This painting, though a contemporary work, is deeply rooted into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century modern art tradition that on one hand re-explored India’s past, her myths, legends, as also the men and women around, for its themes, and on the other, resorted to European techniques : large size canvas, chemical dyes, mostly oil-colours, blended and shaded, multi-dimensionality, light and shade effects … for representing them. Raja Ravi Varma was the foremost in exploring in Indian myths his icons of supreme feminine beauty like Damayanti, Menaka, Shakuntala … as also the sets of emotional situations and figural gestures which best revealed their beauty : Damayanti feeding a goose while leaning on a column, a fawn holding Shakuntala by the end of her sari held, Menaka endeavouring to tempt sage Vishvamitra by her bewitching beauty … Obviously, Europeanized or rather global in technique in its spirit and basic thrust this modern art was essentially Indian.
It is in this contextual frame that this painting, representing the young damsel braiding her hair, can be best appreciated. Revealing rare talent in portraying beauty : its most brilliant idiom endowed with naïve freshness, the painting marks the continuity of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century art-idiom : the same gorgeous lifestyle of feudatory, rich Indianised ensemble, romantically charged landscape, the theme’s mythical aspect and the Europeanized realistic style : its large canvas and oil dyes, that the artists like Raja Ravi Varma, practised. A courtesan, elite or a queen, or one from a myth or otherwise, a name can give the represented maiden any identity, a celestial being’s, or of one from a myth or a court. Perfectly modeled and vigorously created the painting represents an absolutely different version of beauty.
A tall slender figure with gold like glistening skin the young lady is seated on a stone bench against a highly romanticized backdrop : a foggy lake further darkened by shadows of hills on the right and left falling on it and deep tumultuous clouds hovering over in the sky canopying it from all sides. Her figure, placed centrally against the two hills’ diminishing point covering the landscape almost in its entirety, dominates the canvas. She has an angularly inclining face with sharp features, a pointed nose, large eyes with reddish tint, broad forehead, small cute lips and a well defined neck. A subdued belly with elegantly cast navel, voluptuously modeled breasts and fine fingers define the anatomy of her figure. She is clad in deep red lehenga made of characteristic Banarasi silk, borders and butis across the field, brocaded in rich gold, identically woven odhini, brocaded with ‘bel-buta’ – floral creeper design, and the blouse with plain field reveals its entire lustre in elegantly brocaded bottom and neck-opening. Though inlaid with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, gold jewellery seems to be her greater love. Her necklaces, ear-ornaments, forehead pendent, bangles, all attest her love for gold.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.