The Indian Venus

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During British colonization, traditional representations of Hindu divinities were replaced by printed color images. The most powerful example of the colonial influence is the art calendar. This art form has been produced for British patrons and the Anglicized Indian elite . The art calendar accompanied an « Aryanization » standard of beauty (1).

The earliest calendars show a representation of the goddess Lakshmi, whose image is transformed by the colonial aesthetic. This goddess represents wealth, happiness, fertility as well as beauty. This one takes the Victorian, Greek or Aryan look. She is shown on a Italianate landscape similar to the work of the pre-Romantic painter Thomas Gainsborough (1).

One of the most famous artist of the art calendar is Raja Ravi Varma. He is the first Indian artist who painted gods with human proportions and adopted the realistic European style (2).

According to me, there are similarities between the paintings of this artist and those of the Renaissance. The first is the recovery of aesthetic codes of the art of ancient Greece. Many of his oil paintings are representations of dramatized scenes of mythological or legendary Hindu religion. Feminine forms are round, harmonious, the breasts are small and close. Women are often depicted with one knee slightly flexed which is the typical posture of ancient Greece statues, then taken up by the current Renaissance. The attention to draping saris and clothing also recall these two periods (3).

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Raja_Ravi_Varma%2C_Goddess_Lakshmi%2C_1896.jpg

To illustrate my point of view, I would compare his oil painting of the goddess Lakshmi (1896), exposed auMaharaja Fateh Singh Museum Vadora in Gujarat, with »The Birth of Venus » by Botticelli painted (1486). The comparison between Lakshmi and Venus seems to me relevant. Both of them are an image of exacerbated femininity, fertility, love, home and, in this painting, it seems that Lakshmi is presented as a Venus, even if the erotism is less present for Lakshmi than Venus.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6f/Sandro_Botticelli_-_La_nascita_di_Venere_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/640px-Sandro_Botticelli_-_La_nascita_di_Venere_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

The first similarity is the posture, both stand with a flexed knee and they are positioned in the center of the painting. Both are painted in a rounded and harmonious manner. The base that supports them, a lotus for Lakshmi, a shell for Venus, is also similar, both related to water and rounded.

Second, the environments around them are similar in the two paintings. A shore with green vegetation (certainly a symbol of fertility), and the omnipresence of the element of water.
Venus is surrounded by Zephyr and Chloris and a woman, who can be identified as Flore, wearing a dress covered with blueberries, a necklace and a belt of foliage of roses, which gives him a cloak to cover his nakedness (4 ).
Lakshmi is surrounded by two swans, who represent the spirit, the water and the birth of the world (5), and an elephant, symbolizing loyalty and chance (6), handing him a flower garland, offered a sign of respect and homage to the goddess (7).

But some differences are still significant, the painting of Raja Ravi Varma is calm and serene while the one of Botticelli is in motion. But the composition and the spirit of these two paintings are, in my opinion, very similar.

While this example may seem anecdotal, it only takes to observe other mythological theme paintings of Raja Ravi Varma to realize that these codes are redundant in its work.

Nowadays, the art calendar has become a popular object and a medium of advertising. While the mythological and religious themes are still present, secular and patriotic images are now present (2).

(1) http://www.indiablognote.com/article-le-canon-de-la-beaute-feminine-en-inde-3-4—36838857.html
(2) http://www.thedarjeelingtealady.com/tea/?cat=1
(3) http://www.histoiredelart.net/courants/renaissance.html
(4) http://www.ac-creteil.fr/lycees/93/lmichelbobigny/voyages/florence/venus4.htm
(5) http://www.hindu-blog.com/2008/02/significance-and-symbolism-of-hamsa-or.html
(6) http://www2.nalis.gov.tt/Research/SubjectGuide/Divali/tabid/168/Default.aspx?PageContentID=121
(7) http://www.macrolivres.com/fiches/les_symboles_hindous.php

Manon Foucraut, A5 Student, Bangalore

Manon is at present researching about « Beauty in India » for her Master Thesis. SvK

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