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The Father of Modern Indian Art: Raja Ravi Varma

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Today's "Feel Art Again" post lands us in India, the third country in our quest to cover a different artist from a different country in each post for the month of June. Reader Tuhina requested a post on Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), considered "the greatest painter of India," "the father of modern Indian art," and a "prince among painters and a painter among princes." Varma became renowned both for his portraiture, such as "Ramanadha Rao and Son" (left), and his paintings of Indian mythology, such as "Riddhi Siddhi" (right).

1. Ravi Varma's talent was first discovered on the walls of his family's home. Around age 7, Varma began drawing animals and scenes of daily life on the walls of Kilimanoor Palace with charcoal. Luckily for Varma, his family was artistic and his uncle, Raja Raja Varma, began giving him painting lessons. By age 14, Varma was taken to Travancore Palace to be taught watercolor painting by the palace painter. By age 17, he was trained in oil painting by Theodor Jenson, a British artist.

2. During an eight year time span, Varma painted portraits of many members of the Indian aristocracy as well as British officials, which bolstered his fame. According to one site, Varma became so famous that Kilimanoor Palace was "compelled to open a post office" due to the countless painting requests that arrived "everyday from everywhere." Varma was well-compensated for all his work: he was paid Rs50,000, "an astronomical sum for the time," for a 14-painting commission by a maharaja.

3. Varma was the first artist whose work was available to the mass market, including "ordinary people" and not just the rich. Determined to bring "real art" to millions of Indians, Varma decided to mass reproduce his works. In 1894, he set up an oleography press, Ravi Verma Pictures Depot. (Oleographs are, basically, lithographs that look and feel like oil paintings.) Thousands of reproductions (including oleographs, lithographs, and prints) were made of Varma's work; even today, his works can be found in almost every home in India.

4. In 1873, Varma was introduced to the West when he won the first prize at the Vienna Art Exhibition. Winning prizes was nothing new for Varma, though. Apparently, he received so many awards in India that at one point he announced he would no longer take part in competitions so that other artists would have a chance.

5. At least four films have been made about Varma's life and art. For Before the Brush Dropped, a 30-minute documentary on Varma and his artistry, director Vinod Mankara conducted three years of research. Director R. Sarath cast a Varma descendant in the lead role of the artist for his two Varma works, Divine Love (a documentary on Varma's art) and Prince Painter (a feature film on Varma's life in Baroda and Mumbai). Rang Rasiya (Colors of Passion), Ketan Mehta's "epic movie," tells the love story of Varma and Sugandha, "his ethereal muse."

6. According to the Limca Book of World Records, the most expensive sari in the world is a 15-pound sari valued at $100,000 that pays tribute to Varma's paintings. The hand-woven sari features Varma's "Lady Musicians" in the center, as well as 10 other smaller Varma paintings along the border. Twelve varieties of precious stones and metals are inlaid in the sari. About 30 weavers spent 7 months making the sari for Chennai Silks.

Larger versions of "Ramanadha Rao and Son" and "Riddhi Siddhi" are available.

Fans should check out the collections of Varma's work from Wikimedia, Raja Ravi Varma Oleographs, Raja Ravi Varma Prints, Indian Heritage, and Images of Asia, as well as Falguni Pathak's music video "Mere Chuna Ud Ud Jaye," which was inspired by Varma's portrayal of Shakuntala and features a woman stepping out of a Varma painting.

"Feel Art Again" appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

Don't forget to submit your requests for artists from around the world!

Note: The image in Thursday's post on George Lilanga is now fixed.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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