Understanding India’s heritage through the works of Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma
A Raja Ravi Varma painting depicting Kansa-Maya scene from Mahabharata in Vadodara (Image courtesy: https://historyofvadodara.in/raja-ravi-varma-at-baroda/) , Raja Ravi Varma (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

On an unusually chilly winter afternoon in Vadodara in the last week of December, this writer had the opportunity to see some of the most famous paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, who redefined Hindu and Indian art by adopting European styles and methods. The Lukshmi Vilas Palace displays works from the collection of the Royal Gaekwad Family of Baroda. Unfortunately, the paintings in some of the halls are placed at odd angles and without proper lighting arrangements, making it an effort to see and appreciate these masterpieces.

The Malayali artist was approached by Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III in 1889 to paint 14 Puranic pictures from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Those 14 paintings and a large number of oleographs that are on display at the Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum are invaluable depictions of ancient Indian culture. Unfortunately, a large number of visitors (this writer included) to the palace and museum on that December afternoon had no idea about the stories behind them.

When asked, a local Vadodara companion and friend who claimed to be knowledgeable about ancient Indian history and culture said he had no idea who the characters on the painting were. “I can Google it on my phone,” the young professional in his mid-30s added. The same young man, who by no means is a bigot or ultra-nationalist, had earlier in the day made claims about the wars in the Ramayana and Mahabharata being fought with laser technology! Neither of us knew who Vishwamitra, Menaka and Shantanu were. It’s only the paintings that had scenes that were depicted in the 1990s tele-series Mahabharata that seemed remotely familiar.

A failure of both schools and families

Before the advent of television in Kerala, the story of Menaka, an apsara who was born during the churning of the ocean by the devas and asuras, was passed down from generation to generation. All the characters depicted in Raja Ravi Varma’s Vadodara paintings were household names in Kerala. This was not restricted to Hindu homes in the state. These stories have always been an important part of the culture of the land.

In the 21st century, many urban parents are clueless about these stories. The age of liberalisation, the proliferation of cable television channels and the internet has meant that at least one and a half generations of Indians have grown up without learning these stories. This failure does not just lie with families but also with schools and the education system. Even the staunchest atheists in Britain agree that knowledge of the Bible is essential to understanding some of the best works of English literature. Across Europe, schools teach Roman and Greek mythology, again with both influencing the literature of the continent.

The Ramayana, an import from India, is an inseparable part of the culture of most Southeast Asian countries, whether it is Buddhist Thailand or Muslim-majority Indonesia. Now, look at the state of India!

The allegorical stories of ancient India now find their way to Indian homes mostly through television programs. There have been jokes about people who act as Hindu gods in serials being stared at and even being worshipped when they made public appearances! Then there are some poorly written, but overhyped books by celebrity authors that focus on Indian stories, but their audience is limited.

Several years ago, Salman Rushdie famously said, “Natya Shastra, the most ancient of Indian texts, contains the explicit and extreme defence of freedom of expression.” This came from a self-proclaimed “hardline atheist” who was raised in a liberal Muslim family. Probably, knowledge of these stories helped Rushdie become a better writer.

In 2022, it may be too much to ask for young parents to learn about ancient Indian stories and teach their children the same, but schools are a different ballgame. The stories and characters depicted in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings that are part of the heritage of every single Indian must be in the school curriculum across boards. Of course, in a diverse and religious country like India, intense studies of every religion should be made compulsory so that young people can understand each other better, even if they choose to reject religion on a personal level.

Alarmist as this may sound, if things continue to stay the way they are, in a few generations, the only people who will be qualified to teach Indian children about the stories of ancient India will be foreign scholars! Globalisation is a way of life and brings way more good than harm, but India stands to lose out a lot if it forgets such an import and inalienable part of its heritage. The Raja Ravi Varma paintings in Vadodara are a constant reminder of the great storytelling tradition of India. May we see a time when a vast majority of people who see them in person understand who and what they depict. 

(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.