Private lives and interior spaces
Masculine subjects in Ravi Varma’s scholar paintings
in Empires of light
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This chapter examines the discourse on light and shadow in two paintings of scholars by Ravi Varma that use chiaroscuro to depict men reading within the interiors of a westernised home. Ravi Varma uses the symbolic qualities of light and shadow to produce private interior spaces, in this case an imagined inner world, where the Nayar matrilineal tharavad (household) is transformed into an intimate space for the cultivation of the (male) self. In step with the contemporary Malayalam novel, the paintings identify the domestic interior as a stage upon which a private life is imagined, where personal space and reflection are brought together to convey an interiority that one typically associates with the bourgeois modern subject. The chapter evaluates how the interior figured in domestic architecture and family life, its implications for gender and social relations and, finally, how a new idea of home emerged in tandem with a territorial imagination fuelled by the new possibilities of travel in late nineteenth-century Kerala. It argues that chiaroscuro emerges as an effective visual device to produce the fictions of the self-reflective autonomous self, with the light and darks suggesting hidden interiorities and buried subjectivities.

Empires of light

Vision, visibility and power in colonial India

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