Adramatic use of colour, a striking portrayal of emotion, an extraordinary attention to detail and a tinge of poetry brought to life. These are the hallmarks of a signature Jay Varma painting. A master of contemporary realism rooted in the traditional, he’s a fifth-generation descendent of Raja Ravi Varma, ‘The Father of Modern Indian Art’, carrying forward a rich history of artistic tradition with a massive weight on his shoulders and inadvertent comparisons, all while bringing his voice, his vision and his own distinctive style to the fore.
Varma’s recently concluded showcase in Bengaluru, ‘The Primacy of 5’, was lauded for its depiction of the Panchakanya — Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodar from Indian epics — in the context of the women of today. The depiction of these five notable figures in his oils on canvas was influenced by the fearlessly independent women from his own family, starting with his great- grandmother Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last queen of Travancore, going all the way down to his mother Rukmini Varma, also an artist.
HELLO: Tell us the vision you had for ‘The Primacy of 5’ and why you chose to draw from the Panchakanya. What do the women in your paintings represent?
Jay Varma: I had long envisioned a series of paintings on the many women who were of cardinal importance in the Indian epics. These were envisioned as a series titled ‘Significant Women of Indian Mythology’. The five paintings that make up the Panchakanya are a part of that. Each of them has a different origin story and appears in different epics, but their strength of character binds them together. It was a challenge to present them as a cohesive unit. My great-grandmother would tell me stories about characters in Indian mythology and all the incredible adventures they had. She’d weave the epics into exciting chapters, a rich tapestry filled with people, places and magical creatures, demigods and gods. It was storytelling at its grandest. I knew she was special but just how much, I’d 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 paintings are a tribute to him, it’s by far a much greater tribute to her.
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The beginnings of an idea to depict significant women from Indian mythology came primarily with her in mind, and then my grandmother and mother. So the women in my paintings represent those capable women and also the woman of today, the everywoman, the working woman, the stay-at-home woman, the caretaker, the enabler, the provider, the supporter... 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.
H: With art inherent in your DNA, do you feel the pressure of ‘carrying on a legacy’, or is your focus solely on your canvas?
JV: Yes, of course, there’s a weight on my shoulders to make sure I maintain a certain standard. RRV’s name is so all-encompassing in almost every aspect of culture; I’m aware of the magnitude of his influence. Having said that, I also believe in my work. After going through several years intensely learning the craft, I believe I have my own voice, and that I need to express it as best as I can on canvas.
H: While observing a fellow artist’s work, what are the elements you look at with a keen eye?
JV: There are many factors that determine whether a painting — at least in the genre I work in — is of exceptional merit. The first is the idea behind its creation, followed by the story it tells. Then comes factors like the emotion on the subject’s face, the posture, the colours and values, the light effect, overall composition, and anatomy with perspective. Anatomy isn’t necessarily vital, but it needs to be executed with skill. Still, even the best artist can err, so one must view all other aspects before being overly critical of the work.
H: How do you begin to transfer your thoughts onto a blank canvas?
JV: A blank canvas does sometimes appear challenging, if only to beg to be filled with a masterful composition. 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 onto a blank canvas. It takes a while to separate the wheat from the chaff... A painting has two parts. The first is to mentally conceive an idea and then compose it on paper. The second is to execute it. The first is the most challenging. The second, too, may be challenging, but it’s a learnable craft. To create or conceive an idea is not entirely learnable. Some ideas are better than others and a very few, masterful. This is what separates the genius from the ordinary.
H: What parts of RRV do you carry with you? Be it in your art or technique or personality that reflects in your work...
JV: From what I was told of RRV, the one thing that stays in my mind is his commitment and dedication to his craft. He was from an aristocratic family and didn’t really need the income from painting to survive. Yet, he worked hard and tried his best to procure new orders. I was told he was extremely generous and used to give away all his money. He’d be confident of his ability not just to paint but to get new commissions. I try to follow him with respect to his work ethics, but unfortunately, I seem to have inherited his disregard for money, as well.
H: In some of your paintings, one can see a slight resemblance to RRV’s work. Is that intentional, or incorrect?
JV: It can be argued that my work has its own distinctive style, but I’m aware that a comparison will be made at some point. I bring a different colour sense and a more contemporary aesthetic to my paintings. I’ve tried to make the women in my paintings relatable to today’s woman. I’ve used coloured lights on flesh to add emotion or some other metaphor. For example, in Sita, I’ve tried to create a dark and discombobulated look and used red to denote the impending danger she faces and her overall distraught disposition. In Ahalya, I’ve used a blue light to denote Ram’s presence.
H: What are your thoughts on the business of art and its patronage in India?
JV: For any kind of art to flourish, it requires patronage, without which it will all wither away. 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 return to where it was. It’s worrisome, but I’m hopeful for a much better scenario.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 does not portend well for the future. But hopefully it will change, as well.
H: How would you describe your style of art?
JV: My style is something I like to call ‘contemporary realism’, where I experiment a lot with colours, but it’s rooted in traditional realism — what I choose to depict will be as true to life as I can represent, following the observations set down by the old masters. My palette is more contemporary. It contains 22 colours, some very chromatic. I also like to use a device called ‘controluce’, which means backlit, where I add different coloured, vivid lights on my figures to amplify emotion.
H: How do you strike a balance between realism and pure fantasy in your artwork?
JV: Fantasy has to follow the rules of reality. One can conjure up bizarre creatures or landscapes, but they must be believable. They must have a believable biology and form.
H: To a budding artist, what would be your most important piece of advice?
JV: There is no substitute for knowledge. Know your subject well, know your technique well and maintain credibility.
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in HELLO! India’s June 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!