Mythological images painted by Ravi Varma

Corpothetics and the dynamic domains associated with the
 mythological images painted by Ravi Varma in the late 19th 

century India.

The paper will address the idea of ‘corpothetics’ in the images painted by Ravi Varma in the mythological domain. I will look into the images of Keechak- Sairandhri, Draupadi- cheerharan, Dhruv Narayan and Shakuntala. These images from the mythological domain exhibit the notion of corpothetics in a way that tries a very subtle method to create the inclusive and mutual space for aesthetics and the corporeal performance, which expands in several domains of the Indian sphere. Within Indian sphere the swinging phase and situation of the society created a space and reception of these images in a very enriched manner. Pinney’s idea of seeing the image’s efficacy gets executed in my opinion through the amalgamation of the ‘aesthetics’, that is invested in the making of a certain image with the ‘corporeal performance’ that is done either by the image itself or done in the consolidated imagination of the viewer who in the Indian sphere surely engages oneself in the long tradition of listening stories which range from epics to poetry.

Keechak Sairandhri was the image painted by Ravi varma in the year 1890. Going through the visual elements and setting of the image we become aware of several things which include the setting of the situation, time frame or from which mythological story this specific moment is carved out and depicted. That micro-moment from the mythological story becomes the carrier of the whole narrative when it is seen by the viewer. Pinney writes in his book Photos of the Gods that Two clear …..examined in more detail later in the book are the affective intensity of new nationalist landscape(the actual ‘look’ of the emergent nation) and the prominence of revolutionary terrorism in the popular imagination. Pinney’s approach here seems to be more of seeing the development of the narratives of images in separate compartments. This method reduces the ‘totality’ of the image, which refers to the image being seen not as a fragment of the larger narrative but as the total embodiment of the every possible reading through the image. The aesthetics along with the specific corporeal performance of every individual image creates the influence of ‘totality’ in the viewer’s mind and imagination.

When Ravi Varma had painted these mythological images, he would not have been preoccupied with all these ideas and the functions that these images would be doing in the later times. when Keechak Sairandhri image is seen in the public sphere, innumerable embodiment of ideas from different domains are associated with the image. The innumerable embodiment of ideas become possible because of the varying nature of the public spheres where the painting is exhibited. When the same image is put on display in the museum, it can be the carrier of a voice for the agency asserted by the female bodies in the male dominated society but when the same image is on display in a private space it become a mere depiction for the appreciation of the palace setting which has the curtains, pillars, the pattern of the floor and the costume, expression and gesture of the characters in the frame. It can be argued here that the most dynamic surface for seeing the notion of corpothetics in its ‘totality’ come in full throttle with the engagement of the space as a dominant factor. My idea comes here from a very different perspective of Durkheim who in ‘The Elementary Forms of the Religious life’ argues that all societies divided the world into two categories, ‘the sacred’ and ‘the profane’. Religion is based upon this division. It is a “unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden”. Even this study by Durkheim carries lots of limitations and problems but it helps me understand the role space plays in determining the position of anything. Durkheim’s study is based upon the division of religion in society but my idea here is to explore the role space acquires in the larger sociopolitical sphere to determine the locality and awareness of the image with the viewer’s perspective.

Fig. 1 Keechak Sairandhri image, 1890

Moving to the image of Dhruv Narayan, we are shown the realm of transcendence of the mortal existence and how it resonates and functions for the Indian society. This opinion substantiates the further thread from the notion of corpothetics in context of first image of Keechak Sairandhri. The transcendence happens here through the notion of darshan which pinney explains as seeing and being seen’ by a deity or as Arvind Rajagopal has made a similar point: ‘one is “touched” by darshan and seeks it as a form of contact with the deity”. I think one is not only touched but also transformed and brought to the pedestal of ‘divine’ through these contextualized depictions. But I see the idea of transcendence of the mortal existence as an exchange of the two ‘beings’ (divine being and the human being) in the moment of darshan in Indian context. Engaging myself with the image of Dhruv Narayan I find my opinion getting embodied and performed. In the image the very presence of Vishnu in front of Dhruv shows how happy Vishnu is with the austerity of Dhruv that he did not care about leaving his abode to bless Dhruv with the power of immortality. Vishnu is shown in full physical attributes which are the Shankh, Chakra, Gada and Pushp. Apart from these attributes he is also shown with the godly aura behind hid head and in the costume of a king, which is recognized tthrough the crown. The binary of the divine and the ordinary is maintained and diluted in the depiction at the same time. Dhruv according to the story is the son of a king. He leaves home at the age of five because of the humiliation caused by his step mother. He starts reciting Om Vishnudevaya Namah. My idea of exchange of the beings is happening here in the moment of darshan. Vishnu becomes the mortal being the moment he appears on the earth in front of Dhruv to give him darshan and in the same moment Dhruv is blessed that immortality. Dhruv becomes the ever shining Pole star. The Indian mythological stories are full of the juxtaposition of these exchanges of ‘beings’. Lots of Shiva, Krishna and many stories in our society reveal the abundance of the notion.

                                           Fig. 2 Dhruv Narayana image, 1896

According to Jungian Psychology The individual’s relationship with the inner mythology of the mind is a complicated affair. It is especially complicated once the individual is no longer blithely unconscious of the other side of the mind. How the corporeal performance is happening through the depiction of characters from the mythological stories certainly becomes a big question to be looked upon? In this frame it seems as if the artist is well aware of the circulation, accessibility and reception of these mythological stories in the society at one level and on the another level how the inward domain -which is constituted by the depicted characters in the image- of these characters show the conformity with the events and processes happening there. Why I am referring to the inward domain here is because of the question that asks How do we know that Dhruv at such an early age of five reflects his individual relationship with the inner mythology of the mind. This awareness and engagement with the idea and method which is required to be given the darshan so that he will be touched and transformed in the presence of the divine being. The idea of inner mythology in Jungian psychology makes us come closer and closer to the degree of awareness that the mythological characters show through their act. Here, the mythology is broken down on different levels in order to develop an understanding towards the functioning of these depictions. It clarifies a logical progression of the events taking place in that captured moment. It is through these frames that Pinney’s astonishment in the opinion -these images are known as ‘photos of the gods’ (bhaguan ke photo).They are not seen as the rarefied manifestation of a painterly tradition, but are, rather, centrally situated in the vibrant everyday visual culture of modern Indian.- is realized through the exploration of that inward domain. On the contrary, the depiction does not alienates the viewer from getting engaged and associated with the touched and transformed Dhruv in one particular image.

                              Fig. 3 Shakuntala Patralekhani image, 1876

Ravi Varma’s 1876 Shakuntala Patralekhani image opens up an interesting extension through the application of corpothetic elements in the manner of framing the characters. The interesting extension here is taken from the central activity that is prominently visible in the image. Shakuntala seems to be leisurely writing the letter to the king Dushyant, who was her lover at one point in the past. The background is a completely rustic and romantic setting but the inner turmoil and imagination through which Shakuntala is undergoing can not be visible until or unless we as a viewer are not aware of the bigger narrative from which the particular scenario is depicted. My idea of making a bit of the formal analysis of the image/scenario and reflecting upon the mythological story connected with that particular scene is to make it visible that corpothetics in its ever changing forms and projections are not static and one dimensional. It is in this frame that Shakuntala Ptralekhani image exhibits an interesting extension. Central activity does not focus upon glorifying or romanticizing the event through the natural imagery and the leisurely posture of Shakuntala along with her Shakhis. Absorption of the viewer is happening through the ordinary act of writing letter and not looking directly in the eye of the viewer. Absorption is happening when the viewer goes beyond the realm of what is visible and enters into the imagination and turbulence of Shakuntala to be an accompaniment to Shakuntala. There is no denial of the presence and silent conversation with the viewer. This Absorption is in Indian context is a complete anti thesis to what Pinney says about Michael Fried in his book that For Fried, ‘good’ art is art that negates the presence of the beholder. Making a link between his study of eighteenth-century French art and 1960s modernism, he concludes that mediocre work has a ‘theatrical’ relation to the beholder, whereas the ‘very best recent work’ is in essence anti-theatrical’. Does not Fried’s opinion regarding good art work and bad art work carries visible limitations and incompetency to look deeper and deeper into the characters’ imagination and the viewers’ capability to go beyond the visible. Now, going back to the images that I have already discussed about, which are the Keechak Sairandhri image and the Dhruv Nrayan image, it can be observed that both the images deny the direct eye-contact between the picture’s subject and the beholder. But the argument that I am exploring here is that does the absence of the direct eye-contact between the picture’s subject and the beholder causes a deprivation in the agency of the viewers in Indian context and makes them lose interest and reverence towards the picture’s subject. In my opinion it does not. On the contrary, this indirectness of the gaze encourages them to transcend the limited and fractured visibility that would have been the case with Fried in his European context. In Indian context, the idea of going beyond the visible and conversing with the picture’s subject makes the ordinary people feel as if they are having an intense and intimate conversation with the divine beloved. The theatricality of this engagement comes into play and the beholder gets absorbed in the aesthetics of the performance that is done via image. Varma’s images succeed in depicting the notion of absorption through his images even though his style and approach reflect the influence of the western style of painting. Pinney writes that Ravi Varma’s characters behave as if they had heard and ingested Diderot’s command: ‘think no more of the beholder than if he did not exist. Imagine, at the edge of the stage, a high wall that seperates you from orchestra. Act as if the curtain never rose’. Pinney’s observation about Varma’s works is not seen through the lens that exhibit the corporeal presence of the image in Indian societies for the Indian people on the larger scale. Pinney sees it from the Diderot’s lens and for the narrow range of imperial patrons. It is in this limited domain that the completeness of the image is not realized.



1. Pinney, Christopher. 2004. “Photos of the Gods” The printed image and political struggle in India, 8-34. London, 79 Farringdon Road, Reaktion Books Ltd.


  1. If u hv time plz attend Spinney's lecture that will happen in delhi this month......It will be a great experience

  2. Your idea of using Jungian psychological approach in context of mythological images is fascinating.......write upon the tantric images .......

  3. This interface is very friendly to the eyes...

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