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Presenting India’s First Oil Painter on the Wrist, Thanks to Jaipur Watch Company

Jaipur Watch Company’s latest collection on Raja Ravi Varma’s art brings the epoch defining artist into new millennium.

Jaipur Watch Company Damyanti 

Do you fancy sporting some of the best-known works of Indian art on your wrist? Now you could, if it’s some of Raja Ravi Varma’s defining creations, such as Saraswati, Hans Damayanti, Ganpati, Varah Avatar, and more. Varma, who was associated with the erstwhile ‘princely’ kingdom of Travancore, and worked largely towards the end of the 10th century, has been hugely influential, especially for calendar art. He was arguably the first to successfully combine Indian iconography and portraiture with Western realism and techniques. When most Indians imagine the faces of Indian deities – think Saraswati in white with her sitar or Lakshmi on a pink lotus, while holding another two in her hands (with or without her ‘endorsement’ of Sunlight Soap!) or even some historic figures – it is his art that people at large have relied on.

Damyanti & Hansa by Raja Ravi Varma
Hans Damyanti by Raja Ravi Varma.  

It was no surprise then that Jaipur Watch Company (JWC), whose watches over the past decade have ushered in an effectively new space in Indian watchmaking, chose Varma’s works to depict on their highly sought after watches. “Divinity or the use of divine iconography has been a popular subject for the Jaipur Watch Company,” says Gaurav Mehta, CEO, Jaipur Watch Company. “Sometime back, I was discussing art and artists with a group of friends. I brought up a reference to Raja Ravi Varma’s art and to my surprise I found almost 70 per cent of them were clueless, which made me think that as Indians, we have heard of Monalisa but not about Damayanti. We don’t know who created the iconic image of Saraswati Mata, but we worship her. This led us to the idea of creating the Raja Ravi Varma collection.” This year also marks the 175th birth anniversary of the artist, who passed away in 1906, but not before he had initiated many changes in the way common Indians relate to art. 

The Jaipur Watch Company X Raja Ravi Varma Collection comprises 14 of his artworks and oleographs with seven editions per design, making it a total of 98 watches. They are priced at ₹65,000 each. The watches include Radha in the Moonlight Automatic Watch, Saraswati Automatic Watch, Vishnu Automatic Watch and so on. JWC collaborated with the artist's estate in Kerala to select and reproduce the rather large original paintings to a watch dial.

Jaipur Watch Company Ganpati
And it proved to be quite a task, Mr. Mehta reveals. “It was always going to be a challenge to reproduce his work, digitally or via hand painting. We realised repainting them won’t do justice to the great artist as no one can match the precision and perfection. We have recreated these artworks and lithographs on watches via a digital medium.”
That process proved challenging as well, and there were points of almost giving up, reveals Mr. Mehta now. “We have imported brand new machines specifically for this collection, which allows us to reproduce the paintings and lithographs to perfection on watch faces with exact same detailing, once they are digitised. Large format paintings and oleographs were a challenge to reproduce and recreate into a round-shaped miniature version, so we had to carefully select works in which the core elements won’t be cropped when placed on a watch face.”

Jaipur Watch Company Saraswati
Incidentally, while some of the art is on the dials, others are reproduced on glass itself, which proved to have greater clarity than the ones on the dials. However, Mr. Mehta still predicts the watches with clock face hands would sell better as most are used to that version of watches.
Rama Varma Thampuran of Kilimanoor Palace, the artist’s descendent who heads the Kilimanoor Palace Art Trust, says the family is keeping the influential artist’s legacy alive. On this collaboration, he says it’s a “beautiful idea” and “both of us are promoting art and culture through the watch company”. He says Ravi Varma’s influence is still being felt in fashion and advertising. “A lot of people are still studying his paintings. Legacy keeping is serious. We have to do justice to the great artist. This is also another way of keeping his legacy alive.”

…Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings played an important role during the freedom movement – political leaders used his prints to unite and fight against colonial rule.

To this end, JWC organised a two-day celebration to mark the launch of the collection. A gala cultural evening to launch the watch was held in Jaipur’s Jai Mahal Palace, each aspect of which revealed various aspects of Raja Ravi Varma’s remarkable legacy. A number of experts highlighted different aspects of the artist’s works, his impact on jewellery and weaving traditions of India that continue to endure in the 21st century, and his rediscovery by art collectors and connoisseurs as also showcasing how his works were finding relevance in a contemporary setting.

Jaipur Watch Company Varah Avatar
Present on the occasion were Chenda Malam (traditional drummers) from Dwarka Kala Samithi, which added to the special feel of the event. Videos on the heritage of the artist demonstrated the artist's life, while a live painting demonstration of a modern interpretation of a Raja Ravi Varma painting held audiences spellbound. Just as interesting was an exhibition of original oleographs by Sachin Kaluskar, who owns the largest collection of Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographs. 
Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, who launched the watch collection, was especially appreciative of the initiative, lauding how JWC was helping keep alive this crucial legacy in such an innovative manner. To round off the evening, a special sadya was prepared by the cooks at Kilimanoor Palace.  A unique part of the celebration was a visit to the JWC studio in Jaipur, where Mr. Mehta gave a live demonstration of how the watches are being made, including how the dials are created.  

Jaipur Watch Company Mohini
Mr. Kaluskar points out that Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings played an important role during the freedom movement – political leaders used his prints to unite and fight against colonial rule. “But after we got independence, we were imposed with modern thoughts, the Progressive artists group came up. Every time, there was a change, and Ravi Varma’s influence started fading out. They started printing modern subjects. Today again people have started liking Ravi Varma – so you see new interpretations – saris, merchandising – the era has come back again. A lot of people have done exhibitions, a film was made on him (Rang Rasiya, directed by Ketan Mehta).” In fact, Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings were even converted into NFTs by Rtistiq, an online art gallery, in collaboration with gallery g and the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.
People who love Indian art and people who appreciate fine watchmaking, from any age group/gender, will appreciate these watches, says Mehta. As to whether other artists will feature in the series, that’s something JWC will keep the option open for the future. Meanwhile, let RRV’s icons increase the show-off value of your wrist.