Creating An Indian Beauty, Ravi Varma Style

Ravi Varma made a conscious effort to create an ideal for Indian beauty that rose above regional distinctions. Journalist and author Deepanjana Pal attempts to explain how beauty is not an objective quality on his canvas.

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Adapted from the talk 'Ravi Varma: Creating An Indian Beauty' by Deepanjana Pal exclusively for Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.

Portrait of RRV (1910) by Rama VarmaOriginal Source: Kerala Museum, Kochi

While we can explain the spread of imagery through printmaking and other mediums, the fact that the women Raja Ravi Varma conceived and painted are so popular is remarkable.

Yashoda Pointing Out To Balakrishna His Cows (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Deepanjana Pal, author of 'The Painter: Raja Ravi Varma', explains how this was not 'imposed' on anyone, rather the public embraced these ideals across generations, thereby setting Varma-ish standards for Indian beauty.

Bombay Singer (Bombay Songstress) (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

"Ravi Varma adapted European realism and romanticism to Indian subjects, creating a style that felt simultaneously modern and traditional, both in its time and now. It is because the illusion he creates is one we want to imagine as real," Deepanjana Pal.

Gypsies of South India or Poverty (1896-10-10) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

Setting The Indian Stage

This painting shows the contrast between the architecture in the background and the people in the frame. The most haunting character in the frame is the little girl – the bleak despair in her face haunts you.

For an artist who had built his reputation upon paintings of princes and aristocracy, this subject was a departure from the norm. It also undercuts the idea of India as a land of exotic riches, presenting a de-glamourised take on the soothsayers from the subcontinent.

Ravi Varma's note that accompanied this painting that was displayed at the World Columbian Exposition 1893 read: "A model of a tribe whose profession is to wander from house to house telling fortunes."
This particular tribe was listed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.

But Varma does not mention them being criminalised by the British - it is almost like he chose the subject and was attempting to erase the stigma attached to the tribe and instead focused the attention on human suffering.

The Gypsies Of South India (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

In this painting the gypsy woman is seen playing the Tanpura, an instrument not necessarily associated with street performers.

Gypsies of South India or Poverty (1896-10-10) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

"Varma was famous in India, mainly because of the scenes he reimagined from Hindu mythology, yet for the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 he didn’t send paintings on religious subjects as he felt they wouldn’t resonate with a western audience," Deepanjana Pal. 

Bombay Singer (Bombay Songstress) (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

The Self Taught Artist

Ravi Varma was known for painting historical and mythological lore. He chose the Indian Woman as the subject for his work displayed at the World Columbian Exposition as he wished to present to America the elegance and beauty of the many dresses worn by the Indian women.

The implication was that these were real women, rather than spun from an artist’s imagination. In many ways, it was as if Indian women were being brought out of their protected cloisters and being introduced in the public domain.

Yet, when you look at the model's exquisitely embellished joothis peaking out from under the sari – very grand! Except if you go by tradition, then not even a novice practitioner of Hindustani classical music would be seen near her tanpura wearing shoes!

What do these unrealistic details bring to the painting?

It is a sense of culture and opulence that would have been relatable to both foreign and Indian audiences, as this work was one of the 10 shown in Chicago.

Varma brought the divine into the mortal realm in his paintings and lifted the mortal into an ideal. This Indian ideal, however generic it may have been, was because the artist travelled the length and breadth of the subcontinent when few people could do so.

Yashoda Pointing Out To Balakrishna His Cows (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Painting The Pan-Indian Woman

While the title identifies mother and child, it also emphasises authority and ownership. However, it is not particularly realistic for a cowherd’s wife and son to be decked out in jewellery. Additionally, there's no explanation why Krishna is holding a horn and not a flute.

None of this mattered, because the undeniable beauty of the scene makes us want to believe it. In 1870, when this was painted, when India’s wealth was being bled, this vision of grandeur must have been very comforting for both the artist and his audiences.

Varma’s art has been so intimately embedded into our visual imagination in Independent India that it has become the norm. We tend to forget now that when he was alive, the country, the people, the appearances and cultural politics were different.

Socially and culturally, the country was still a collection of principalities, with pronounced regional distinction. The way men and women wore their hair, the clothing, the design of the jewellery, all established where they belonged to and their position in local hierarchies.

While Varma's portraits are faithful to this regional distinction, his paintings of imagined subjects, particularly the women, was just the opposite. They present a subject that isn’t easily pinned down to a location - she belongs to a story of India rather than a region.

This painting doesn’t wear its regional identity obviously. While the influence of Tanjore painting is evident in the child’s figure and the jewellery on both, the composition is European, and the sari is draped in the Maharashtrian way.

Yashoda Pointing Out To Balakrishna His Cows (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

On paper, none of these elements belong together but on Ravi Varma canvas they created a pan-Indian aesthetic.

Maharaja Sayajirao III At His Investiture (1882) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara

Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III commissioned 14 paintings for his new palace. He wanted Ravi Varma to build a collective Indian identity from the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, because he believed they connected the diversity of India. They had to appear classically Indian.

Keechaka and Sairandhri (1891) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fatehsingh Museum, Vadodara

Beauty, Not Exceptional But Typical

The focus here is Draupadi unlike the one of Mahabharat who is full of courage and fire. As Sairandhri, she is alone, afraid, cowering and in need of protection because her husbands have concealed their identity and working as servants to a foreign ruler.

Notice a parallel?

Perhaps, Sairandhri was supposed to inspire the subcontinent the way Draupadi did, and perhaps she embodied the sub-continent, given the repeated violation at Keechak’s hands. Perhaps the sight of Sairandhri was meant to awaken the hero in all those who saw her.

Notice how Sarirandhri looks a bit like Yashoda from the previous painting. Looking back on Ravi Varma's work, what emerges clearly is that unless it was a portrait, the faces of many of the women were almost inter-changeable.

Keechaka And Sairandhri (1891-01) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara

What distinguishes the women though are invariably the outfits and the props. Sometimes it is the expression but often the contours of the face and figure are markedly similar.

Sairandhri's oval face, thick brows, dove eyes and small rosebud mouth could well have been cut and pasted from the romantic paintings made by European artists.

A portrait of a woman from his family that points to socio-cultural values is this portrait of Ravi Varma's mother-in-law. The painting is stunning, she radiates personality, and shows how brilliant Varma was at realism.

Bharani Thirunal Mahaprabha Amma Thampuran (1880) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Making His Subject Beautiful

There is a lot of documentation that shows how photography and art deliberately turned a blind eye to the nuances of darker skin tones. This painting is a great example of how dark skin tones can be rendered in oil painting, highlighting how it reflects and absorbs light.

It is not just the complexion that roots this portrait in realism, it is the way it goes against many conventions of portraiture.

For instance, the pose, the way the body is angled, her seated stature, the brass prop and the shawl indicates aristocracy, authority. This is a documentation of a matriarch in a social system that accords women authority and privilege. 

Yet, her brows are furrowed and you feel she is scowling when women in portraits are supposed to smile sweetly. The gaze at the viewer is direct and unwavering. It’s almost like an interrogation. She may not be pretty but she makes the painting beautiful!

Women like her in a matrilineal system made up the real women in the world that Ravi Varma grew up in. Even in this painting it appears that she is looking at you and is in control of the situation.

There Comes Papa (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

This painting, part of the works that Varma exhibited in Chicago, is a portrait of his daughter Mahaprabha. The note that accompanied this painting read: A Keralite mother clad in white cloth is preparing to go to the temple with her son at her arm. A dog is following.

Realistic, But With Elements of Fiction

The dog, a very common accessory in European paintings is entirely out of place in a traditional, upper-caste Hindu home in Kerala of those times. Also drawn from European traditions are the motifs on the carpet and the shawl draped on the chair. 

Most interesting is the title as it establishes an approaching father. It makes him a part of the painting despite the physical absence. The absent father extends his masculine authority into the domestic domain of the matrilineal system into which he did not have access. 

This was not realism but an indication of how Ravi Varma imagined a different Western and unitary family as the norm than was prevalent at that time. Ideas like femininity, intimacy and natural beauty are cultural constructs.

They develop because of the symbiotic relationship between arts and society. One influences the other and they both influence us. Ravi Varma’s paintings are a great example of this symbiotic relationships.

Ravi Varma loved modern theatre and you can see the influences in his works. He has often borrowed elements like the painted backdrop, certain poses that actors struck and, most importantly, the idea of taking everyday actions and turning them into a performance.

Nair Lady With Mirror (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Government Museum, Chennai

The Theatric Influence

Once again the masculine element makes its presence felt through absence! Instead of showing shringar as a performance or classical dance, Ravi Varma presents it here as an everyday moment. 

It becomes immediately relatable and suggests a familiar intimacy with  the viewer. There is a hint of passion and romance, and it is not a coincidence that the sari painted here is red. 

The entire scene feels real even though there is nothing realistic about a woman with her hair loose and sari casually draped, being open to public gaze during his time.

A similar line of illusion of intimacy is visible in this beautiful painting which takes the viewer into a cloistered, feminine space that men and strangers traditionally did not have access to.

Reclining Nair Lady (1897) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

A Glimpse Into A Woman's World

This painting of the Reclining Nair Lady makes it seem as if the artist, and through him the viewer, have walked into the room when the lady is reading a book. She looks up to find someone there.

Never mind the jewellery and elaborate hairdo that is totally not causal, but from the half-smile and direct gaze you can almost interpret the interruption is welcome. This makes the scene both performative and intimate at the same time. 

Her pose is of studied casualness and is borrowed by Varma from the reclining nudes of European paintings that he had seen. Yet here he presented the lady's body in a traditional mundu.

The lady is very fair when compared to her helper, which brings in an ironic shift towards colourism when you consider that Varma's mother, mother-in-law and one of his daughters had darker complexions.

Keeping in mind the caste politics surrounding the covering of breasts in Kerala as well as the complicated relationship that Indian men in particular had with Western femininity, Ravi Varma's painting of Judith is fascinating.

Judith (1889) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

A Fascination With European Art

On one hand considering the conservative social practices of his time, there were some that Varma entirely respected. For example, the segregation of men’s and women’s spaces in a traditional home. 

At the same time there were several levels of opposition that he was willing to perform against conservatism. Hence here is the unanswerable question of how Ravi Varma, as an artist working in Colonial India, chanced upon Benjamin Constance's Judith.

Is she the underdog in whom the artist from a colony can find inspiration? Does she represent the Colonial other whom the native artist can reduce to a subject in his painting?

In this painting, all we see in Judith is her upper naked torso. Little about the painting makes logic – the pose with the sword behind her, with the bunched-up garment at her waist giving very little indication of how they could be worn, is unusual for a Varma painting. 

There are many conceits and devices used to emphasise the body; the exclusion of everything else but the strange unnatural pose adds a layer to the painting. It becomes a performance with Judith asserting her femininity, her strength and sexuality. 

Yet for all this awkwardness, Judith is a striking painting and it stops you in your tracks when you view it. Her stance is so powerful, shoulders square, feet apart there is no surrender in her bare upper body. 

Instead of simply being erotic as a topless woman’s painting would be, Judith challenges the gaze that is directed at her. There is a sexual allure in Varma's depiction of women that has raised hackles for different reasons.

Fruit in hand, bejewelled, sari artfully dishevelled, this painting is full of rich colours and texture. You can feel the smoothness of the silk and the softness of her unblemished skin. The fruit, the look in her eye, she is delivering a message; one that depends on the viewer.

The Coquette (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Fruit in hand, bejewelled, sari artfully dishevelled, this painting is full of rich colours and texture. You can feel the smoothness of the silk and the softness of her unblemished skin. The fruit, the look in her eye, she is delivering a message; one that depends on the viewer.

Interpreting The Message

The sex appeal of the women Ravi Varma painted may have been intended for a particular hero and a general male gaze, but by virtue of the fact that these women occupy canvases on their own.

The women Ravi Varma imagined seem timeless, even as styles, aesthetics, politics and symbolism have shifted over time, and these women remain most relatable and recognizably Indian.

They embody a romanticized past with a confident sexuality that continues to resonate with the present. Perhaps the reason these women remain ideal is because they respond to the world around them but are not rooted in it.

The fruit may indicate fertility or pregnancy, another example of male presence being articulated through absence in a Ravi Varma painting.

"Ravi Varma’s imaginary women are cyphers, they will never will be realistic because very few people actually look like that. Every now and then in their own way, the women Ravi Varma imagined can and do reflect what we would like to see in ourselves and the world around us," Deepanjana Pal.

Credits: Story

References: 'The Painter: Raja Ravi Varma' by Deepanjana Pal
Images: Used with permission from Rupika Chawla's 'Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India', Image collection of Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation, Various Private Collections
Curated by: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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