The Puranic Themes in Raja Ravi Varma's Art

Ravi Varma often turned to the epics for references and to classical treatises on art for visual imagery. They became the explanation for moods and emotions his paintings demanded, says Rupika Chawla.

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Adapted from a lecture presented by Rupika Chawla, author 'Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India' for Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.

Some of Ravi Varma's most stunning Puranic themed works were done for Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV of Mysore. The Maharaja specifically commissioned nine of these works for the new Durbar Hall at Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore.

Rama Threatens The Ocean God Varuna On His Not Making Way For Him, Raja Ravi Varma, 1905, Original Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore
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Ravana Carrying Off Sita and Opposed by Jatayu, Raja Ravi Varma, 1906, Original Source: Srirkanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore
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"Ravi Varma's Puranic and religious paintings and those based on classical drama had to understandably depict the emotion and mood contained in a particular painting since the narrative demanded it", Rupika Chawla, author of Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, explains.

Indrajit Presenting To His Father Ravana The Trophies Of His Conquest Of Swarga, Raja Ravi Varma, 1905, Original Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore
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Sita in Ashoka Grove, Raja Ravi Varma, 1894, Original Source: Private Collection
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Rupika Chawla is an author, conservator and writer and an established authority on Ravi Varma's works. She has restored several of his paintings, and together with A. Ramachandran, organised the exhibition on Ravi Varma at the National Museum in 1993.

Rama Breaking The Sacred Bow Of Siva Before His Marriage To Sita, Raja Ravi Varma, 1906, Original Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore
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Coronation Of Rama, Raja Ravi Varma, 1905, From the collection of: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
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Ravi Varma's Puranic and religious paintings and those based on classical drama had to understandably depict the emotion and mood contained in a particular painting since the narrative demanded it, Rupika Chawla, author of Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India explains how.

Keeping Ravi Varma's idea of Puranic paintings well in mind and following the story of Valmiki's Ramayana, we will understand how the paintings seen here are Puranic, true to the description that Ravi Varma gave them. The events depicted in each painting equally serve as a springboard for the next one; the story unfolds itself as each Puranic painting leaps into the succeeding one, covering in the process not only the major moments in the lives of Rama and Sita, but the entire story as well.

Rama Breaking The Sacred Bow Of Siva Before His Marriage To Sita (1906) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore

Capturing Intense Moments on Canvas

This painting has three variations to its title - Rama Breaking The Sacred Bow of Siva Before His Marriage To Sita, the Sita Swayamvar and Rama Breaking Siva Dhanush.

The figures in this painting were meant to be visualised as those in the midst of a traumatic moment: a moment that was unforgettable and which was to lead to many consequences and repercussions in the future.

Ravi Varma was well acquainted with the stories and sub-texts of the epics. These had been part of his scholarly upbringing. He carried these stories in his mind effortlessly and easily, and, when required, would pull out, visualise and paint any theme that he wanted.

He did not paint according to the narrative of a story, but according to his mood, a commission or inspiration. He altered the narrative as he wanted to. This painting was momentous as it set the Ramayana in motion.

During the course of his commission of creating these paintings, Ravi Varma had to undergo a traumatic incident in his life - the loss of his younger brother C. Raja Raja Varma in January 1905. The shock was intense and his work was the only way he could move forward.

Ravana Carrying Off Sita And Opposed By Jatayu (1906-08) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore

Moving The Narrative Forward

The next Puranic painting made by Ravi Varma for Mysore was Jatayu Vadh or Ravana Carrying Off Sita and Opposed by Jatayu. The titles are not random as they both justify the image he was making. 

At this stage of the epic, events have changed drastically, from a peaceful sojourn in the forest to one of high drama. Ravi Varma has made this work at the moment when the Ramayana narrative moves into unknown territory.

Jatayu Vadh shows the pull and push of heroism and violence, and symbolises a love story forever damaged.

According to classical convention, one way of recognising the 'inconsolable woman who is separated from her beloved' is through her open, unbound hair. And this is how you see Sita portrayed here - unhappy and separated from her husband, thrown into unpredictable circumstances.

If you look at Sita's saree and Ravana's very elaborate dhoti, they are worn differently - how they were worn in Mysore during that time. It is Ravi Varma's subtle tribute to his patrons.

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

Rama, Sita and Laksmana Crossing The Sarayu (1906) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Puranic and Religious: How Different Are They?

This is a painting of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana Crossing The Sarayu on their way to exile. Notice Sita's contentment, she was with her Rama and hence Ravi Varma has portrayed her dressed elaborately, a peaceful face, with her hair bound in a bun.

In Ravi Varma's Religious paintings, the same gods and noble characters from the Puranas illustrate a certain state of being, or present an iconic or decorative image. They may also depict the consequence of the high drama of a Puranic painting.

Within the narrative of the Ramayana, as provided by the Puranic paintings, are the religious ones of the Release of Ahalya, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana Crossing The Sarayu, Sita in Ashoka Grove, The Coronation of Rama and Pregnant Sita Abandoned in the Forest.

For a Puranic painting to be justified, the choice of scene had to be an unforgettable one within that particular narrative, and which would inevitably lead to a series of repercussions and consequences. It was only with such qualities that it became worthy to be painted.

Rama Threatens The Ocean God Varuna On His Not Making Way For Him (1905) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore

Capturing Emotions Through Brushstrokes

The abduction has happened and Rama is very angry. This Puranic painting signals the confrontation between Rama and Ravana that is to come. The painting is  titled Rama Threatens the Ocean God Varuna on His not Making Way for Him or Sri Rama Sagar Darpa Haran.

Rama pursues Ravana to Lanka. He needs to construct a bridge at the southern tip of India for his army to cross over to the island. He prays to the ocean God Varuna to allow him to cross the ocean, but the ocean God does not respond.

In anger, Rama shoots his fiery arrow into the ocean. Varuna appears immediately and appeases Rama. The bridge is constructed and his army crosses over. To show Rama's anger, Ravi Varma skilfully paints his flared nostrils and flaming eyes, therefore declaring his invincibility.

The Puranic paintings are generally large ones, with several figures caught in the midst of a dramatic action, frozen on the canvas of Ravi Varma. They depict a historic moment from a classical text, which is intended to be noble, momentous and emotional.

Sita In Ashoka Grove (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Portraying the Damsel in Distress

Hanuman, Rama's faithful follower, tracks down the distraught Sita in the Ashoka grove of Ravana's palace in Lanka. A circle of threatening and fearsome female demons, demanding constantly that she forget her husband Rama and marry Ravana, guard her.

Though alone and terribly frightened, Sita remains unmoved by the ferocity of their threats, confident that Rama will rescue her. The female demons' eyes gleam menacingly as they threaten Sita. 

The 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 centuries and millennia these epics have been in existence.

Indrajit Presenting To His Father Ravana The Trophies Of His Conquest Of Swarga (1905) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore

Action Frozen in a Frame

This painting is titled Indrajit Presenting to His Father the Trophies of His Conquests of Swarga. It was also called Victory of Meghnath or Indrajit. Meghnath, Ravana's powerful son, had conquered Indra and all of Swarga, and was hence called Indrajit. 

Indrajit presents Sachi, Indra's wife, to his father Ravana who is seen standing under the bejewelled sunshade. His mother can be seen standing in the background. This is a Puranic painting because of its complexity in terms of composition, narrative and artistic ability.

Rupika Chawla believes this is one of Ravi Varma's finest works. It has several kinds of contrasts never attempted before by him - of sun and shade, hard and soft elements, metal and fabric, victory and defeat, and delight and anguish.

Sachi, the queen of heavens is in anguish, and stunned by the situation - all is lost for the time being and Indra's fate is unknown. Notice therefore the detail of her open hair - a sign of a woman in sorrow, separated from her husband.

This painting also reveals Vibhishana, Ravana's younger brother, who too is in despair and has turned away in shame so as not to see the humiliation of Sachi. He will soon make his way to Rama, a decision that will contribute to the far-reaching consequences of the battle.

Looking really pleased is the fine figure of Ravana whose upper body is protected from the harsh sun by the jewelled sun-shade. Throughout the painting the sun is a strong presence and the shadows become necessary as a result.

The devise of using sun and shade had tentatively appeared in some of Ravi Varma's earlier works, but nothing as brilliantly as he has used it here. The contrast of skin tones, dark brown and pinkish fair, define those who work in the sun and those who don't. 

Light-skinned Sachi is placed next to her dark-skinned handler, and Mandodari stays away from the sun while watching the proceedings below, being gently fanned by a dusky attendant. The contrast of leisure and outdoor labour is clearly evident here. 

Ravi Varma was not the first to utilise the richness and potential of stories from the Puranas, the sacred books dealing with the ocean of Indian mythology and the life of the gods. Every painter and sculptor from the earliest centuries had benefitted from these sacred sources.

Coronation Of Rama (1905) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

The Narrative Concludes

The battle has been won and the two brothers return to Ayodhya to a grand coronation portrayed by Ravi Varma in a religious painting titled Coronation of Rama.

Sita is beside her beloved Rama and hence is seen with her hair neatly bound, unlike how she was portrayed in the abduction scene, or in the Ashoka Grove. She is bedecked with jewels, as are Rama and his brothers. 

The blend of ancient and modern that Ravi Varma arrived at, through these Puranic works, was different from anything attempted before.

Credits: Story

Information & References: Rupika Chawla's 'Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India',
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
Adapted from: Lecture by Rupika Chawla titled 'Raja Ravi Varma's Puranic Themes' presented exclusively for 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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