Panchakanya: Five Powerful Women From The Epics

In this series, Jay Varma, a 5th generation descendent of Raja Ravi Varma, brings to the fore five women from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

By Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

This series of works has been researched and interpreted by acclaimed author and historian Manu S. Pillai and Prof. Vasudha Narayan.

Popular belief has it that to recite the names of the five virgins—'panchakanyas'—would destroy the worst of human sins. But matters of faith aside, who the kanyas (women) are is in itself a fascinating question, and their personal tales even more remarkable.

It is acknowledged that the 'kanyas' include Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara, and Mandodari. But the fifth name varies. Some state that it is Tara, wife of Brihaspati (in addition to the other Tara, consort of Vali); others hold it to be Kunti, mother of the Pandavas; and yet others venerate Sita as the fifth kanya. Jay Varma's depiction of these women goes with the third grouping; the kanyas of our artist are Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara, and Mandodari.

Jay Varma (2012-05) by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Jay Varma: The Artist

Just as poets and storytellers over so many centuries have interpreted these heroines in unique ways, Jay also brings to them a fresh vision. 

In this series of work each of the kanyas is approached in detail, but to begin with, the term ‘kanya’ itself is of interest. Some say that the word comes from the Kanya (Virgo) rashi in which all five women were born. Others believe that their power and strength of character was such, that despite marriage they remained virgins—the term ‘virgin’ here refers not to its usual meaning but to how they are not defined as just dutiful, stereotypical wives. - Jay Varma.

Jay Varma is one of the biggest recipients of grants from Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation. Having pursued his artistic degree from Studio Incamminati, Philadelphia, Jay's detail to perfection is his strong point. The Panchakanya series is one of his biggest body of works.

Ahalya, Jay Varma, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Draupadi, Jay Varma, 2020-10, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Sita under the Ashoka tree, Jay Varma, 2020-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Tara (on the throne), Jay Varma, 2021-06-10, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Mandodari, Jay Varma, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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From a mythological perspective, the five kanyas symbolise much. Five is an auspicious number in Hindu culture—there are five sacred ingredients for ritual use, for instance, just as there are the five elements. Scholars have identified the kanyas with an element each: Ahalya with water, Draupadi with fire, Sita with the earth, Tara with wind, and Mandodari with the sky. 

Jay Varma's Panchakanyas may not resemble ‘standard’ versions to the viewer, but they are all rooted in some retelling or the other of the epics—that is, the depiction is sincere, even if less well-known.

Ahalya by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

The Story of Ahalya

Her backdrop is a forest—the scene of her husband Gautama's abandoned ashram—and she has returned to her mortal form. Rama is not visible in the picture, but the blueish light that falls upon Ahalya symbolises his presence.

Draupadi (2020-10) by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

The Fiery Draupadi

Shown standing in a balcony in her father’s palace, she is not yet married. She has, in this scene, already caught a glimpse of Arjuna—the man destined to win her hand—and a glow of desire and curiosity are visible on her face.

Sita under the Ashoka tree (2020-12) by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Sita: The Stoic

Ravana’s abduction would forever change the way Rama looks at her, as it indeed did. The haze in the background represents this heavy mind and heart—the inner world of a Sita at the edge of her fortitude, and deep in contemplation.

Tara (on the throne) (2021-06-10) by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Tara: A Queen on a King's Throne

She is seated on what is imagined as the throne of Kishkinda, made of gilded wood and inspired by the foliage of that forest kingdom. Not just a voiceless, unthinking woman, and though she is not always heeded, hers is one of the most intelligent minds in the kingdom.

Mandodari by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Mandodari: A Life of Contradictions

Mandodari is framed against a backdrop that could represent two scenes. Lanka is clearly burning behind her. It could also represent the fall of Lanka in the final battle with Rama where she loses her husband and her son. Hence her darkening face augurs this terrible eventuality.

The panchakanyas closely resemble the women Jay grew up watching and hearing about. And as he attempts to tell us through this art, these women perhaps exist all around us, in every home and circumstance, if only we learn to look at them with a new gaze. His kanyas are mythological but also real: in every woman, there are shades of these five formidable virgins, and the story of each is also the story of every woman.

Vasudha Narayanan (2020-04-10) by VasudhaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Vasudha Narayanan: Professor of Religion

Teaching at the University of Florida, her fields of interest are the visual and expressive cultures of Hindu traditions in India, Cambodia, and America. She responds to Jay's paintings from this series.

"Jay Varma’s vivid portraits of royalty and of heroines from Indian epics have an arresting reality. His engagement with reality is seen in the splendid translations of women from the Indian epics into a contemporary vocabulary of bold beauty. He makes us recognise the Ahalyas, the Draupadis, and the Sitas who live amongst us in our world today, opening our eyes to the betrayals and successes of these women, past and present." - Vasudha Narayanan.

Credits: Story

Research & information: Manu S. Pillai
Expert interpretation: Professor Vasudha Narayanan
Additional information & curation: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini 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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