Art Attack: Artist Jay Varma's depiction of women in his paintings
Artist Jay Varma, a fifth-generation descendent of Raja Ravi Varma talks about the depiction of women in his paintings, how the business of art got affected by the pandemic and more.
Jay Varma is the fifth generation descendent of Raja Ravi Varma. In a recently held India Art Festival, Jay Varma brings to the fore five women from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He feels his thoughts are random. They are insightful, enigmatic and even close to genius from time to time. One has to learn to harness those thoughts, only a very small percentage of them gets painted onto the aforementioned blank canvas. It takes a while to separate the wheat from the chaff. Popular belief has it that reciting the names of the five virgins—panchakanyas—would destroy the worst of human sins. But matters of faith aside, who the kanyas are is in itself a fascinating question, and their personal tales are even more remarkable. It is acknowledged that the kanyas include Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara and Mandodari. But the fifth name varies. Some state that it is Tara, wife of Brishaspati (in addition to the other Tara, consort of Vali); others hold it to be Kunti, mother of the Pandavas; and yet others venerate Sita as the fifth kanya. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us in detail about the depiction of women in painting?
From when I was little, my great grandmother would tell me stories about characters in Indian mythology and all the incredible adventures they had. In great detail I would hear her weave the epics into exciting chapters that became a rich tapestry filled with not just people and places but magical creatures and demigods and gods. I used to love those hours spent listening to her and became so engrossed that I began to believe I was actually living in those stories. Yudishtra’s unblemished character such that his feet never touched the ground, Arjuna’s superhuman prowess in the battlefield, Bhima’s strength and bravery, Nakula Sahadeva’s fabled equestrian skills, all became aspects I secretly believed I had. It was storytelling at its grandest, or so I thought. She also had an extraordinary collection of books that I later would read with great enthusiasm and was someone who I would seek out for advice and often just to spend time with. I knew she was special but just how much, I would only come to know later. It was also only later that I came to know she was Raja Ravi Varma’s eldest granddaughter. So, as much as these five paintings of women from Indian mythology are a tribute to him, by far it is a much greater tribute to her. The beginnings of an idea to depict significant women from Indian Mythology came primarily with her in mind and then my grandmother and mother, who were all strong women in their own right.
So, the women in my paintings represent those capable women and also the woman of today, the working woman, the stay-at-home woman, the caretaker, the enabler and the provider. Just like the women in the fables, women today are faced with situations that are sometimes uplifting, sometimes tragic, sometimes magical, sometimes fearful and sometimes joyful. The paintings depict the Panchakanyas, whose names when chanted, dispel sin. They were not chaste and, in some cases, had more than one husband but were virtuous and morally pure to deserve that status. My paintings contain lots of symbols and metaphors, context and emotion that will hopefully inspire and make one think. The idea is to provide a push into a journey that will make one look at the paintings with a new perspective each and every time. The other aspect is colour. I have used rich colour to add drama and more importantly, emotion. I do believe colours can trigger all kinds of emotion and to that extent, I have used it to tell the story.
What is the thought that goes behind your art work?
A blank canvas does sometimes appear challenging, if only to beg to be filled with a masterful composition, and bathed with light. Thoughts are random. Thoughts are insightful, enigmatic and even close to genius from time to time. One has to learn to harness those thoughts and for me, only a very small percentage of it gets painted on to the aforementioned blank canvas. It takes a while to separate the wheat from the chaff. A painting, in my opinion, consists of two parts. The first part is to mentally conceive an idea and to then compose it on paper. The second is to actually execute it. The first part is the most challenging. The second may be challenging too but it is a learnable craft. It is no doubt very demanding, especially if you want your skill level to be of a certain standard but it is learnable. You have to be prepared to put in the hours and hard work.
To create or conceive an idea, however, is not entirely learnable. Some ideas are better than others and a very few, masterful. This is what separates genius from the ordinary. Typically, I have to consider several aspects and add or remove different elements. For example, in the Panchakanyas, I had to consider what constituted a series that connected them together, the colours definitely, the poses, what to emphasize and what to relegate to the secondary and tertiary.
How did the pandemic affect the business of art? and how is it picking up post-pandemic?
My expertise lies with the making of a painting, not so much the business side of it. But having said that, I do believe for any kind of art to flourish, it requires patronage, without which it will all wither away. From my observation, the pandemic has changed the world in many ways. The IT industry has boomed but the art scene has taken a big blow and may take a while to get back to where it was. Even in the Middle East, where usually lots of sales used to happen, interest has now dwindled into less than a trickle. It is a bit worrisome but I’m hopeful for a much better scenario, sooner than later. Another thing that needs to change is the obsession with the old masters. In India, the collector is for the most part, looking to acquire a painting done by an old master, to the point of completely ignoring the talented contemporary artist. This, in my opinion, does not portend well for the future. But hopefully, it too will change.
How often have you been compared to Raja Ravi Varma?
As yet, not many people have compared me to Raja Ravi Varma either favourably or otherwise. I am very grateful for that but I do know that it may not always be the case. Of course, these are big shoes to fill, and of course, it is an honour to be mentioned in the same sentence but ultimately painting is for me, a language I must find to express my own individuality. It is a journey without an ending.
Artist Jay Varma's show is on display at Gallery G in Bengaluru, until 30th April
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