Niharika Dinkar

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over four months

Niharika is a graduate student in the Department of Art History at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Ravi Varma is widely accepted as the representative visual artist of ‘Indian modernity’. Niharika Dinkar’s dissertation research investigated Ravi Varma’s use of ‘realist techniques’ and analysed the visual treatment of the female form in his Pauranik paintings.

The Pauranik paintings – an elaboration of well-known Indian mythological themes – are interesting, Niharika observes, because it “transposes the values of European neo-classical style onto Indian subjects.” They are an expression “of a changing relationship with the past”, even as a new Eurocentric model of historiography replaced an earlier, more mythical understanding of history.

Niharika, however, was keen to pursue her hunch that Ravi Varma’s visual imagery also provides substantial clues regarding the status of women in late 19th century Kerala society. In studying the construction of the feminine and its mobilisation within the national independence movement, Niharika compared modern Indian painting with two other media of its time, theatre and cinema. This comparison was instructive. Like Ravi Varma’s Pauranik paintings, the influence of European practices is evident both in Parsi theatre and early Indian cinema. But unlike Ravi Varma’s naturalist still frame, theatre and cinema are both mobile, performative forms. In comparing these different art forms, Niharika generated a comprehensive understanding of the visual culture of early modernity in India.

During her field work in India, she studied Ananda Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita’s writings on Ravi Varma’s works, she conducted archival research in University archives in New Delhi and Vadodara, and travelled to Mumbai and Pune to study cinema posters, playbills, newspaper advertisements, trade journals, prints and chromolithographs. She also examined Ravi Varma’s paintings held in various collections in Thanjavur, Mysore, Thiruvananthapuram and New Delhi.