Introduction to Raja Ravi Verma

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During the closing years of the 19th century, the westernization of Indian Art had achieved at least one triumph, just as the Indians were now expressing their thoughts in flowing English, an artist had painted portraits of a wealthy ‘with all the powers of European Art’. He was hailed as a prince amongst the artists and an artist amongst the princes.

Stimulated by the active encouragement of the royal family of Travancore, the Gaekwad of Baroda and other wealthy patrons, Raja Ravi Verma turned his attention to the illustration of Hindu legends and epics.

This was the beginning of musical theatre. Himself well versed in scriptures, dance and music, he plunged in the world of theatre for his sketchings and inspiration. Though surrounded by a galaxy of many beautiful types of women ever eager to please him and pose for any character in his paintings, none matched his vision of Urvashi flying in the heavens. The canvas remained empty.

She, belonging to a Devdasi cult, was given to an old Parsi gentleman, who adored her and looked after her well and died leaving her enough money to live luxuriously with her old aunt, sister and servants.

Every morning, like a ritual, he would visit the temple and observe her entering with her attendants. When she confronted her, he, smiling mischievously, gifted her a painting, unaffected by her anger. The portrait of her was almost alive, whispering the innermost secrets of her desires. She was bewitched by her own beauty. He was a king, she came to know. He was not surprised when she visited him in his studio. She had come to return the gift for the reason that she takes nothing for free. The price was to pose as Urvashi.

Urvashi, the most beautiful celestial nymph belonging to the Gandharva network had agreed to live with the king Purava on the condition that under no circumstances she should see him naked. In case of such an event, she would return to the heavens. And one night, when they were both fast asleep, the Gardharvas played a trick and freed the sheep and other livestock of the kings. Hearing the din, as king Purava jumped out of the bed, a lightening flashed in the sky, and for a fraction of a second, the king stood naked, all visible to Urvashi’s eyes. The spell was broken. Urvashi returned to the heavens leaving Purava gaping at the sky.

Thinking for a long time, she agreed to pay the price. For days, she came to the studio, stood for him, but he never touched the brush. The canvas remained empty under his gaze. And finally, perturbed, humiliated and angry, she threw her arms, and her cloth slipped. She stood bare-breasted, furious. And this was the image. Days passed, the painting was complete. She had paid the price. It was time to leave, but destiny had other desires. In his empire of senses, she was his love slave, and the leading lady of all his pictures. And, crossing the seas, his fame grew in all directions.

It was the age of mass reproduction and Victorian amusements. Cinema had arrived and so was plague spreading like fire. It was the Maharaja of Baroda who had suggested to set up a printing press turning out oleographic prints of Hindu gods and goddesses. And Raja Ravi Verma started appealing to the values and sensibility of an anonymous Hindu middle-class, moulding and shaping their imagination from an immediate circle of patrons. It had touched upon the right area of wishful longing for the beautiful.

The obvious vulgarity of those images were leavened by the feeling that the goddesses were, in fact, no other than the coy mistresses of breeding whose manners and etiquettes of behaviour merited the celestial.

But she did not know, she was everywhere. In middle-class houses, shops, calendars. But the orthodox were hostile to this phenomenon. It was a case of obscenity, disgracing the Hindu gods and goddesses, thereby attacking the Hindu faith. Punishment could have public stoning or an unending imprisonment.

In the beginning she was not happy that without being told she was being sold in the market. Same one who was pure and untouched. Her trust was broken. She was inconsolable. But at the same time she being blindly in love with Ravi could not face the truth that her king could be sent to prison like an ordinary criminal. Is she the cause of his fall? Is she herself the curse? Has she seen through him?

It was one of its kind of a case of obscenity. But he against the orthodoxy wins his argument. But she has killed herself convinced and believing that it was because of her that Ravi Verma would fall to disgrace. And she kills herself.

On October 2, 1906, Ravi Verma’s house was flowing with people who had come from all over. The small town of Kilimanoor had never seen a crowd this big till then. Correspondents of all the major national newspapers as well as Reuters was present. He was breathing his last, remembering…. Being brought to the Travancore capital to participate in the royal Swayamvaram. He was thirteen. He had mastered all the prescribed classics in Sanskrit and Malayalam. He knew dance, music and painting. The Maharaja sat unmoved and when the audience was over, he made the cryptic observation that the boy was a shade too dark for his choice.