By the time Raja Ravi Varma died in 1906, the artist had left behind a permanent, immutable legacy and a vast body of work that, thanks to his printing press, could be found in nearly every Indian home. Among his more popular works was Kichak Sairandhri, a painting that acquired a new meaning after a play was banned by the British government in 1907.

The play, titled Kichak Vadh (The Killing of Kichak) and written by Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar, tells a story from the Mahabharata. The Pandavas are spending their final year of exile in disguise in Viratnagar, while Draupadi is a sairandhri, or lady-in-waiting, to queen Sudeshna. The queen’s brother Kichak, seeing this beautiful woman, is maddened by lust and asks for her to be added to his harem. This puts Yudhisthira in a dilemma: to reveal their identities and spend another 14 years in exile, or to allow Draupadi’s degradation. The quandary is solved by Bhima, who kills Kichak.

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Although the play narrated the episode undeviatingly, everyone in the audience knew that Kichak was Lord Curzon, who in 1905 had partitioned Bengal. Draupadi was India itself. Yudhisthira represented the indecisive moderates, while Bhima was a stand-in for the extremists.

The “seditious play” was banned in 1910. But Ravi Varma’s image of a lustful Kichak entreating a scared but resolute Draupadi endured and was reproduced in postcards and lithographs. The reproduction differed slightly from the original painting. The doorway in the background was darkened.

“This door to a darkened space gives visual form to what we may suppose was in popular interpretation seen as a metaphorical opening onto the historical experience of colonial India,” writes art historian Christopher Pinney in Photos of the Gods, his book on the relationship between the printed image and political struggle in India.

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