Between 1900 and 1904, the celebrated Indian academic painter Raja Ravi Varma painted two depictions of men reading (plate 1 and plate 2). The works are unusual, so much so, as to be quite unrecognizable from the mythological paintings and princely portraits that earned Ravi Varma his reputation with patrons and clients. Ravi Varma was best known for his paintings of lovelorn women gazing comely at the viewer and although men had featured in several commissioned portraits they were rarely presented as idealised figures. His sketchbooks feature several examples of men in everyday scenes, so it is evident that he experimented with the idea but very few seem to have made the transition to a final painting. The two small paintings are not strictly portraits in the sense that there is no information on them being commissioned, nor do they present particular, distinctive individuals but rather represent characters within environments. They are, more properly, genre paintings that portray the subjects within scenes of contemporary life. At least two other paintings of men exist from the same period, The Retired Soldier (1902) and The Miser (1901) both of which are largely anthropological in nature. In the scholar paintings however, Ravi Varma attempts to go beyond the dominant paradigms of anthropological portraiture or studio portraits of the period in exploring the subjective potential of the Indian man in his private universe, a characterization that is explored with much empathy and sensitivity and throws light on the idealised male self in turn of the century Kerala.
This is an author-produced, peer-reviewed version of this article. The final, definitive version of this document can be found online at Art History, published by Wiley on behalf of the Association of Art Historians. Copyright restrictions may apply. doi: 10.1111/1467-8365.12085 1
Dinkar, Niharika. (2014). "Private Lives and Interior Spaces: Raja Ravi Varma's Scholar Paintings". Art History, 37(3), 510-535.