Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma) | A Realist Mythological Depiction
Updated: May 8
A country of exquisite and endless culture, India is known for its complex and rich ancient past. The land, with its perishable buildings, monuments, and sanctuaries, tells a story we still hold dear. Whether it is the series of Mahabharata or Ramayana, our ancestors made us learn from every retarded situation and clasp ourselves to get the ultimate way to Moksha. It is incomparable to the artistic heritage that India saw even in the early centuries, and no other period or country could surpass it. It is because of the reason that our ancestors were way forward in the race of divinity, spirituality and science. The purpose of art for them was to express themselves in a way that could eventually lead them to communion with God. And one could witness these facts by studying ancient Indian art and architecture, which solely held on the symbolic beliefs to getting more steps towards the Creator. Centuries and centuries passed to give new forms of folk and religious art to satisfy one's soul and eyes. In my perspective, art is a way to learn the society, people, and developments. However, I usually forget these things when I see Indian art and get swept up in admiring the divinity of the figures. Having come across the artworks by Ravi, an artist who not only mixed the academic-art of Europe with regional art but also gave us the form of the gods we worship today, I was deeply awe-inspired by the myths and stories. Hence, today I present one of the famous Indian paintings, Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma), which depicts an enthralling character immersed in the colours.
1. Artist's Statement.
Due to a lack of evidence and sources, I am not putting up any words the artist possibly said. However, here is a quote that rightly describes the Ravi painting we are discussing today.
"In both these paintings [Shakuntala, 1898; Hamsa-Damyanti, 1899], the male lover, though absent from the pictorial frame, forms a pivotal point of reference in the narrative. His presence and gaze transfix these feminine images, rendering them into ‘desirable’ ideals, even as a set of other signs and codes –like the presence of the swan in the Damayanti painting – transports these figures from their immediate environs to the world of the epics and the ranks of national mythological pageantry. (Guha-Thakurta, 1993, 53)"
2. Subject Matter.
In Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma), two ladies converse on the way to the woods with Shakuntala as the main subject, removing a thorn from her foot as her eyes gaze in search of her love, Dushyanta. There is a complementary use of mannerisms in the pose of Shakuntala to enhance the feminine representation by the artist. With an approach to perspective on the canvas, Ravi successfully shows the beauty of the forest with higher peaks and a snowy sky.
Raja Ravi Verma, a link of artistry with a different approach between the 19th and 20th centuries, was the painter of the composition Shakuntala. Belonging to the period when the Indian art form was trying to break away from the traditional mould, Ravi formed a strong foundation of modern art, which later gave him the title, "Father of Modern Indian Art". With his contribution to art, he transformed the timeless beauty of women, casting a spell of love on art lovers.
Shakuntala painting dates back to the year of 1898.
There is hardly any information on the fact that, under what circumstances did the artist produce the painting? While we did not know much about the composition, we did understand that it had been made under the influence of European encounters in India, under the Bazaar painting school. In 1888-90, Ravi composed around fourteen mythological paintings to adorn the Newl Hall at the Lakshmi Vilas Palace, commissioned by the Gaekwar of Baroda (Sayaji Rao). The motif behind these compositions was to keep the splendour of Indian Heritage alive for generations. It will be my pleasure to tell you about the complete history and the series in the second half of this article.
Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma) measures 110 cm (43 in) by 181 cm x (71 in) and is currently in the collection of The Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Tiruvantapuram, India, featuring the artist's genius.
7. Technique and Medium.
It is an oil painting on canvas that employs the techniques of mannerism, realism, and chiaroscuro. If you're unfamiliar with the terms, let me briefly explain them. A chiaroscuro painting uses light and shadow to give the impression of realism, as seen in the works of Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio. Next, mannerism is a style Greeks used to give in their art sculptures and paintings to show the elegance of their subjects through poses. I am also linking the painting analysis, which will help you look at these terms in detail.
Raja Ravi Varma
Oil on sheet painting
Historical Mythological painting
110 x 181 cm
Priceless, Not on sale
Where is it housed?
The Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram, India
Now let us move towards the following sections to get an in-depth idea of the canvas.
In-Depth Information about Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma.
About the Artist: Raja Ravi Varma.
Born on 29 April 1848 in Kilimanoor, Trivandrum, Kerala, Ravi belonged to the royal family of Travancore. In the beginning, Ravi's uncle Raja Raja Verma, who was also a good artist, taught him the basics of painting. When he was fourteen, Maharaja Ayilyum Thirunal took him to Travancore and placed him under the royal painter Rama Swamy Naidu. After three years of being an apprentice under the court painter, Ravi started learning painting under a British Painter, Theodore Jenson.
If we look at the period when the artist entered the art field, it was the time when India was almost taking a new shape in its artistic journey, keeping away the traditional painting and involving itself in Modern Art. Hence, to establish a new technique, Ravi became the first artist to use oil paints, which led him to become a controversial artist of the time, as the Tagore family wanted to keep Indian art away from Westernisation. In the beginning, Rembrandt inspired Ravi, which led the artist to incorporate European art techniques into his canvas. However, the subjects he chose were always Indian Goddesses and mythological figures. In recognition of his pioneering adoption of the Western perspective, Nair Lady Doing Her Hair won the Governor's, Gold Medal.
With no time with his art techniques, he got recognised in India, making him get commissions from Indian nobility and Europeans. Ravi produced portraits of the kings of Madras, Trivandrum, Baroda, Udaipur and other states. Some of his finest works, when he captured the drama and are significant, include Shakuntala's Love Letter, Vishwamitra-Menaka, Mohini, Damyanti, and Sri Rama Vanquishing the Sea.
In 1893, these paintings were first exhibited outside Kerala, which led the masses to see the artistic abilities of Ravi. Not to mention, it was an absolutely commendable achievement for the century as an artist.
History and Background of the Artwork.
I previously explained in the provenance section; we have limited knowledge of the circumstances of the painting's creation. According to what we know, Gaekwar of Baroda (Sayaji Rao) commissioned a series of fourteen paintings between 1888 and 1890. They belonged to the characters and stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Shakuntala was one of those included in the commission. It came under the Bazaar Painting school, which got its influence from Roman and Greek art. Now the fourteen paintings were Nala Damayanti, Radha and Madhava, Bharata and the Lion Cub, Arjuna and Subhadra, Vishvamitra and Menaka, Shantanu and Ganga, Kansa Maya, Dirobing of Draupadi, Harishachandra and Taramati, The Beauty and the Beast, Sita Swayamvaram, Birth of Krishna, Devki and Krishna, Shantanu and Satyavati. The fee charged by the artist for all of them was Rupees 50,000 (a well-sized diamond rated Rs 1000 at that time).
This commission required Ravi to travel throughout India to study dresses, draperies, and local adornments. Since the artist wanted to compose his paintings with as much reality as possible, he made sure that the viewer would never see foreign elements that he was uncomfortable with. And, together with his brother, Raja Raja Verma, he read numerous Sanskrit texts and epics to determine the plot and enhance the characters in the story. It has been known that the model for Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma) was Rajibai Moolgavkar, a relative of the foreman of the press.
Understanding the Meaning of Raja Ravi Varma's Masterpiece.
As Raja Ravi Verma took the scene from the play Kalidasa, Abhijnanashakuntalam, he portrayed the life of Shakuntala. The painting depicts a pure theme of Rasa, which defines itself as,
“Rasa is the lasting impression of feeling produced to his overwhelming delight in a man of poetic susceptibility by the proper action of the Vibhavas and the Anubhavas, as well as the Sattvika Bhavas and the Vyabhicharibhavas” (Kale, 1969. p.6)."
Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma portrays Shakuntala with two friends, Anasuya and Priyanvada, appearing as if she is removing thorns from her foot, but is actually searching for her husband and love, Dusyanata. Her friends call her bluff in response to this.
Subject Matter of Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma).
Before we do a subject matter analysis of the canvas of Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma), let me tell you that I am dividing the elements of the artwork so that it is easy for you to notice and perceive information on every character.
Ravi portrayed Shakuntala in saffron garments with jasmine flowers as ornamentation. Kalidasa has exactly portrayed a similar Shakuntala in his play, which the artist mastered in his canvas. With one of her hands on the back of her friend and another one to remove the thorn from her feet, she looks for her husband with an absolutely normal gaze. Her expressions are sober and divine, with the purest will to have one flicker of his presence. There is sharp light falling on her face. The clear draperies of the sari maintain the original form a lady adores on her body.
The art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta writes,
"This very gesture - the twist and turn of head and body - draws the viewer into the narrative, inviting one to place this scene within an imagined sequence of images and events. On its own, the painting stands like a frozen tableau (like a still from a moving film), plucked out of an on-running spectacle of episodes. These paintings also reflect the centrality of the 'male gaze' in defining the feminine image. Though absent from the pictorial frame, the male lover forms a pivotal point of reference, his gaze transfixes Shakuntala, as also Damayanti, into 'desired' images, casting them as lyrical and sensual ideals."
2. Woman with a Flower Basket.
The lady has flowers in a basket, with her face not revealed as she talks to her friend. She wears a blouse and dhoti that usually village-girls wear, showcasing the Indian clothing of the time. With a bun of her hair, she wears pink and off-white clothes, making the composition warm and beautiful.
3. Another Woman.
The lady holds a water pot with her clothes similar to her friend. She smiles while she teases Shakuntala with her other friend.
All of them stand in a forest while the landscaped beauty of the lake, mountains and lush trees fills the space. Now that we know the subject matter of the composition, let us move to our last section.
Learning the Shakuntala Painting Analysis.
As you can see in the Shakuntala painting, the contour lines that separate each element's identity within the figures and objects of nature are distinct and delicate. The vertical lines in the form of figures standing, a stick, and a tree trunk establishes the vigorous stability of the scene. Furthermore, the sight of Shakuntala comes with a straight horizontal line, which suggests tranquillity in her relationship with Dushyanta.
2. Light and Value.
The picture produces sharp contrasts with the bright illuminance of most of the parts of the figures and nature. It is through the gentle gradation which unifies the entire composition into one place. For instance, there is sharp sunlight on the ground at some distance, whereas a few parts of the figures shine with light and shadows.
3. Colour Analysis.
Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Varma) fills with warm colours in greenery, indicating an inviting atmosphere. There is rich expressiveness through the use of colours, like the saffron saree of Shakuntala with the white drapery of the old man walking with a stick.
Opinions and Conclusions.
Concerning Shakuntala (Raja Ravi Verma), numerous elements and components contribute to its excellence. And the most crucial thing was that we knew women's societal clothes and conditions through this extraordinary composition. The Sanskrit play of Kalidasa was somewhere strenuous to understand by the generations, but this image gives a clarity of love and beauty which we can feel with one glimpse.