Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) created at least two large-scale oil paintings on Jatayu Vadha from the Ramayana; one was executed for some patron in Thiruvananthapuram and the other in 1906 for Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar (r. 1894–1940) of Mysore. Later, the Maharaja had given permission to a printing press in Mumbai to make oleograph prints of the version in his collection, and hence it became more well known than the other.
In the Thiruvananthapuram work, Ravana slashes, with a sword in his right hand, one wing of Jatayu, while the bird is attacking him from his right side. The aloft right hand of Ravana suggests the force with which he executed the act of cutting the wing, which is shown falling down. In the Mysore work, the bird is shown attacking Ravana from the top, wherein he had already cut with the sword one wing, which is still above in the air. Immediately, Ravana lowers the sword so as to cut the other wing. In both the works, the gruesomeness with which Ravana is slaying Jatayu is suggested in the pose and hand gesture of Sita—she is covering her face in utter fear. The former version leaves no doubt that the incident is taking place far above the earth. The same also suggests that Ravana along with Sita have been flying in the sky. The latter version, however, shows him with Sita on a chunk of the earth, which appears a bit higher and rising from the surrounding fields. Though many more such differences exist in the compositional aspects of the works, in both the paintings, Ravana is portrayed as holding Sita tightly with his left hand.
In various versions of the Ramayana, Ravana abducting Sita and slaying Jatayu have been narrated differently. In the Valmiki Ramayana, Ravana drags Sita into a chariot by holding her hair and her right leg with both his hands. In the Adhyatma Ramayana, however, Sita faints after seeing the fearsome face of Ravana. Then, without touching Sita, Ravana takes the entire chunk of earth around her and places it in the chariot. In both the paintings, Ravi Varma has not shown the chariot altogether. In the former, he appears to fly in the air on his own strength. In the latter, he stands firmly on the rising chunk of the earth. In this one, the strength with which the bird has attacked Ravana is also indicated by showing his crown lying in front of his feet. Further, in both the works, the artist has painted Ravana as muscular in stature, dark in colour, having long hair and with only one head, not the customary 10.
K Venkatappa (1886–1965), who belonged to the traditional family of royal painters of Mysore, had studied art in Kolkata between 1909 and 1916. He must have seen Jatayu Vadha of Ravi Varma at Mysore, and yet, he composed the same theme very differently. Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists (1914), a book by Sister Nivedita and A K Coomaraswamy, contains 32 watercolour paintings done by Abanindranath Tagore, the vice-principal of the Government School of Art, Calcutta, and his students. K Venkatappa contributed seven paintings on various themes from the Ramayana, including ‘Ravana fighting with Jatayu’. Venkatappa has done a very unusual composition—a close-up view of the incident in which parts of the body of the two combating beings were not included within the pictorial space. The swan-chariot, with Ravana and Sita, is shown in the dark sky over and above patches of white clouds. Ravana appears here with multiple heads and hands, which bear many traditional weapons like the mace, elephant-goad, spear, sword, axe, etc. Apparently at first, the bird had an upper hand in the fight; for, the chariot’s front pillars, which evidently bear the canopy, have been shown broken. Further, Sita’s importance in the painting has been highlighted by showing a luminous halo behind her head. She is shown bending down at the front end of the chariot and dropping her pearl necklace on to the earth. Sita’s face and the swan’s head, which is also looking downwards, in my opinion, are analogous. Venkatappa appears to have chosen such a moment of the incident in which the real violence, i.e. the cutting down of the bird’s wings, has not yet commenced.
Raja Ravi Varma is known to be a self-taught painter and achieved remarkable progress from his first portrait works to his later paintings on Indian mythology. Venkatappa received training in the traditional style, which became famous by the name Mysore painting. He went on to study art in an institution where E B Havell, the principal, and Tagore had begun to expose students to various schools of traditional Indian paintings, including Ajanta murals and Mughal and Rajasthani miniatures. With such an upbringing, both Ravi Varma and Venkatappa visualised the same theme with their own individual ways of seeing.
Associate professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam
Caption: Jatayu Vadha, oil on canvas by Ravi Varma, in T’puram (Left) and Mysore (Centre); (Right) the killing of Jatayu by K Venkatappa