Comparing the depiction of Indian women in the paintings of RAJA RAVI VARMA during the colonial period and in the works of FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA during the postcolonial period

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Comparing the depiction of Indian women in the works of RAJA RAVI VARMA during the colonial period and in the works of FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA during the postcolonial period


Indian art paintings are unique: they are a reflection of the cultural, societal and political aspects of the nation passing through various eras, stretching for a period of 10,000 years. It is not surprising to say that Indian painting has been the trailblazer that gave a very exclusive genre of paintings to the world. The paintings are awe inspiring in every period starting from the pre-historic paintings in the Bhimabetka Caves dating 5500 BC in Central India to the modern paintings of the 21st century. Although the paintings are immortal in all the eras, be it the pre-historic period, the Buddhist period, the murals of Ajanta and Ellora, the Mughal period, British period or the Modern Age, they take a very formidable twist at the turn of the 20th century while India was oscillating between the colonial and the post-colonial period.

This essay explores the paintings of the most distinguished painters of the 19th century such as Raja Ravi Varma and of the 20th century such as Francis Newton Souza in the colonial and postcolonial eras respectively. Their paintings are peerless not only for their beauty but also for the ideologies and philosophy of the painters. A close investigation of their paintings unravels their inclination to paint the women in their different cultural and societal aspects. The essay will also look at the expertise of the painters in the art of painting the women with a view to looking at the contrast in their outlook to their objects of paintings.


Indian art is renowned for the exquisite paintings of the women belonging to different ages. Whether the women signify the ancient deities or the pioneers of feminism, they have always held a prominent role on the oeuvre of the artists. It is not unusual to say that women have stolen the show in the hands of the painters and the portrayal of women has undergone a massive change with the passage of time. If Ravi Varma’s Sita, Draupadi, Damyanti and Shakuntala are the representatives of the rich legacy of Indian Painting, Jatin Souza’s nude paintings, such as  “the nude Indian woman with mirror” and “standing nude” are a mirror that shows the transformation of the stereotyped image of the women over the years.

Raja Ravi Varma painted women not for the sensual pleasures but for a better understanding of a man-woman relationship as well as the emotional, cerebral, spiritual and familial feelings arising in the female sex. Contrary to him, Souza has portrayed and depicted women in a more sensual and bold way. They have continued with the tradition of Indian paintings, which started with ochre and ended with oil on canvas. If Raja Ravi Varma were captivated by the Tanjore court art, Souza was mesmerized by the sculptures at Khajurao. The two painters searched for their identity in the Indian classical art and transcended it in their unique styles.

In order to understand the different perspectives of the two painters toward their women, I enriched my knowledge and vocabulary of art by visiting a number of museums and galleries in Delhi. I also read a number of books and biographies, such as, “Painter of Colonial India by Rupika Chawla” and “FRANCIS NEWTON Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art,” besides watching art documentaries to find the message that the paintings of Ravi Varma and Souza are replete with. I also took the initiative of discussing with and interviewing my peers and amateur artists to know of the subtleties and nuances found in the works of these two virtuosos.

Although the two painters hail from the same part of India-south India-yet there is a vast difference in their art. If Ravi Varma draws the women on ancient figures, Souza paints the women to show the outbursts of feminine feelings in varying moments of crises, conflicts, exposures, and emotional tension. The two painters make their women characters alive by their brush and color, and for them art is not for art’s sake alone; it is an expression of their innate feelings and views of women. By their penetrative art, these two painters have established the veracity of the words of the famous Indologist, Max Muller, when he said, “If I am asked which nation had been advanced in the ancient world in respect of education and culture then I would say it was - India.” Through this essay I want to compare the paintings of these two painters in order to highlight how their women stand apart in the colonial and the post- colonial periods.

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During the colonial period the Indian painting had lost its originality when more and more of painters started following the European influences, known as Company style, in order to please their European colonizers. It was at this time that the name of Raja Ravi Varma soared high into the sky that went on eulogizing the Indian tradition of art. Soon he was considered the most eclectic painter during the colonial period for his innovative art, which comprised a fusion of Indian traditions with the European academic art. He gave the Indian epics, Ramayana and ...

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