The Urvashi- Pururavas Painting

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The Urvashi-Pururavas Painting (Raja Ravi Verma Press-1890) by the great artist Raja Ravi Verma. It portrays the love story between the apsara (celestial nymph), Urvashi, and Pururavas, who was a King on Earth.

The Urvashi- Pururavas Painting

Raja Ravi Varma:

One of the greatest painters in the history of Indian Art, Raja Ravi Verma is sometimes referred to as the first Indian modern artist. He was born in 1848 in Kilimanoor, Kerala, and was related to the royal family of Travancore,(Kerala).

At 18, he married 12-year-old Bhageerthi Bai and moved to her house as he belonged to a matrilineal system. Verma’s work mainly consisted of a fusion between Western aesthetics and Indian iconography with intricate details. He made affordable lithographs of his paintings available to the public through his printing press.

This made him quite popular among the masses. The, then, Viceroy Lord Curzon honored him with the title of ‘Raja’ He was the man who gave the Gods and Goddesses a human face. But that did not save him from facing social stigma and criticism for his semi-nude paintings of women.


Sugandha Bai is the lady muse for Raja Ravi Varma’s ‘Urvashi-Pururavas’ painting. She was also the same woman who became the painter’s inspiration to paint the Gods and Goddesses. He saw her for the first time at a temple and her beauty inspired him. He then made sketches of her and gifted them to her. Sugandha Bai was impressed by Ravi Varma’s sketches and agreed to model for his paintings.

The Painting:

The ‘Urvashi-Pururavas’ painting depicts Urvashi, the most beautiful apsara, abandoning her husband, Pururavas. But she is unable to leave as Pururavas is clutching onto one end of her saree in a desperate attempt to make her stay. As the narrative goes, once being fed up with celestial life, Urvashi came down to earth. An asura named Kesha saw her and accosted her to make her his wife. Unable to free herself, she started to scream.

Pururavas, who was passing nearby heard her cry and came for help. He fought Keshi and rescued the apsara but during the fight, he accidentally touched her. It was the first time a mortal had touched Urvashi, and Pururavas was also smitten by the apsara’s beauty. Both of them fell in love with each other but were unsure if the love was being reciprocated. Therefore, they went their separate ways.

One time, Urvashi was portraying Goddess Laxmi in a dance performance. However, she was concentrated on thinking of Pururavas. Thus, she called out his name instead of Lord Vishnu. This infuriated sage Bharat. He cursed her to live on earth with the person she was thinking about and give birth to her son. But in due time she’d have to choose between father and son. If they see each other Urvashi must leave them both and return to heaven. Following this, Urvashi left heaven and returned to Puruvara.

But she put forth three conditions before agreeing to stay with Puruvara:

Condition 1– She will bring two sheep with her to be kept safe by the king.
Condition 2– Secondly, she must have only ghee as food. Condition 3– They should never see each other naked apart from the time they make love. Failure to which she would return to heaven. Pururavas agreed to all her conditions and started living together at the Gandhamadan Garden.

The Gods, however, became very jealous of the love between Urvashi and Pururavas. So, they hatched a plot to separate them. One night, when Urvashi and Pururavas were sleeping, the Gods took away the sheep. Urvashi woke up hearing the sheep bleating and asked her husband to go save them. Pururavas, who was naked, got up in a hurry and at that exact moment, the Gods flashed some lightning from the sky. In the light, both Pururavas and Urvashi saw each other naked resulting in surpassing the third condition. Thus, it was time for her to leave her husband and go back to heaven.

Raja Ravi Varma has beautifully captured the emotion in the painting. We can feel the desire in both their eyes and the pain of separation. Urvashi tries to move away from her husband with a shattered heart. But Pururavas holds her saree for that one last glance of his wife before he bids goodbye. The artist aptly depicted their body language which makes the painting speak for itself.

The original painting now shows signs of disintegration. This however does not affect its intrinsic value. Carrying a heart-felt tale at its core, The ‘Urvashi -pururavas’ painting is a true relict of the past.

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