"Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings evoke in the viewer a response that is emotional.
As a man who traveled across the country gathering many experiences, his
paintings, mythological and social, reveal not merely characters on canvas but
capture the emotional response of these characters through body language and
facial expressions. This series is an attempt to see beyond the now ubiquitous ideas
of beauty through colors, strokes and imaginations of Ravi Varma and find in
his unique vocabulary, the drama of dis-aggregation of description, figuration,
different registers of emotions and modes of meanings which speak to social,
cultural and artistic patterns that, I, as a dance artiste and scholar, see upon
close observance." – Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh
The Gypsies of South India (Poverty) (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram
The South Indian gypsies known as Kuravas are a nomadic tribe. Their many occupations include selling salt, beads, household utensils made of iron such as knives and sickles. In Tamilakam (Southern India), literature speak of the Kuravawoman of the Kurinchi (mountainous) regions as a soothsayer, adept in song and dance of their clan. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kurathi and her soothsaying tale to a heroine, became part of the ritual traditions in temples through the Kuravanjinatakams where Karnatic music and Sadir were used as mediums of story narration.
In this painting, Ravi Varma captures several registers of all these histories; the legendary Kura clan as a nomadic tribe with their belongings, the Sangam connection of the Kuratias a singing, wandering woman and the classicalization of the Kuravanji in the early modern period through Karnatic music reflected in her singing to a Tanpura held in her hand. He captures all these transitions in the lives of the tribal and Adivasi communities of South India through the forlorn look of the singer (Kurava woman).
the little girl’s far away and fearful look
and a boy who is lost in his thoughts.
The pain of poverty is evoked not merely by these expressions, but by the unsung illustrious history of their tribe whose music now is perhaps drowned by the very tanpura she holds.
Expectation (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection
The Indian poetic and aesthetic tradition, enumerates Astha Nayikas, the eight states of mind of a woman in love. The Vasakasadjja is the one who is waiting for her lover to arrive.
In this painting, “Expectation”, Ravi Varma makes a strong case for a Vasakasadjja Nayika who is bedecked and waiting. But he has cleverly indicated through her body language; the hand resting on her forehead, grimly set lips and forlorn eyes, that perhaps she has been waiting for far too long. One can sense the glimmer of disappointment and despair in her eyes.
She may transition into a Virahotkandhita Nayika – one who is distressed in separation. If this painting was a moment in a movement, this Nayika would sigh next and allow her disappointment to be seen.
Shakuntala Removing a Thorn from Her Foot (1898) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram
This famous painting is from a scene in 'AbhijanaShakuntalam' of poet Kalidasa. This scene is when Shakuntala under the pretext of removing the thorn on her feet, steals yet another loving glance at King Dhusyantha, whom she had met and fallen in love with, at the woods. Her life changed forever from this moment on, due to the play of memory – Abhijana.
Playwright Namita Gokhale toys with the idea of memory from Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam in one of her own plays and I use that trope to see this painting.
If Shakuntala was not glancing at Dhusyantha here, but was pausing for a moment to reflect on how life has changed forever from this moment forward what would her thoughts be?
“My life has changed; I feel that I cannot go back to where I have come from…
"…nothing has prepared me for this ecstasy. It defies my life and destiny…Two voices rise within me.
"...One guiding me to return home, away from this violation, the other buzzing about my ears like a lascivious bee.”
Yashoda and Krishna by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Ashish Anand
Bhoja famously proclaimed Shrungara (erotic emotion) to be the King of Rasas. He believed that when the self, experiences any emotion and when that emotion attains its zenith, that becomes passion – Shrungara. In this painting, baby Krishna is hugging Yasodha and is holding a cup in his tiny hand.
His cherubic face begging for some fresh milk while she is milking the cow and is taken aback by the pestering child.
In this moment, both the mother and the son are at their intimate best. Yasodha’s glance revealing her ecstatic joy of the nearness of her baby, whose demand she enjoys and fulfils grudgingly. As a sangam poem described, this is “tollaiinbattuirudi” or the zenith of motherly ecstasy due the pestering demand of her child. Bhoja called this zenith of Shrungara in motherly love, Vatsalya Bhava.
Malayali Lady (1892) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Directorate of Museums and Archaeology, Government of Maharashtra; Shree Bhavani Museum and Library, Aundh, District Satara, Maharashtra.
In 1890s around the time the Malayali lady was painted, women of different communities dressed differently to indicate their caste and social status in Kerala. Travancore, particularly was mired in the upper garment dispute or the breast tax dispute. In a hierarchical order, women were allowed to cover their breasts; the utmost right reserved for the Princesses and Zamorin (royal) household women, then came the Namboodari and Nair women who could cover themselves unless in the presence of their superior castes, followed by the Nadar and Ezhava women who were denied the right to wear an upper garment at all, as a sign of their low status in society. I wonder, if this Malayali lady, who is delicately covered with a sheer upper cloth is perhaps lost in deep thoughts about the high price, the various women around her have to pay, to drape a cloth over their breasts in the way she is wearing. She seems lost in deep thought and her frowning brows, speak volumes about the conflict in the air.
An Adaptation of the poem 'Veena nu Mrug' (1898) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Osianama Research Centre, Archive, Library & Sanctuary, India.
Conveying an entire narrative through a painting needs the great skill of saying more with less. In this painting, the hunter comes looking for the bird he has just shot.The wounded bird is perched on the lap of a woman who is visibly angry at the cruelty inflicted on the poor bleeding creature who is crying aloud in pain.
Ravi Varma uses the body language of the woman; she is leaning toward the side of the wounded bird, at the same time her other hand is planted on her hip, defiant straight glance at the hunter evoking disdain for his cruelty, from a position of authority. She is a woman of a high class and Ravi Varma distinguishes her by draping her in a white saree
..and a Veena placed by the side indicating her high taste in finer things of life.
On the other hand, the hunter painted as dark complexioned and standing. His eyes and stance give away his listlessness to argue with a woman of her stature over a hunt that is part of his routine livelihood – his Dharma.
The difference in social classes that lend two starkly contrasting perspectives to an incident- bird hunting, reveals through iconography and symbolsthe opposites in societal norms and roles. This painting reminds me of the narrative style of the later painter, the now globally famous Frida Kahlo.
Pregnant Sita Abandoned in the Forest (Sita Lamenting) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection
The Ramayana is South Asia’s most retold epic. There are over three hundred versions of the Ramayana. Just as in many other Ravi Varma paintings, here too his protagonist is not merely seated or just pregnant, he has captured an evocative moment when Sita is lost in her thoughts. Shokaor pathos, one of the nine Bhavas is evoked; her deep-set gaze and frowning face that rests delicately on her hand. What is she thinking about? What are pregnant Sita’s worries? As in the Valmiki’s version, is she in retrospection about the justness of her banishment to the forest, by Rama in an attempt to exonerate her chastity? Is she disturbed with thoughts about her unborn children, Lava and Kusha and their likely antagonism with Rama that might follow, as narrated in Kannada folklore by the Tamburi Dasayyas? The many Ramayanas, the many Sitas and the many worries of a woman in this world.
Lady with a Mirror (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of the Government Museum, Chennai
A Nayika who is busying herself in the pursuit of her lover. An Abhisarika, one who is decking herself up to go out to meet him. Unlike a woman who is waiting at home expecting the arrival of her lover, this painting seems busy and active with the woman not lost in thought but in action. A Vasakasadjja, one who awaits the arrival often turns into an impatient Abhisarika nayika, who may decide to set out in meet her man. Intent, determined and strong, she is readying herself to step out, defying social norms that dictate coy courtship as opposed to brazen seeking by a woman. She wouldn’t care if others whispered ‘Judareatinadichehoiyalu…’ look, how she walks out to meet her man so shamelessly’ as in a Kshetrayya Padam composed in the 17th century.
Manini (Circa 1910) by Raja Ravi VarmaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation
Maharaja Swati Tirunal who was an early contemporary from the same royal household of Travancore as Ravi Varma, was a prolific composer of music and sahitya (poetry). Because of his long association as a patron and personal friend of Tanjavur Vadivelu Nattuvanar, he composed many pada varnams, padams, tillanas all suitable for dance. In the now famous 'Sumasayakaviduravarnam', the charanam (second refrain) addresses the sakhi or the friend as “Manini hātetāpam” referring to the friend as “O! You handsome woman.” In this picture too, one can see that Manini is a handsome and sassy lady, complete with her hand on her hip and a handheld fan, accepting the adoration and compliments coming her way.
Chitralekha (Circa) by Ravi Varma Press, Karla, LonavalaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation
This picture depicts the relationship between a friend and the heroine. Chitralekha paints the picture of Aniruddha, the Prince who stole heroine Usha’s heart. Ravi Varma titled this Chitralekha not only because that is the name of Usha’s friend, but because chitralekha means someone who is as stunning as a painted image. In Subramaniya Bharatiyar’s ‘AsaimugammarandupOche’ the heroine would lament, “O! friend, I have forgotten his beloved face, how can I explain this plight? My heart hasn’t forgotten his love, yet the face has been consigned to oblivion by my mind, is it fair?” In this case the Sakhi could really be the heroine’s own conscience. It sings a soliloquy by the Virahotkhandita Nayika, one who is in separation. And she laments, “I have failed by you O! mind. I have no capacity of anamnesis for the lovely face of my hero which I am unable to recapture. Who can help me from this state of amnesia? At that moment, Chitralekha, conjures up his face in a painting. Chitralekha thus transforms into Usha’s own conscience.
Four Portrait Studies (1906) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Pundole's, Mumbai.
Poets believe that in Vipralambha Shrungara, love in separation that a myriad shades of a character can be brought out. Here, we see women in various stages of self-contemplation, lost in thought.
A contemplative Swadeenabatruka. Will the pensive mood of the Swadeenabatruka break into a song while gazing at the moon? (Left)
The expectant Vasakasadjja (Right).
A repentant Kalahantarita. Or will the repentance of the Kalahantarita quickly turn into anger and righteous indignation? (Right)
A melancholic Virahotkhandita. Is the lamenting Virahotkhandita going to cry a little? (Left)
Each of their body language, expresses many fleeting emotions called vyabhicari bhavas. Ravi Varma captured not just different faces, but different facets from the palette of human emotions.
Swarnamalya is a combination of a performer with over 35 years of experience, a scholar of dance history and a trained academician in art practice and sociology. For her Doctoral dissertation she investigated and reconstructed lost dance repertories of the Nayaka period in South India.
FROM THE ATTIC, is a performance- lecture-exhibition series, based on her research, where she showcases dance repertoires and embodied archives of early modern South India, which reflect connected histories of the world and allows us to see culture as a memory of inclusivity. She is a Professor of Practice at Krea University, India and Director of Ranga Mandira Academy of World Dance/ Performance and Indic Studies.
Script Rights: Dr Swarnamalya Ganesh.
Image Rights: As mentioned in each exhibit.