Hindu Iconography by Ravi Varma

In the year 1893, The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. A monumental event for India, for more reasons than one. An indelible mark was left in the annals of ancient Indian philosophical thought by a young monk from India, who represented Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions, which was held in conjunction with the above event. The monk was Swami Vivekananda and his contribution to the furthering of spiritual thought reverberates even today. Another outstanding personality who made his presence felt, albeit through his exemplary work and not in person, was Raja Ravi Varma, who sent ten paintings to the exposition. A painter par excellence, the authorities of the exposition showered much praise and 2 medals on him. Their comment reads, “This series of ten paintings in oil colours by Ravi Varma…is of much ethnological value..the artist’s careful attention to the details of the costume and articles used in the social and ceremonial life he has depicted render the paintings worthy of special commendation.”

The Puranas and Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which form the foundation of any religious upbringing in the Hindu tradition (apart from the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras) were the favoured texts for scholarly rendition as well as artistic pursuits. Be it soulful Carnatic and Hindustani music which draws on the lives of Hindu incarnations such as Sri Rama and Sri Krishna or sculptures and paintings which depicted their pristine journey as an incarnation, nothing appealed to the imagination of the highest calibre of artists as much as this portrayal of the Hindu pantheon of Gods. Avatars of Vishnu (including Sri Rama and Sri Krishna); Lord Shiva; Durga; Ganesha; Kartikeya; Hanuman; Lakshmi; Saraswati; Parvati and the stories associated with these deeply revered deities in the various Puranas and epics, used to form the foundational education for young children, snugly glued to their grandmothers’ laps, listening to the stories in rapt attention! It was very common for men and women of high education, to immerse themselves in scholarly study of the sacred texts and life events of these deities. Raja Ravi Varma was no exception, as he was so well-acquainted with these stories, courtesy his educated upbringing, that he could fluently translate any Puranic theme into a painting. Which brings us to the theme of this blog – Hindu Iconography by Ravi Varma.

Ravi Varma was born in 1848 in an aristocratic family and within a lifetime spanning 58 years he produced some of the most inspiring works, which aesthetically blended European artistic techniques and nuances with Indian themes. Due to his royal associations and affluent background; he quite naturally had a familiarity with the rich textures, fabrics and jewelry of the wealthy and this knowledge and attention to detail was brought forth in his paintings with much ado. As is commonly recognized and widely praised; his paintings were made affordable by him, through oleographs (to generate fine art prints, which resemble an oil painting). He started a lithographic printing press for this purpose. Such prints of the paintings; especially of the Hindu Gods and Puranic stories, made the favored deities of the masses reach them in their homes. While some art connoisseurs have criticized the depleted quality of the original, when printed, it had a desirable impact of the masses, as mentioned. His works (beyond the Hindu iconography theme) were diverse and too bold for some others; inviting considerable flak but prints of his Hindu God paintings are found in most Indian homes, which strongly overpowers some of the unremitting criticism.

While his Hindu iconography-based paintings are numerous: 1) Puranic paintings such as Yashoda and infant Krishna; Arjuna and Subhadra; Lord Krishna as an ambassador in the Kauravas’ court; life events of Sri Rama and Sita; Draupadi and Kichaka’s encounter or 2) Simple religious paintings of Sri Vishnu (along with Bhu Devi and Sri Devi); Saraswati; Lakshmi; Kali; Ganesha or Kartikeya; his real contribution on this theme was for some of the Princely states. His visit to Baroda, to make portraits of the members of the royal family, eventually led him to produce paintings on the great Indian epics and mythological stories. Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda had commissioned Varma for 14 Puranic paintings for his new palace. Sri Krishna-related events were a predominant theme during this time. His Highness Sir Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, the Maharaja of Mysore (1884-1940) was a great patron of this phenomenal artist and commissioned him to paint several mythological paintings as well, originally meant for the Durbar Hall of the Mysore Palace.

The mother-child relationship is one of the most endearing themes for artists and nothing exemplifies this more than the stories of infant Krishna and Yashoda. Establish a definite relationship with God suggest the greatest saints of India. Lord Krishna’s life has been a demonstration of the highest manifestation of these relationships – be it mother-child; friends (Krishna-Sudama and Krishna-Arjuna) or Krishna with the gopis. Saints have eulogized the power of such relationships, spiritually (be it Vatsalya; Sneha or Madhura bhava), as they can sublimate all human emotions by directing them to God alone. Artists such as Ravi Varma, played a pivotal role in bringing the mental imagery alive through artistic depictions of the same. Take the example of a Ravi Varma painting of gopis complaining to Yashoda about Krishna’s mischief, while Krishna innocently hides in the background; infant Krishna sitting in Yashoda’s lap, while she points out the cows or the one where Yashoda is milking a cow while infant Krishna comes to ask for his share of the milk. The divinity in the faces, coupled with an unmatched ‘Realism’ and exquisite touch through deep observation and knowledge of gems and jewelry, made the paintings as real as is possible! Pearls, diamonds and emeralds adorn infant Krishna while pearl and ruby jhumkis are seen on Yashoda in one of the Ravi Varma paintings; which perfectly depicted this deeply stirring mother-child relationship of Yashoda and Krishna. The richness of the fabrics; gold ornaments and intricate detail makes the painting come alive!
Coming back to the commissioned work for His Highness Sir Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore; the highlight was bringing European techniques to accentuate the characters in the monumental epic, ‘Ramayana’. A series of paintings, in order of the events in this epic, were beautifully produced by the artist. Rama breaking the Siva Dhanush; Ravana carrying off Sita; Rama, Sita and Lakshmana crossing the Sarayu River by boat; Rama threatening the Ocean God, Varuna for not making way to proceed to Lanka; Sita in Ashoka Grove surrounded by female demons; Indrajit presenting Sachi Devi to Ravana and Coronation of Rama (religious painting) are some of the most astounding works of the artist on this epic. Capturing emotions through emphasized facial emotions and expressions; sun and shade contrasts in the painting; differing skin tones on the characters; embellishments on the drapery of those who are in power; subtle suggestions of emotional states (through open or tied hair for women) are all powerful devices used by the artist to convey the narrative of the painting.

A renowned artist, Patrick Connors, spoke of the technical qualities of Ravi Varma’s paintings at a Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation Lecture. Spatial depiction, Chiaroscuro and Chromatic development are some of the features of Ravi Varma’s works, Connors states. Chiaroscuro, for instance is the use of contrast between light and dark in the production of a work; which was characteristically evident in Ravi Varma’s works such as Indrajit presenting Sachi Devi to Ravana. Chromatic development is witnessed in all its glory in the painting, ‘Sita in Ashoka Grove’; where the dark tones and fabric of the demons and the red colour on Sita’s saree are outstanding productions of colour, conveying enormously about the characters while depicting their corresponding emotions through facial expressions.

The Hindu Gods and Goddesses are depicted with that same characteristic element of “realism” as is evident in all his paintings, thus making them come alive and seem so much closer to the viewer. Divinely human is how most of the deities in the paintings can be described. Goddess Saraswathi (Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art and wisdom) is one such deity captured on his canvas. She is usually depicted with 4 hands holding a Veena (stringed instrument), the books (vedas/scriptures); a japa mala (beads) reflecting the power of austerity (or tapas) and a water pot. In Ravi Varma’s painting the deity is seen minus the water pot. A swan (hamsa); which in Hindu mythology is depicted as a symbol of discrimination (which has the ability to separate milk from water, which means the permanent from the transient) is often shown at her feet. A peacock is also often seen in an image portraying the Goddess; as is a flowing river. The goddess is normally draped in white, a symbol of purity and enlightenment. Ravi Varma is often seen to depict his own interpretation of the deities, without making drastic changes. We don’t see the swan in his painting, while a peacock is present. His usual characteristic techniques and style – crown on the deity’s head; embellishments, jewelry and intricate work on the instrument (veena), fabric and surroundings are highly prominent. There still remains a simplicity to the whole appearance of the deity.

The Goddess Lakshmi is also depicted in a similarly simplistic style, with some changes to the traditional imagery. There is only one elephant in the image, beside the deity, as opposed to two that are normally depicted. She being the Goddess of Wealth; paintings normally show wealth (gold coins) being bestowed by her on her devotees. In Ravi Varma’s interpretation we see the absence of this element. The features of the deity are more human than divine and yet the image carries a distinct ethereal feel. Nature is an intrinsic part of Ravi Varma’s art and this is true of his religious and puranic paintings as well, with trees, flowers, water and animals usually captured on the canvas along with the God/Goddess. The red lotus on which the deity is normally seen seated or standing, is an element Ravi Varma has persisted with. The deity is normally seen with 4 hands depicting the 4 ‘Ayanas’ (goals) of human life – dharma, artha, kama and moksha (righteous conduct/rules of conduct; wealth/earning capacity; desire and final emancipation). Varma has depicted 4 hands as well. In both the paintings discussed, the skin tones are perfectly captured as are the benevolent facial features and expressions normally associated with divinity. As per the various Puranas, the descriptions of the deities can vary and the elaborate nature of their adornments; vahanas (vehicles) and tools/weapons could also vary.

Another painting depicts Lord Vishnu with his 2 consorts, Bhu Devi and Sri Devi. Lord Vishnu is seated on Garuda, which is his vehicle (vahana). Garuda is the nemesis for nagas/snakes (symbolic of poison or evil), which is very authentically captured in this painting, as we see a snake in the talons of this majestic bird. As in the case of Goddess Lakshmi, we see the consorts of Vishnu in this painting as well in red, lending a regal look, without excessive embellishments. The shankha (conch), chakra (discus), gada (club) and padma (lotus) of Lord Vishnu are present, as is associated with him in all descriptions, including the Vishnu Sahasranama stotra, which is one of the highest hymns in praise of Vishnu. The skin tones of Vishnu and consorts is once again keeping with the usual representation, as Vishnu and avatars of Vishnu are of blue complexion, while his consorts are usually fair-skinned. The uniqueness of this particular painting lies in placing Vishnu on Garuda with his consorts, which is not normally seen in other representations. Vishnu is normally seen mounted on the Garuda alone. Nor is the chamara (fly whisk) in the hands of his consorts, commonly seen.

Ram Panchayatan is a very unique painting, capturing just 6 members of Rama’s family/inner circle. The most interesting fact would be depiction of Rama and Sita as one, with Sita seated on his lap, an imagery which is highly uncommon. Hanuman and Rama’s brothers are seen as the balance 4, making up a unit of 5, a highly sacred number in many traditions. In its most obvious connotation, it represents the 5 elements. As incarnations of Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi, both have the skin tones that are usually depicted for these deities. The red colour saree on Sita, once again captures her royal associations, and lends a divine look although the embellishment is minimal. While Hanuman is seen in his characteristic posture, ready to serve Lord Rama; the brothers are all attending on the divine couple.
Bharani Thirunal Raja Raja Varma Koil Thampuran (who favoured the Tanjore School), was instrumental in giving Ravi Varma the initially training in painting when he was young; followed by which Ayilyam Thirunal Maharaja, spotted the young boy’s talent and encouraged him to stay within the fort premises (where the Travancore Royal Court was located), to further his talents. Here he learnt primarily through observation of the painters of the palace. He saw reproductions of Italian masterpieces and witnessed for the first time, techniques such as three-dimensional quality to a painting, which lends it depth; use of light and shade and so on. But he still didn’t have a tutor, as the palace artist, Ramaswamy Naidoo, didn’t evince interest in instructing him. Naidoo’s apprentice though was moved by Varma, and unknown to his master, agreed to instruct him.

It was primarily this initiation into the basics of art and own trial and error, that led to the mastery that Varma achieved. Varma had tremendous belief in divine grace and intervention and that made him persevere. As lay observers, we can see this faith of his translate into the innumerable paintings of Hindu Iconography that he produced. He believed there was a religious void in the country, which paintings based on religious themes and of Gods and Goddesses, could possibly fill. He also wanted it to reach the masses, which he achieved unequivocally through the oleographs of his paintings. His contribution therefore goes far beyond the artistic realm, it had a far-reaching cultural and social impact that continues to touch thousands of lives through his art, even today.

Visit the Circa store at Anjuna, Goa to peruse our collection of original Ravi Varma Lithographs or you can purchase online here.

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