Total Recall: Recreating Raja Ravi Varma’s Paintings
Chennai-based photographer G Venket Ram recently created an exquisite Raja Ravi Varma-inspired calendar for 2020 for the Naam Foundation that has since gone viral. We spoke to him about his love for paintings, his passion for light and his drive to side-step generic categorisations
What inspired you to recreate the works of Raja Ravi Varma?
Actually this happened four years ago, when Suhasini Maniratnam had organised a fashion show to raise funds for the 2016 Chennai floods on behalf of an NGO called Bhumi. The fashion show had celebrities walking the ramp with costumes and jewellery inspired by Raja Ravi Varma and I only managed to do a few shots with actor Khushboo Sundar then. When I put the shots up on social media, the response was pretty positive, so I decided, why not complete the whole thing!
What was the most challenging aspect of this shoot, and also the most surprising?
The costumes and jewellery that were from the 18th and the 19th century! We worked with Prince Jewellery; they had to do quite an extensive search for some pieces and procure it from other people, despite having an antique jewellery section. Then the clothing. Obviously most of the saris portrayed in the paintings are made of silk and zari, so the fabrics are very stiff. But when you look at the paintings, there’s a lovely flow, like a ‘chiffon’ flow. So we needed to select fabrics which would look like silk but remain soft in the pictures.
The most surprising aspect for me, as a photographer, was balancing perspective in the picture. For example, in the recreation of Damayanti – when you look at the painting, everything looks fine. But, the moment you try to replicate it as a set, in terms of perspective, everything differs. When you paint, it is illusion; you can make the model and proportions very different. You can’t do this in reality and suddenly the person looks very dwarfed; and then you are also looking at the proportions of the background – the pillar size, the way the wall is next to the model – so we had to really work hard to get all the proportions right.
How was the colour palette for each actor created?
Each of the paintings we chose had a different kind of a colour palette, and they were paintings done over a period of 30 years. Most of them were in pastel shades, but some were very bright. Raja Ravi Varma also had a unique style for skin colour, making the recreation of that palette quite important. The trickiest part, however, was to match the actors to the painting. We needed to concentrate on the character of the painting and try to get someone who would be able to ‘fit’ in there. Either we had the actor and would see how she would match, or how some of the famous paintings could match the actor instead. That really was the trickiest part, in terms of body language, the face structure, the eyes, the hairline!
As a concept, this is quite different from your earlier calendar shoots. Do you think this might lead to a more artistic collaboration with say, a living artist in the future?
Of course, it should. It’s all about experimentation. And, as you experiment, you learn a lot more; you’re trying to cross boundaries and you learn new techniques that could be used for other projects.
You talked about light in your earlier interview for AI, so we are curious to know how light played in this series when you already have a specific source from the artist’s work. How did you balance your aesthetic with the artist’s?
See, here it is about recreating, so the balance of aesthetic was to remain true to the original vision. But generally, as a photographer, what happens when you shoot – I mean commercially or commissioned work – is you always try to transcend your own ideas over a period of time. You always want to extend yourself and not be boxed in. It is very easy to say, ‘This guy is only a commercial photographer’. I think people are waiting to box you in, since it is easier for them to remember you by. I only want to be known as a photographer, without any prefixes, so it gives me the scope to shoot what I want.
Post-production: Disha Shah @disha_dee
Styling: Neeta Lulla @neeta_lulla
Jewellery Courtesy: Prince Jewellery Joseph Prince
Event PR: GlassBox Supriya Sonali Kuruvilla
Launch: The Folly, Amethyst