antiquarian shops and stalls. They have amassed a collection numbering more than 300. Usually the going is slow, but in a recent trip they discovered a cache of lithos produced at the Cacutta Art Studio, which along with Chitrashala Press in Poona was the earliest Indian chromolitho publishing house (both were founded in 1878). “You can find Chitrashala prints once in a while, though mainly in terrible condition,” says Baron. (There are two in excellent condition in the show.) “Chitrashala prints are not so rare. But prints from Calcutta Art Studio are so rare. We have seen hundreds of prints, but apart from one in the Indian Art Museum of Calcutta, we had never, ever, ever seen them.” The studio still exists, but operates as a regular commercial printer; Baron e-mailed the owner three times before he responded. “He said he did have a group of the old prints, but that they were in a safe wrapped up, and he wouldn’t open them to tell me if they were in good condition, how many there were, or anything. I was going crazy.” Baron and Boisanté flew to Delhi, arriving at 1 AM after a 14-hour flight; by 3 AM they were on a domestic flight to Calcutta. From the airport they went directly to see their contact, who as it turns out was the great grandson of the founder of the original shop. “He hadn’t shown them to anyone in many years. You can’t imagine what it was like. We were going through them—dozens of them, with no interleaving. There were whole chunks missing. You would go through a bunch and find the chunk from one ten prints later.”
They wound up buying every print that wasn’t in pieces—32 altogether. (A few other intact examples, he says, are at the Ashmolean in Oxford and at the British Museum.) Just two are on view in the exhibition—one of them an advertisement for hair oil and tonics showing the goddess Sarasvati, and the other a complicated little scene of Shiva destroying the god Kama with a beam from his third eye, after Kama interrupts his meditation (Madan-Bhasma). Baron says that some of the best could not be restored in time for the show.
From 1988-2000, Baron and Boisanté owned a small contemporary art gallery on 57th Street that mounted elegant group shows with outrageous themes (shit, psychedelia). When it closed, Baron says, “I became depressed and lost. But these prints really saved me. To have that feeling of faith in art again—they really mean that much to me.” As for Jay Varma, Baron and Boisanté did not know him before the show. They had sent an announcement to an Indian collector who has started a website for the prints; he, in turn, emailed Varma in Philadelphia to let him know that some of Ravi Varma’s best prints would be on view. “Things like that happen all the time with these prints,” says Boisanté. “And it’s amazing to be in a room with them all at once. We’ve never had that chance before.” Nor has the viewing public; this is the first show of the material ever mounted in the U.S. It is at the IPCNY through April 11. Baron and Boisante also have a website, omfromindia.com.
From the top: Vishnu-Garud Wahan, lithograph, c. 1900-1925, published by Ravi Varma Press, Lonavla; Shree Shanker, lithograph, c. 1930's, published by Hem Chander Bhargava, Dehli