Rahul V Mathew uses Raja Ravi Varma paintings to create digital art to spread awareness on hygiene practices related to Novel Corona virus via art
‘Ahalya’, of Raja Ravi Varma’s eponymous painting, lounges in a supermarket, by a shelf. In her hand is a basket containing two bottles of Dettol. The digital collage, by Bengaluru-based artist Rahul V Mathew, is a message against panic buying. This is his way of spreading awareness – via art on his Instagram handle rahul_v_mathew – on issues and challenges related to the current pandemic, Covid-19.
In the original Ravi Varma painting, Ahalya is in a forest and her basket holds flowers. Rahul, a 23 year-old who belongs to Kochi, is a graduate of the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology (Bengaluru) and works as a junior designer with Swiggy. He has three other collages – ‘Krishna sitting with Yashoda and a female attendant’, ‘Menaka and Shakuntala’, and ‘Stolen Interview’ similarly placed in the contemporary, Covid-19 context. Explaining why he is using art to communicate, he says, “Visuals register more than text.”
Each of his posts has a note under it that expands on the idea. The text under ‘Krishna…’, for example, which shows the attendant using wet wipes on Krishna’s hands explains the importance of washing hands. ‘Menaka and Shakuntala’, which features two mythological characters on an airport walkway is about social distancing. And ‘Stolen Interview’ focuses on taking care of one’s mental health.
Rahul says he uses collage as a medium because it is liberating and gives him the freedom to create and express himself. He uses Ravi Varma characters as he feels they communicate and have an impact because Ravi Varma paintings are familiar and hence when reworked each becomes quirky and catches the eye.
This is not the first time Rahul has worked with Ravi Varma paintings. IN 2019, he created ‘Varma Printing Press in Mumbai’ (2019), a series of digital collages using the royal artist’s works. Best known for his depiction of Indian deities and episodes from the epics, Raja Ravi Varma is one of India’s celebrated artists. His works are one of the best examples of European techniques melding with the Indian sensibility. He made lithographs of his paintings available to the public increasing the involvement of common people with fine arts and defined artistic taste too.
He started a lithographic press in Mumbai in 1894 before moving it to Lonavala. It also placed the paintings and characters in Mumbai in present times, with a social message. Radha Bilas’ Radha and Krishna are placed in a photograph of a dhobi ghat in present day Mumbai, giving it a new context. In Rahul’s telling Krishna is ‘offering to help’ Radha wash rest of the clothes — “to share Radha’s workload. These were all about socially relevant issues,” he says of the last series.
Explaining why he chooses to work with Raja Ravi Varma’s art, Rahul says, “He gave faces to most Indian gods and goddesses and is a huge part of Kerala and Indian art.” And the idea of juxtaposing seemingly incompatible elements came from a visit to Hasta Shilpi village in Udupi, which restores artefacts from across the country. “Artefacts from Rajasthan and other places are restored here, there is an absence of context caused by the displacement. That gave me the idea of creating art by juxtaposing unlikely, unexpected elements.”
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