The beginnings of modern art in India coincided with the freedom movement and, more importantly, the various social movements. From being a colonial import, the idea of modernity was accommodated within the agenda of Indian nationalism. It was the beginning of the movement to improve the status of Indian women, to liberate them from social evils like widowhood and sati. It was also the beginning of the education and emancipation of Indian women. These were also the women with whom most modern artists came in contact.

Through history, women have been portrayed as the period and society demanded. For example, women were respectable wives portrayed with their husbands as dampatis in the second century B.C. rock cut Buddhist caves of Western India, as dancers and musicians in the Chola and Ganga temples of Thanjavur and Orissa respectively, and so on.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indian art was influenced by the realism of western art, yet the artists tried to supersede their colonial and western identities by a reformulated Indian authenticity. European artists set up ateliers in this country and western landscapes and portraits of governors and their wives came into vogue, prompting rich Indians to patronize the same. For the first time, women who were never seen outside the zenana became the subject of paintings.

Ravi Varma was the first to break the traditional mould, casting his women as regional, national and feminine ideals, creating an implicit national project of typical Indian images. The technique of oil painting enabled him to play up the sensuality and fullness of women’s bodies, the gloss of their costumes and Jewellery. His was the sensibility of the aesthete brought up in an aristocratic tradition wherein a woman was adored for the splendour of her person and sex was never a taboo. But, in spite of all the ennobling idealization, his heroines seem human because the artist placed them in human situations1.

But he also brought art to the service of “swadeshi and nationalism”2. His women were of three distinct types. The aristocratic women of society, who were the models for his mythological figures, were real-life models made into Indian iconic symbols by the depiction of women of classical mythology. They became prototypes for national role models. The poses, gestures and scenes derived from European neo-classical imagery, combined with colour and vitality, were received enthusiastically by his contemporaries. Betrayed Shakunthala (Shakunthala Patralekhan), pensive Damayanti (Hamsa Damayanti), passive and quiescent Mandodari (Victory of Indrajit) and anguished Draupadi (Keechaka and Sairandhri) were all upper caste Indian women, dressed appropriately in nine-yard saris, thrown into roles that fit their own oppressive backgrounds, in contrast to assertive and bold women like the coquettish Menaka, assertive Matsyagandha and even Sita, who returned to her mother Earth in Sita Bhoopravesam. He recreated theatrical tableaux, to dramatize the role of the woman in the story. It has been said that, “he attempted a retrospective view of a whole tradition of Indian, especially Hindu, culture… shaped by the socio-political vicissitudes of his times”3. Sita’s face in Sita Bhoopravesam has been described “as enigma: it may be anger or love, grief or pride, perhaps a shade of every emotion she had known in her life” and which was known by every Indian woman4.


Shakunthala Patralekhan

The genre of portrait painting depicted in Here Comes Father and Malabar Beauty, was derived from Victorian and French neo-classical paintings, and symbolized purity and happy domesticity as in mother, daughter and wife the second type of women. The latter depicts refinement and dignity, qualities cherished by the artist, while Suckling Child celebrates the satisfaction of the mother and child relationship. The addition of furniture and drapery suggest an affluent westernized home. These women in their traditional clothes, heavily bejewelled, became symbols of “chastity, culture and tradition”5.

In contrast to his leisure-loving, genteel, aristocratic women, the third type of women were the peasant women in Poverty, Milkmaid and Gypsy Family, dark skinned and unadorned. Yet Ravi Varma treated them with the sensitivity of an artist, conveying a sense of quiet dignity which many of his mythological heroines lacked. Unlike preceding artists, he acknowledged the existence of the lower classes and did not condemn them for their limited possessions.

The Galaxy of Musicians (1889) is important as an ethnographic study with a difference. The ladies represent ten different parts of the country, and included an English woman. They hold different musical instruments and are all pretty and elegant. But what is remarkable is the fact that all eleven faces are practically identical, thus making each faceless and without a character of her own. Was the artist creating a national identity, ironically including an English face?


Galaxy of Musicians

The oleographs brought out by “The Ravi Varma Lithographic Press” took this imagery to every home. It was to have a major impact on the independence movement. By visualizing cultural icons and providing “respectable” role models that were hung on every wall in every home he aided the emancipation of women. “This richly bedecked band of female musicians … is in a sense a paradigmatic image … It suppresses time as history in favour of memory … of the woman who can invite and sustain the paramount (male) gaze… hovering within the sacred and the profane, the aristocratic and the middle class, the foreign and the indigenous… the oriental woman who is to become through contemporary national consciousness an indigenously (ideally) positioned subjectivity”6.

The image of the Indian woman as created by Ravi Varma had a major impact on the world of art. Many artists tried to copy his style. Cinema was the major beneficiary. It created images derived from the three types mentioned earlier: upper class oppressed and long-suffering women, good wives and mothers and dynamic and assertive peasant-class women. Even television serials today continue to recreate the bejewelled, beautiful women of Ravi Varma.


  1. Venniyoor, E.M.J., Raja Ravi Varma (Government of Kerala, 1981), p. 51.
  2. Krishna Chaitanya, “Ravi Varma — His Moment in Our Art History”, Raja Ravi Varma (New Delhi, 1993), p. 31.
  3. Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, ‘Ravi Varma in Baroda”, Ibid, p. 83.
  4. Venniyoor, op. cit., p. 21.
  5. Tapati Guha Thakurta, “Raja Ravi Varma and the Project of a New ‘National Art'”, Ibid, p. 45.
  6. Geeta Kapur, “Ravi Varma’s Unframed Allegory”, Ibid, p. 100.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Director, The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, March 2003.

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