That Ravi Varma’s vision of Hindu-India as an ‘ideal’ is now being pushed towards a hardened fascist vision is obvious. It does not make him a fascist artist. Yet his lineage, from Phalke to B R Chopra, culminated in the Rath Yatra and the razing of the Babri Masjid, writes Anita Dube
The first thing first, without any hide and seek regarding the Raja Ravi Varma retrospective at the National Museum, New Delhi, in May-June 1993. Eighty seven years after his death and forty six years after our Independence, Ravi Varma’s rehabilitation-with-state-honours is a project that is neither innocent nor defensible. Not for the reasons lobbed about, but because the ethical, cultural, political issues that it raises have today become serious, even dangerous, part of the larger-- especially after December 6--in a way they were not even, say, a decade ago.
Then let us ask why Ravi Varma became a cultural icon whose priority acquired a pan-Indian sweep? What was the nature of hi enterprise within the larger construction of the Indian nation? What does his representation of women indicate? And what does his resurrection within this particular hour of our history mean?
To begin, then. Indian feudalism having lost the battle against the British bourgeoisie in the rebellion of 1857 had become servile and totally dependent on British patronage. The erosion of the economic base of the older form and the systematic creation of conditions whereby capitalist production was introduced and commanded by the British ruling classes were contiguous processes--India becoming a dumping ground for British manufacture, while its raw materials fuelled the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
These changes led to the transformation of the old feudal ruling classes in India into a new bourgeois ruling class through its quest for newer, progressive forms of capital. In the Gangetic basin, a class of zamindars (tax collectors created by the East India Company) had become powerful landholders, whom the British especially cultivated for political support.
It was these classes that began to vie with the British for power and control of the produce of India as their capital and enterprise expanded, even as they were indoctrinated through English education and exposure to liberal ideas.
It was, again, these classes that led the struggle for Independence. In the words of Eijaz Ahmed, “For the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie which arose within the colonial context, the ‘nation’ was a convenient site at which to construct their own hegemonic projects, in opposition to colonialism but also to displace the preceding and existing pluralities of the indigenous society.”
It is precisely here, within such a framework, that Ravi Varma can be introduced, as an artist-entrepreneur; closely aligned to this nature and activity of the early Indian capitalist classes who, following from the British, were also his chief patrons and promoters.
Like them he was progressive in rejecting the outmoded forms of production, the painting of the hybrid Tanjore court, grounded as this was within vanishing feudal patronage. He aptly sensed the future potential in the new medium of oil-on-canvas introduced into the Travancore court by Ramaswamy Naickar, and began to develop--through an arduous process of trial-and-error, and some instruction--a vocabulary of illusionistic devices, chiaroscuro, perspective, etc, towards his own version of ‘naturalism’, with heavy modelling, over-darkening of contours and shadows, and obsession for the glint of gold, jewels, rich fabrics, skin, etc, which created a sensual quality that was unusual and appealing.
Ravi Varma had sensed, and this is crucial in his career, the seductive potential in the oil medium and the naturalistic mode or, rather, he had developed it precisely in such a direction. That seduction is a basic principle within theories of ‘demand’ to which the market and the mass-arts permanently appeal, and does not need to be elaborated here for the present argument.
What is important, however, is that Ravi Varma had found the secret-code within his means, to direct the need of his audiences; a form of power that he then used to push through the ideological project of his class--a Hindu vision of India as a hegemonic ‘nation’ , a predominantly male construct in which women played a subordinate role as the ‘fair-weaker-sex’, consumed and deified as objects of ideal or base desire--in tandem with, and because of, the growing exigencies of the market, as the new insidious means of unified and extended control.
What the materiality of oil paint and the naturalistic mode could do was to stimulate appearances and substances; within atmospheric sensations and ensconced in the light and depth of shadows. In short, recreate the apparent sensuous drama of life (of the upper classes) in situ. Like no other medium could, or had attempted to, to make everything appear more believable, more convincing, in its veracity or ‘truth’ of appearances; therefore more overwhelming in its power and bid for permanence like the early photographs.
Such ‘naturalism’ was a major tool within bourgeois-imperialist ideology not only in 19th century Europe but also, subsequently, in the colonies; a way of conceiving and appropriating the world as also of making this the only reality.
Equipped with this technology, Ravi Varma turned his gaze towards women as prime marketable commodities within his paintings and oleographs. The Rambha, Mohini, Menaka, Madri, Vasantasena, Damayanti, Usha, the several Shakuntalas amply testify to this. That these goddesses, apsaras and characters from mythology were fashioned after living models, photographs of models, ‘nautch-girls’ and famous Parsi and Marathi stage actresses of the time, added titillation to them.
They were carefully selected for their ‘beauty’ and contained voluptuousness, as also markers of class, caste and aristocratic demeanour, costumed in rich, refined fabrics with gold work and elaborate jewellery (the formal clothing of the new-bourgeois classes).
This especially painted and highlighted with deep passion and skill, always barely concealing the body, the skin and, specially, the breasts. This was explosive in the repressive social mores and changing social formations of 19th century Indian society -- what was forbidden, coveted in fantasy, was now made available for mass consumption as an image, transparently camouflaged and clothed as it was with religion, myth and the ‘past’ to assert ‘Hindu’ and ‘male’ dominance.
In 1888, when Ravi Varma was commissioned a major series of 14 puranic pictures for Sayaji Rao Gaekwad’s new palace, he and his brother set out on a study tour, professionals as they were, to gather raw material for their compositions.
Significantly, they travelled through the North (areas in which the Indian bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes wereemergent)--from Lahore to Delhi, Oudh upto Calcutta -- noting, sketching in physiognomic types, costumes, ‘vignettes of Indian life’, historical monuments; all of which they processed towards a pan-Indian typology -- a system of conventions wherein, interestingly, the sari as a proper national costume for Indian women was discovered and institutionalised.
To the further pictorial problems that the homogenizing national project presented, Ravi Varma found a clever solution in the ‘typical’ (stereotyping as a fixed system of clues which would adopt a quick and easy identification with the ‘scene’, ‘…..’ and ‘situation’ at hand, through selective and meaningfully loaded features of costume, hair style, anatomy, posture, backdrop, architecture, landscape).
The fashionable Parsi and Marathi theatre of the time in Bombay was packed with …..conventions modelled on the lines of 19th century Victorian theatre. This, as also the other cultural production,….., were loaded with erotic overtones camouflaging within high moral-dramas in which sentimental aspects are carefully preserved and exaggerated. The Varma brothers fragmented this theatre in Bombay. Its hold on the upper and middle class audiences in the taboo-ridden society of 19th century India was a lesson they learned well and used to great success in their paintings.
The disjuncture with the past in the colonial experience was sought to be overcome by Ravi Varma through a facile appropriation of his own history within a typical, closed but ‘high’ and ‘ideal’ system in which the use-value of myth was enormous even as a new myth, that of bourgeois eternity and naturalness was being formed.
That all this -- almost everything that Ravi Varma ‘pioneered’ -- has become a stock-in-trade of the mass arts, especially commercial Indian cinema is what speaks for Ravi Varma’s ‘genius’ -- the identification and concretisation of the core ideological planks on which the mass market in India was, and is, structured.
That this was conducted under the sign of ‘Orientalism’ is important, that this was then marketed on a large scale; the paintings transferred and transformed to suit the technology of colour lithography with high surface gloss, at the Ravi Varma Lithographic Press (established at his own expense and constantly fed by himself, his brother Raja Raja Varma, other apprentices and technicians) led to an appeasement of the middle class need to ‘possess’ -- as a commodity -- myth, history, beautiful women, scenes of romance and plenitude, and this becoming instituted as a social ‘value’.
It also led to a virtual obliteration from the collective unconscious of the upwardly mobile classes the magnificence of Indian aesthetics in its material manifestations -- the paintings and sculptures that have come down to us right upto the 18th century.
These reveal in their material presence (and I say this at the cost of generalizing) the energy, skill and organic vision of the craftsmen who came from the lower classes linked to the little traditions, to fuse with and transform the theoretical formulations and abstractions of Brahmin scholars within the ‘high’ tradition -- under the patronage of rulers and traders -- to create forms of marvellous earthiness, human, dignity, inventiveness and format resolutions which are, among other things, a witness to their continuous struggle.
With Ravi Varma, it was this ‘past’ that was conveniently filtered into a number of quantifiable things, delivered into the present as theatre, a tableau of, and for, his class.
This is, then, the background to something we want to arrive at. To flatter the ‘taste’ of his predominantly Hindu patrons, what Ravi Varma depicted was a vision of civilization of the classical times, the mythic Golden Age, when Hindus were said to be at the peak of their powers -- supreme and pure, both politically and culturally.
Here, as Geeta Kapoor points out, “ideologically speaking, the classical past is set against the medieval, which is regarded as having been corrupted by a medley of foreign influences and by the psychology of subordination showing up Hindu civilization. Not only the Islamic but curiously also Buddhist culture, though falling squarely within the classical, is excluded from mainstream Indian culture when a civilizational memory is sought to be awakened….”
That this was the base of the 19th century Indian-Renaissance is clearly visible in the work of Ravi Varma. What is disquieting is that such a longing for a hegemonic Hindu-rashtra is once again on the political agenda, and that the Ravi Varma exhibition became a small but crucial part of its cultural propaganda.
That the State is party to such designs, or plays into its hands, is plain. That such a design needs powerful icons, cult figures around which masses can be mobilised and encouraged to be uncritical yet unified in a militaristic, orgiastic, a-historic way, points to its fascist character.
Susan Sontag has written in her study on Nazi propagandist Leni Reifenstal’s films in Fascinating Fascism: “It is generally thought that National Socialsim stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism -- more broadly fascism -- also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community, the repudiation of the intellect, the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders)…
“In contrast to the a-sexual chasteness of official communist art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection: identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a ‘spiritual’ force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic (that is, woman) is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable reponse being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse.”
That Ravi Varma’s vision of Hindu-India as an ‘ideal’ is now being pushed towards a hardened fascist vision is obvious. It does not make him a fascist-artist, yet his lineage -- from Phalke to B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharat -- culminated in the Rath Yatra and the razing of the Babri Masjid to rubble.
And there is more on this agenda: a rewriting of history: discrediting of writers, artists, historians, scholars who dissent; other pogroms-in-the-making. Sontag writes, “Goebbels said in 1933: ‘…And we who shape German policy feel ourselves to be artists…the task of art and the artist (being) to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy’!”
As postscript to this we will briefly deconstruct two of Ravi Varma’s paintings to get nearer what we have been pointing at. The Jatayu Vadhaat the ShriJayachamarajendra Art Gallery, Mysore, has Ravana as a dark, Dravidian, powerfully built, coarse figure (heavy upturned moustache, thick side-burns) -- embodiment of malevolent forces, power-lust-violence -- forcefully abducting a fair, demure North Indian woman, Sita, whose refined, upper class sensibility is horrified at the killing of Jatayu.
There the core convention of the rape-formula has been created, with the ‘bad’ black man and the ‘good’ white woman, along with moral tale: Ravana’s crown falls to the ground as a portent of events to follow.
In Vishwamitra and Menaka at the Fateh Singh Museum Trust, Baroda, we have Vishwamitra with a fair, youthful, refined body, well toned skin, well tended hair and beard --hardly that of a man having gathered knowledge and wisdom through rigorous learning and the hazards of life. Rather, he is an upper class man placed in a moral dilemma by a beautiful woman dressed in fine silk, jewellery, hair style, after the fashions of the time. The setting: ‘naturally’ -- ‘scenic’ -- against lofty Himalayan ranges that symbolise Vishwamitra’s endeavour, while Menaka, or the ‘woman’ is represented through a waterfall.