Location: The Lakshmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara.
Point of Contact: A painting of Raja Ravi Varma. Or two.
Promiscuity is a multilayered word. When a woman adopts it, with or without consequences, she is sniped. It is contemptible. It’s a bit much for society to take. And this has been true through every spell of its existence.
One man made promiscuous look stunning. In fact everything he made took birth because a woman somewhere decided to be promiscuous. A word he didn’t see as pejorative; women he didn’t see as loose. The defiant artist that he was, he turned them into goddesses.
RAJA RAVI VARMA painted people to perfection. They were quite possibly more themselves on his canvasses. Beyond beautiful. For a couple of seconds, as you stood before them, perhaps, tangible even. His life and work touched the people of India and the World, giving particularly the former a lesson in dreaming, believing and creating.
In a country that had lost its sense of worth to imperialism, Raja Ravi Varma’s art restored faith in a culture so vast, it was invaluable. The Goddesses now had faces to their names. And they came from those most ostracized in society: nautch girls, prostitutes, seductresses. Because they were beautiful. They are beautiful. And they will remain so. Everything beautiful is worth creating, celebrating and preserving. And there was no other way a formidable artist like him would have it. Every stroke, every trace, every detail, every feel, every effort – all for the love of beautiful. A beautiful he thought should be worshipped.
This palace cradles several of his works. I’m standing before Menaka and Vishwamitra. If this was groundbreaking art, the narrative of this union broke some solid ground in the mythological realm just as well. An Apsara and a Sadhu. The temptress and the unrelenting. He indulges himself after all. A seductress succeeds and doesn’t the saint also? Some would argue otherwise. Morons!
With a penance on Earth so austere, he could have become more powerful than the Gods in Heaven – Vishwamitra was a threat to all divinity. Indra, who was at a straight risk of losing his throne, had the solution: Menaka. Celestial nymph, forever young, forever exquisitely beautiful, no strings attached, always willing to sweep a man off his feet, even willing to bear children, if she must. A sexually idealized woman and therefore, the ultimate male fantasy.
And so, she descended upon Earth. Menaka transformed the forest where the Sage sat deep in Dhyana into a plush garden. Vayu blew by, rustling the leaves, letting flowers rain on grass, the breeze lifting and replacing and at times, displacing her garments to allow for the stealing of more than just a glance at what lay below. Vishwamitra opens his eyes to a buffet of beauty. Lush and lime greenery, red, pink, white and yellow blossoms, slight springs and other gentle cascades of water and of course, the ethereal Menaka. The sage was now entranced for other reasons. All austerity fell away as did the wall between saint and sinner. He made love to her.
In a painting beside this one, the story progresses…
When the infallible fell, so did his powers. Vishwamitra was furious when he learnt of Indra’s ploy. Although a bonnie baby was born to them, he chose to abandon her in order to return to his asceticism. In fact, he never considered her his own. Her birth was a mistake. A lie rather. Done with her duties, Menaka was dismissed not only by the Sage but also directed by Indra to return to the Heavens. She felt like any woman would – betrayed by her
lover and shattered as a mother who was forced to leave her daughter in the foster care of Shakuntala birds. But she did. Her little bundle became Sage Kanva’s joy to raise. And she made peace with it.
Menaka went back to her life and Vishwamitra to his. It was the way of their worlds. Promiscuous or not, she was what she was. Heartless and detached, he was what he was. They had purpose and it disallowed them certain mortal inclinations.
Raja Ravi Varma saw that. And it made him true. It made his work honest-to-God. And it made him utterly respectful of every character he painted. That’s what stays. That’s what endures. It’s why his art is immortal. Because it conveys that depth of detail, that height of consideration and a steady earnestness.
His muses, regardless of societal rejection, live on in his works that give them their due; the fair place they ought to have in our civilization. So they live on as emblems of divinity rather than derision. This man turned women like them into Goddesses when the world cast them off as corrupt. He saw a diva in their eyes, a fairy, a deity. Who could ever question that? It’s plain to see. Art was life. He was proud of his own and the culture he came from. His art would echo that. It would have tradition weaved into it – the cornerstone of his inspiration.
Somewhere he knew, for all the opposition and cynicism and contempt his revolutionary art would draw, his country and its people would never let themselves weaken to intolerance. Traveling the length and breadth of his glorious country had told him that. The tasteful temples of Konarak and Khajurao, the caves of Ajanta-Ellora, brim with erotic art – sensual sculptures so aesthetic – not lascivious or unsettling, nor reprehensible, just simply bewitching. Our man was thoroughly enthralled. As one should be.
“This is the land of Kamasutra for god’s sake!”, I can hear him cry out. “It teaches us to treasure and fulfill and celebrate our bodies, our souls, our desires, our humanity! And I’m only a human being who tried to do the same with his talent. These paintings are my stories. The way I see the world. And I have shared them with you, for you to see, to feel and to believe. They’re my childhood, my foundation, my springboard. Gems from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the world’s greatest ever epics. And from them, one thing comes catapulting to the fore: The debasing of a woman. By her husband or her lover or the Gods even! And we are all to blame! All of us! I know I am to blame too for allowing this scourge to persist. The truth bluntly put is this: I’m an artist. A small, selfish, greedy artist who wants to win every heart in the world; who wants to reach as many people and touch them in any way possible – evoke any feeling, really; who lives in the perfectly rational fear that what if everything I have to offer, the torrent of it all, doesn’t come wholly surging out?; what if the ever changing times leave me behind?!
I believe that the aim of life should be to be more beautiful than Art. If you tie up Art, if you restrain it and put it in iron chains, everything in life that is beautiful or inspiring or of meaning or worthy, will, without a doubt, be destroyed. We’ll have imprisoned ourselves, for eternity.”
The questions are: Can you confine thought? Can you incarcerate Art? Can you limit its inherent ability to resist and revolt and revolutionize? Can you impede its capacity to extol the deprecated?
If you don’t already know the answers to that, come look at what I am. Come see what this King of Colours shines the Sun on.
Because we are the choices we make, any choice is beautiful. Art can manifest that. One man saved India from losing that. And with it, he made every woman victorious.
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