A red dot and a sari…for centuries Indian women have been epitomized by these two aspects of their appearance …Paintings of Indian Women sometimes contribute to the stereotype and sometimes deconstruct them. There has been a conscious attempt to project Indian women, as a beautiful blend of contradictions.
The red dot and the sari
An understanding of these two iconic aspects of Indian dressing is essential before any study of Paintings of Indian women.
The dot- Traditionally the dot (known as bindi, kum-kum) was the symbol of an auspicious privilege enjoyed by married Hindu women in India. The practice has now evolved to cover young girls and women of other faiths as well and has become part of the make-up.
The sari- the sari is the most common attire of Indian women. The sari is long strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from five to nine yards in length, which can be draped in various styles. The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist, with one end then draped over the shoulder.
One of the earliest depictions of Indian Women can be seen in the Ajanta murals.Graceful and proprtionatte figures in various poses adorn the walls of the caves. The tendency was to depict Indian women as embodiement of fertility and these figutres too were painted accordingly (voluptuous and child bearing hipped).
Medieval India didn’t see much change in the depiction of women. Ornate figures of well endowed women dot Rajasthani Miniature and Radha Krishna Paintings. They were represented mainly as lovers and consorts. They never were seen as independat figures and were more often than not ,objectified. An occasional Meera Bai (A Bhakti Cult Poetess) was somewhat differently projected but such depictions were very rare indeed.
Raja Ravi Verma
Raja Ravi Varma single handedly revolutionized they way India perceived its women. His proportionate, life like figures was closer to the western realistic schools of art than the indigenous schools. Therefore he found admirers in the Western Art circles.
His paintings of beautiful sari clad women, who were portrayed as very shapely and graceful has indeed colored our psyche.
Whether it’s the “Milkmaid” or “Saraswati” Verma tried to consciously depict Indian women as a distant object of veneration. They were beautiful and attractive but never aprroachable. Since most of his subjects were mythological figures they were expected to be dietified.
Yet many critics feel that Vermas aprroach towards female subjects was problematic, for he projected them as stereotypes rather than individuals. His obsession with the fair skin has also been harshly criticized.
However it cannot be denied that he transformed the aristocratic upper class women of his times into his heroines by combining the sacred and the seductive: passive Mandodari suffering her unfaithful husband; unhappy, abandoned Shakunthala; Draupadi in a state of utter despair; coquettish Menaka seducing the sage Vishwamitra; and the many portraits of beautiful, winsome women, identifiable female types of his times.
Hence even after thousands of years of evolution its all about “a dot and a sari“.
Jamini Roy celebrated peasant women of Bengal in her simple yet colorful surroundings, an embodiment of Indian womanhood. His quaint depiction of women are said to be a reflection of the inner strength of the women of India. They were depicted in normal were not as obviously objectified as Verma’s women. Since his style was an offshoot of the novel Kalighat School, his women were also social institutions rather than individual figures.
It is said that when M.F.Hussain is not painting horses he paints Madhuri Dixit as an embodiement of Indian womanhood, and this sweeping statement is not as much of a joke as it may seem to be,for M. f. Hussain does use this Bollywood actrees as an inspiration for what he calls peans of Indian beauty. His abstract depictions of women seem to strictly endorse the stereotype of “Indianess”. The bindi or the red dot is almost always there and the Indian woman is always represented as either the mother,the lover,the seductress or the muse. In other words as an extension of the male need.