Varuna Praying to Rama

Varuna-Rama-2 Rama-Varuna

Indian mythology is an excellent source of material both in terms of images and literature. I often find it fun to take two paintings by two different artists – often from different times – on the same subject and compare them. Just as an illustration I have attached two paintings here, the first by Ravi Varma and the second by an unknown later artist. The scene is when Rama is on his way to Lanka to free Sita from Ravana. Varuna, the lord of the sea, initially refuses to let Rama and his army of monkeys pass. But when Rama gets angry and threatens to destroy him, the water god falls to his knees and begs for forgiveness.

In the first painting, the frame of reference is level, and Rama is shown scantily dressed. His bow is a mere bent stick with twine tied across it, his body is unadorned, his feet are bare. Varuna’s pose is placatory, but the artist has placed both of them almost at level with each other and with the viewer. In the second painting, the camera is placed at the bottom to elevate Rama, and Varuna is placed at the lord’s feet so that no one is left in any doubt as to who is the victor. Rama’s clothes are now made of silk, his upper body is littered with ornaments, his forehead is painted, his bow is golden and studded with gems. While in the first painting his expression suggests confusion, perhaps surprise, in the second he stands in the relaxed manner of someone who has just won a battle.

Of course, this could just be the individual artist’s preference. Ravi Varma may have seen it fit to show Rama as a ‘regular’ man prone to uncertainty and insecurity whereas the second artist chose to make no bones about who the hero of the piece is and who the villain. Why each artist chose to do his piece the way he did is not the point of discussion. All I want you to notice is that no matter what the subject, just by changing a few details, you can achieve completely different goals. A man towering over another with a hand on hip is different in all important ways to a man who is standing toe to toe with his enemy and looking at him level in the eye.

Write a descriptive piece on each of the above paintings – or you could choose any two paintings that describe the same scene – and try and get to the bottom of how the artist achieved his goal. Remember the artist doesn’t have the luxury of using words; he must use techniques like composition, dress, framing, camera position and colours to bring about the effect he desires. You may argue that this is irrelevant because as writers we do have words at our disposal. That may be true, but if you think about it, the writer and the artist both do much the same thing before they get to work. They think of an image, and they aim to translate it onto the page. One uses lines and strokes and colours; the other uses words.

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