Mythological Stories by Ravi Varma

Using the rich and plastic oil medium and realism as his tools, the artist transferred a wealth of stories and mythology into paintings of great resonance.

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Ravi Varma was not the first to utilize the richness and potential of stories from the ancient Puranas, sacred books dealing with the ocean of Indian mythology and the life of gods. Every painter and sculptor from from the earliest centuries had benefitted from this sacred source. But the blend of ancient and modern that he arrived at was different from anything attempted before.

Radha and Krishna (1901-01) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Love Stories: Radha and Krishna

A recurring theme in Ravi Varma's works, Krishna is portrayed at different intervals in his life: as a child with Yashoda, as Radha's beloved and as the Lord in the great war between good and evil in the Mahabharata.

Krishna's childhood phase leads to the romantic period with Radha. This is the carefree interval in Krishna's life. Ravi Varma captures the youthful dalliance between Radha and Krishna in a series of works.

Ravi Varma was highly conscious of the varied skin tones of people; from the light to the very dark. There is subtlety in the dark skin that Indian aesthetics recognise. 

This is applicable to the romanticism attached to Krishna's dark skin. the god who is also known as "Shyam", endowed with the same hue of the evening turning into night.

The stories that he selected for interpretation were further analysed in order to arrive at the most appropriate moment in a narrative for delineation. With great clarity Ravi Varma divided his mythological paintings into logical categories, finding reasons as to why he defined them the way he did.

King Aja's Lament (1903-01) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Tragic Stories: King Aja's Lament

Many of Ravi Varma's mythological paintings conceal the drama and emotion of a narrative because of the dark coating of dust, varnish and overpaint.

During restoration of King Aja's Lament, stunning detail post cleaning revealed one eye brimming with tears, disclosing the poignancy of the moment; the complete bewilderment and the trauma of the sudden death of his beloved wife.

For Ravi Varma it was essential to embellish the visual narrative in a manner that would make the painting rich, complex and sensual. This painting was first displayed at the Madras Fines Arts Exhibition in 1903. 

Raja Ravi Varma: Restoring A Master's Glory (2021-04) by Raja Ravi Varma Heritage FoundationRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Ravi Varma was well aware of the ancient conventions and new thinking, or past history and present events. He underwent a process of conscious selection of themes, genre and medium in the painting he wished to make - the grand historical paintings of gods and heroes and portraits of the rich and powerful.

Narasimha (1906-01) by Attributed to Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Historic Stories: Narasimha

In a Puranic painting Ravi Varma depicts a historic moment from an epic or a classical text, which is intended to be noble, momentous and emotional. For the painting to be justified the choice of scene had to be unforgettable within a particular narrative.

The scene he painted had to invariably lead to a series of repercussions and consequences. It was only with such qualities that it became worthy to be painted.

This hiatus in the narrative that he selected - of dramatic characters and sweeping gestures - was also very often the one that permeated into the Indian psyche over the many long centuries that these epics have been in existance.

The reason for the consummate skill of Ravi Varma's Puranic and other genres of painting did not only lie in the selection of the chosen moment for the purpose of visualization. It was essential to embellish the visual narrative for which he depended on ancient texts and classical art convention, on devices and symbols, on the attitude and positioning of a body required for the narrative and on the luminous jewellery and clothes that he was known for.

Credits: Story

Information and Text: Rupika Chawla
Reference: Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India by Rupika Chawla
Additional Inputs & Curation: 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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