If you remember the first time you ever saw an epic being played out on Indian television. The almost curfew like silence on the roads when people would gather around television sets all across the country to be fascinated by the virtues of the Ramayana or the battle scenes of the Mahabharata?
Well, a great amount of the credit for those works goes to the genius who redefined India’s iconography with the stroke of his brush. This is the story of Raja Ravi Varma. The artist who single-handedly recreated India’s narrative imagery, and made it accessible to the common people of the modern age. It was his ideas that influenced the way Indian’s looked at art, and it is this very same perspective that we celebrate as a nation till date in our popular culture.
We use this opportunity to lack back at some of his most notable work.
The painting shows a group of women from almost all the cultural backgrounds from within India of Varma’s times. Each represents a style of music from their cultural background. The group has a Tawayaf, a Nair Veena Player, a Lavani artist, and even a European woman dressed for church on Sunday.
Originally commissioned for the Maharaja of Mysore, this singularly detailed work by the artist it is a prominent example of his narrative style and how womanhood all but rules his artistic fancy.
Ravana holds Sita after the Sita Apaharan episode of the Ramayana, and is challenged by Jatayu, an old vulture who had befriended Ram and his family during their exile to the jungle.
The emotive range to begin with, has been captured in such excellent detail. Ravana who laughs at his own evil power, the shock in Jatayu’s eyes upon realizing the battle is all but over, and Sita covering her face and turning is fear and sorrow for losing the only champion she had at the moment to rescue her. This work, we can imagine must have been a remarkably novel experiment when it was painted in the first decade of the 19th century for the subject, the technique, and even the medium too. The clear European realistic overtones on the active mythological scene met with great acclaim. This blend of east and west influenced many generations of artists and continues to do so.
Compared to traditional portraits where the subject would be sitting stiff looking straight at the viewer the gypsy woman is engrossed with her tambura, not bothered by the eyes of the viewer. Varma’s muses did not care much about people’s approval, they conducted their affairs while enjoying the devoted attention of Varma’s keen eye.
Gypsies is a representative image of Varma’s treatment of his subjects. He loved to capture their active personalities instead of still lifeless posing.
Raja Ravi Varma was fascinated by women, their versatility of dress, and range of moods he could admire with each of his subjects, in this image, Satyavati playfully and suggestively thwarts Shantanu’s advances, while secretly loving him at the same time.
Compare this subtlety of form, with the cool confidence of the musicians, or the active disgust of Sita or the engrossed indifference of the Gypsy woman, and you get a glimpse at Varma’s mastery, because of which no expression needs any detailed interpretation.
“There is no failure, only unfinished success.”
Blending the European realist styles with the Indian artistic sensibilities Raja Ravi Verma created some of the most timeless works of art in India. His portrayal of women created controversy and admiration in equal quantities.
He captured the lives of the royals and common folk both in such candid details that his works have become authoritative visual records of his times. Remembered for many such feats of genius and for a colorful personal life, Varma will always be an important figure for the lovers of art all over the world.