Western Influence and Iconography in Ravi Varma’s Paintings

By Pallavi Ghosh

Nineteenth century India witnessed a marked transition in the realm of painting technique. The availability and proliferation of western art techniques were incorporated by many students trained in the newly emerged art schools.

The European quest for ‘realism’ in the realm of painting manifested itself in colonial India as well. The method of oil painting and the various techniques employed—such as the elements of perspective, chiaroscuro, three-dimensionality and tactile illusionism—gradually witnessed a synthesis with the traditional art form of India, which heavily banked upon the classical and religious themes. This fusion of Western techniques with Indian’s traditional painting led to the creation of a new genre which later became the exemplar of a ‘new model art’.

The pictorial model popularised by the Calcutta Art Studio, with its interplay of the ‘realistic’ and ‘mythic’, of ‘high art’ and popular iconography, received a new boost in the pauranic paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. His self-education in European art techniques, academic oil-painting and his mastery of realistic portraiture made him the epitome of the evolving ‘modern’ art in India. However, it is noteworthy that his Western education ran parallel to an indigenous and traditional education of Sanskrit, Malayalam and Kathak literature. This synthesis of the traditional and the modern, evident in Ravi Varma’s mode of education, found expression in his paintings as well, which eventually led to the creation of an altogether new genre of mythological oil painting.

Many of the protagonists of his paintings are drawn from the classical cannon of ancient epic texts, primarily the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the literature of Kalidasa. Consequently, representations of significant and popular episodes—such as the Shantanu-Satyavati one, which became significant for Devavrata’s ‘ultimate renunciation’ in the Mahabharata; or the abduction of Sita by Raavana, the King of Lanka, that instigated Rama to declare war against Raavana in the Ramayana; or the deliberate pretension of picking a thorn on the part of Shakuntala to catch a glance of and attract the attention of her lover, King Dushanta—acquire a tone of topicality when viewed in relation to the text, from which it is derived. Even the presence of the swan messenger and Damayanti’s pensive expression becomes an allusion to the ‘kavya’ traditions (Thakurta 1990). Therefore, these images led to the unfolding of the mythological narrative itself. There was a sense of celebration of the authentic tradition and the glorious past of India.

The orientalist and nationalist demands discovered a new point of convergence in Varma’s paintings (Pinney 1997). The need of British India to shed its colonial feathers through an assertion of a new independent ‘Indian’ identity transformed the subjects of his paintings into ‘icons’, representing the authentic cultural tradition of India. Consequently, the mythical and religious strain of these paintings, by exploiting elements of iconography, led to the construction of an ‘ideal’ image of womanhood.

While the choice of women as subjects in representational forms had been a dominant aspect of Western visual culture, Varma gave them a mythical rendition and textured his ‘Indian’ flavour with these (Pinney 1997). In an attempt to blend ‘Indian’ ethos with a primarily ‘Western’ conception, Varma incorporated an Indian code of costumes, gestures, actions and feelings. Therefore, we see Damayanti as an aristocratic, resplendently attired south Indian lady, posed against the marble columns and stairs of a stately mansion.

Ravi Varma was highly enamoured by the neoclassical representation of nude Venuses and Psyches and their allegorical images of chastity and purity. The elaborate ‘Indian’ costumes, the coy expressionism and guileless mannerisms of Draupadi, Damayanti and Shakuntala became a mode of transforming them into legendary ‘Hindu Devis’.

Despite their divine rendition, women in Varma’s paintings bear strong sensual characteristics. The sensuality of each character is marked by the ‘fullness’ of the body, evocative expressions, the relaxed and languid posture and the equally sensuous gestures of the protagonists. In some paintings, the direct or veiled exposure of certain body parts of the female protagonists intensify the erotic element of the paintings, as is evident in his depiction of Satyavati in her semi-nude form or when the ‘plump’ Subhadra wards off Arjuna’s amorous advances.

Most of his paintings celebrate women as being representative of fidelity in their role as a dutiful and faithful wife, or as the iconic ‘mother-figure’ providing nourishment—all culminating in the image construction of women as ‘ideal bearers’ of ‘Indian’ culture. As a result, the sensuous element in them was diluted and undercut by the very divine or ‘idealistic’ and ‘domestic’ rendering of the subject. As is evident in one of his paintings, where he depicts a mother breast-feeding her child or the one in which the mother is shown carrying her child and waiting for her husband. The stereotypical idea of rendering service to and belonging to the patriarch comes into play here.

Therefore, it allowed a controlled, sanctioned and legitimised form of voyeurism by the incorporation of the religious and mythological narrative, which finds its resonance in the European allegorical paintings in representations of Susana, Venus, and Danae.

This complex play of sexuality and asexuality, and the sensuous and the pious, inherent in Ravi Varma’s paintings, lent an obvious ambiguity to the nature of the emotions the protagonists portrayed. However, this ambiguity had its echoes in the newly emerging bourgeois or middle-class ethic of nineteenth century India, which celebrated sexuality within the sacrosanct structure of marriage. Therefore, Shakuntala and Damayanti are shown to be lost in their ‘reverie’, reminiscing about their ‘husbands’—Dushanta and Nala. The romantic and deeply erotic craving is, henceforth, contained within the sphere of matrimony.

Therefore, we see that the images of women in Varma’s paintings fulfilled the multiple functions of seduction, passive self-display, romantic inspiration, or conjugal and maternal role models.

However, the agenda of nation-building was also associated with the female body. In his Tarini (1890), the protagonist’s saree traces out the map of India, which seems to envelop the country itself. Here, as Patricia Uberoi (1990) observes, Ravi Varma crystallizes a putative Indian national identity in the feminine figure of Tarini.

Therefore, we see that the female body performed a dual function in Mr. Varma’s paintings. On the one hand, it catered to the European demands of exploring an exotic culture, gaining more recognition by the adaptation of a Western technique. On the other hand, it also fulfilled the nationalist demand by using the same tools to assert the identity of an emerging nation through iconography.

Works Cited

Pinney, Christopher. “The Nation (Un)Pictured: Chromolithography and Popular Politics in India, 1878-1995.” Edited by Homi Bhabha. Critical Inquiry (The University of Chicago Press) 23, no. 4 (Summer 1997): 834-867.

Thakurta, Tapati Guha. “Women as Calendar Art Icons-Emergence of Pictorial Stereotype in Colonial India.” Edited by C. Rammanohar Reddy. Economic and Political Weekly XXVI, no. 43 (October 1991): 91-99.

Uberoi, Patricia. “Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art.” Edited by C. Rammanohar Reddy. Economic and Political Weekly 25, no. 17 (April 1990): 41-48.


One thought on “Western Influence and Iconography in Ravi Varma’s Paintings

  1. I am unfamiliar with this painter. Fortunately, included in the Wikipedia article there are some photographs of his artwork. I enjoyed them and this analysis. Thank you for the intro.

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