Raja Ravi Varma: He Who Colors with Passion

[EN] / [IT]

Rang Rasiya, the movie

“Rang Rasiya.. Rang Rasiyaa..” is the background tune that runs throughout the film, in fact “Rang Raisya” of 2008, directed by Ketan Mehta. Literally Google translates it as “Pink Color” (is that right?) but the English version of the film was presented with the title “The Colour of Passion” and a release poster where the splashes of color and brush strokes are intertwined with the naked bodies of the two main characters: the painter Raja Ravi Varma and Sugandha, his muse and lover.

Investigating the web, I find a famous Indian television series from 2013, with the same name, precisely Rangrasiya (all attached though) and the English translation as “The One Who Colours me in Passion”, and it seems beautiful and plausible, referring to the artist Ravi Varma. The appellation Raja was given to him by the Viceroy and Governor General of India, since his aristocratic family had been producing consorts for the princesses of the matrilineal royal family of Travancore for over 200 years.  He too, in 1866, was given in marriage to the 12-year-old Bhageerthi Bayi, belonging to the royal house of Mavelikkara.

But this is certainly not the relationship on which the film, and also Varma’s artistic production, is based; instead it is Sugandha who is transformed over and over again into a goddess in the painter’s canvases. She who plays the sithar, Saraswati goddess with many arms and long hair, sensual with her back exposed, shining in the moonlight or clutching a lotus flower.

A window on Indian culture

The ability of the Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma, was certainly that of being inspired by the people, by the various characters of colonial India and starting from there, from that substratum of raw material, to give form and rappresentation  to the numerous divinities of stories such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He was one of the first indian academic artists to illustrate and narrate religious and popular culture and to bring it first into people’s homes, through a copious production of prints, and then straight to the West.

The film, which from the launch poster would seem to be an erotic romance novel, manages instead to show various themes across the board, without losing the cheerful and joyful tones released by the Indian style itself. First of all, the background is that of the English colonial period, where men in bare-breasted sarung alternate (an element that obviously highlights the charm and physical prowess of actor Randeep Hooda) and blond-haired colonial bureaucrats in shirts, who occasionally declaim sentences  in English. (Editor’s note: I couldn’t find an English subtitled or translated version on the web, so I watched the film in Indian, obviously missing most of the nuances and without actually being able to understand the great dialogue between the characters; so read this “review” with the knowledge that I basically watched a silent film, and still enjoyed it).

There is also a beautiful sequence in which the painter and his assistants travel around India and thus various typical situations and people are shown as a cross-section of indian society: women in colorful sarees, children dancing typical moves, Babas intent on smoking Charas and Yogis doing elastic poses. Ravi Varma meanwhile devotes himself to immortalizing with his passionate brushstrokes all these moments, between a ritual dip in the sacred river Ganges and a smoke of chiloom. The background music obviously accompanies this series of images that happily immerse us in Indian culture, also made of passion. One can clearly see the parallelism between film footage and pictorial canvases: the director wanted to show the important social research that Varma’s art has carried out in making India known inside and outside the continent, and how his painting was born from observation and the bond with his land.

 Other beautiful sequence is the one where he mixes the colored powders of pigments: his hand kneads sensually and you can feel the material, the sensoriality of the gesture of painting… really sexy for those who love art.

Varma, a modern man

In the end, there is a whole background story about modernity, about the advent of the new century (we are at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century): the first photographs and the first projections of the cinematograph with the famous film of the train that frightens the audience in the hall. Varma appears as a modern man, wearing suspenders and a shirt, whose confidence in his abilities and his noble title make him stand out and do business with Europeans. Varma is the first Indian to be awarded the Kaisar-e-Hind civil title by the British government. He succeeds in bringing India into the Western salons thanks to a realism that, passing through the prism of Indian culture, is multifaceted in a thousand colors, characters and myths that make his art dreamy, fairy-tale, romantic and sometimes cheeky, if compared with the rigid Western settings. 

It’s not that with this article I wanted to review the film “Rang Rasiya” with stars, nor recommend its viewing (in Indi) to the public, but I did want to address the academic phenomenon with a pop culture perspective. I believe that as time passes, it is important to change the lens for looking at art and artistic phenomena, so that we realize what their evolution has been over the centuries and their real impact on history. This film, loosely based on Ranjit Desai’s biographical novel “Raja Ravi Varma: a novel”,  also talk about censorship towards art (although then on youtube, all the painted breasts in the film were blurred), about the gap that often exists between those who are able to look without judgment, guided by the senses, by emotions, by the shivers on the skin (and this is how Raja Ravi Varma is portrayed in the film), and those who, too cerebrally, observe the details but do not grasp the interconnection, the magic that manifests itself only to those predisposed.

In the film it is Raja Ravi Varma himself who recounts his life in front of a judge in court, because his art, sensual and in rare cases depicting female nudes, had shaken the protests of some, who began to persecute him. His final monologue to defend himself in court, always in Indi however, seems passionate and pure, of those as perfect as unreal. And obviously, with an unsurprising resolution, the judge declares his freedom and the whole courtroom stands up to applaud him in a standing ovation. Censorship has no place in the new century and even though the worst seems to have been avoided, I won’t spoil a dramatic and somewhat stereotyped ending, in which Varma’s skill as an artist does not seem to equal that of a man and a lover.

Soap-opera aside, however, there were many who felt represented by Raja Ravi Varma’s works and who saw in them the feedback of their own culture: finally the colors of the streets, the legends handed down by word of mouth, the celebratory poses of the rituals, were put on canvas, immortalized and made iconographic. Even today, more than a billion people around the world pray on their knees in front of his paintings, in front of those images that finally gave a face to the divine.

Artworks by Raja Ravi Varma

Author Details
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
Paola D'Andrea
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
Latest Posts

Leave a Comment