Raja Ravi Varma’s untitled painting of Tilottama sold for Rs 5.17 crores at Sotheby’s New York sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, fetching more than its upper estimate of Rs 3.90 crores. Among the handful of Raja Ravi Varma works to appear at international auctions, the painting features a celestial nymph from Hindu mythology, who embodies the “nearly perfect being”. Varma, who was declared a national treasure by the Indian government in 1979, eschewed Western subject matter and often illustrated myriad stories from Vedic mythology as well as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. “The challenge for Varma lay in mediating images, which were life-like in appearance and often Western, neo-classical in inspiration to make them viable as Indian cultural symbols,” according to the auction house’s website. According to the Hindu mythology, Tilottama, was created at Brahma’s request to destroy two demon brothers Sunda and Upasunda, who could not be killed by anyone except themselves.
Legend has it that the two brothers were so captivated by her beauty, that they fought over her and ended up killing each other. Varma’s painting that portrays the apsara’s descent through the skies down to earth, is said to be inspired from Venus who was the embodiment of female beauty. The artist strove to impart the extreme desirability that led to the demon brothers downfall.
Her composed gaze, voluptuous curves and the radiance of her complexion, all project a sense of vitality and fertility reminiscent of the early representation of Goddess figures in Central Indian sculpture. Sotheby’s said the whopping price for the painting was “achieved following several minutes of bidding between three telephone bidders”.