The Sparkle In Ravi Varma's Art

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Raja Ravi Varma transcended boundaries between the real, the ideal and the imaginary by embellishing his paintings with jewellery and ornaments worn by the men and women of India during that period. 

Rani of Kurupam (1902) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Indian jewellery defies chronology. Few pieces have been found in the course of archeological excavations and even fewer have accepted provenance.

In the absence of any documentation of designs, symbolism and terminology, the reliance was on evidence in sculptures, paintings, photographs and oral discussions with experts.

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

The ‘kasu malai’, or garland of coins, is the most striking example of an ornament serving as an instrument of saving.

The ornament became popular during the period of Roman trade, when Roman gold coins were used to pay for gems. In the 19th Century it became very popular to string English guineas in this manner.

Kasu Malai (Necklace of Coins) (2019) by Citrine by Purvi DhruvOriginal Source: Private Collection

Around this time, coins bearing images of the various Hindu gods and goddesses were specially engraved to be worn in this fashion.

The purity of gold and the intrinsic value of the gold coin made this ornament a popular instrument of saving.

A Tamil Lady (1880-01-01/1900-12-31) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sothby's

The variety and range of neck ornaments among the various regions of India is vast.

Addigai (Necklace) (2019) by Citrine by Purvi DhruvOriginal Source: Private Collection

Often hidden within the voluminous folds of the sari, tiny elements peek out, providing a tantalising glimpse of the whole.

Kantasaram (Necklace) (2019) by Citrine by Purvi DhruvOriginal Source: Private Collection

The 'addigai' is a typical South Indian necklace formed of Burmese rubies, set singly or in clusters in a close setting.

Maharashtrian Lady (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

Wearing a nose ring acquired a variety of interesting connotations in different communities, apart from its indication of marital status. It was considered a mark of beauty in India.

Nath (Nose Ring) (1900) by Unknown (Sourced from Christies)Original Source: Private Collection

In Maharashtra the 'nath' became a popular and elaborate jewel, with pearls indigenously clustered into fish and mango shapes.

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

It was customary until quite recently to wear nose studs on both nostrils; the delicate pendant form ‘bulak’, set with gems and pearls was suspended from the septum.

HH Sri Janaki Subbamma Bai Sahib, Rani of Pudukkottai (1879) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Pudukkottai Family Collection

Ornaments for the upper arm take a variety of forms; from the most simple circlet of metal to elaborate gem-set 'bazubands' or 'vankis' of South India.

This 'vanki' worn by H.H. Janaki Subbamma Bayi Sahib, Rani of Pudukkottai, is made of gold with openwork trellis design, set with rubies and diamonds.

Bazuband (Arm Band) (2019) by Citrine by Purvi DhruvOriginal Source: Private Collection

In this 'bazubandh', usually worn by men, rubies and pearls are set in closed setting. Jewels such as this were reputed to have belonged to princely family, but remain coveted accessories even today.

Ikkavu Thampuran (1900) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Carved cylindrical gold tubes, each a receptacle for a mantra, form the traditional marriage necklace or 'taali' of Nair women.

The Gopuram (temple spire) form is typical of Kerala jewellery. The marriage emblem is the gem-studded leaf form in the centre.

Lady Making A Garland (1895) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Among the Nairs of Kerala, the term ‘taali’ retains its ancient connotation and is used synonymously with ‘mala’ referring to a necklace, there being no necessary connection with marriage.

The oldest and most famous ornament of the Nair women is the 'Nagapada taali', or the cobra-hood necklace.

The commonly used 'Nagapada taali' usually comprised of pieces of green glass, simulating emeralds, cut in the shape of a snake hood, and embellished with rubies and diamonds.

Lady With A Fruit (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

From simple flower heads that work like buttons on the ear lobes, to large elaborate pendant forms, the range and variety of ear ornaments in unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

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

Fashioned from a variety of materials, these jewels ranged from simple, small studs, to large discs of varying thickness. They were staple forms of adornment for the rich and the poor.

Karnaphul Jhumka (Earring) (2019) by Citrine by Purvi DhruvOriginal Source: Private Collection

The simple daily wear ‘thodu’ or ‘toda’ of South India is usually in a flower head form; suspended tassels or ‘jimki’ take the form of bells with flower tops.

Visirimurugu (Ear Ornament) (2019) by Citrine by Purvi DhruvOriginal Source: Private Collection

The 'visirimugu' or fan-shaped earrings were worn in the scapha of the ear. They are often combined with the 'jimki' to adorn the ear.

Ikkavu Thampuran (1900) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

In Kerala women dilated their ear lobes by inserting, large, heavy, laden rings. Each ornament known as a ‘takka’ or ‘toda’ were then inserted.

Lady Making A Garland (1895) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Fashioned from a variety of materials, these jewels ranged from simple, small studs, to large discs of varying thickness. They were staple forms of adornment for the rich and the poor.

Maharani Lakshmi Bayi (1883) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Sri Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

The waist belt served a dual purpose; it held the lower garment in place and was yet another embellishment to the female form.

Its presence is evident is most of the female imagery through Indian history. The girdle is referred to by many names.

Oddiyanam (Waist Belt) (2019) by Citrine by Purvi DhruvOriginal Source: Private Collection

Today, girdles, known by the colloquial name 'oddiyanam' or 'kamar patta' are out of fashion and hardly every worn.

Credits: Story

Information and research: with permission to use from Dance of the Peacock Jewellery Traditions of India by Usha R Bala Krishnan and Meera Sushil Kumar.

Photographs: with permission to use from Raja Ravi Varma: The Painter of Colonial India by Rupika Chawla & The Painter Prince by Parsram Mangharam and images of jewellery sourced from Citrine by Purvi Dhruv.

Exhibit & References: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.

Click here to read more about Raja Ravi Varma.

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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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