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I Recreated Ravi Varma’s Paintings With Trans Models to Disrupt Beauty Standards

I Recreated Ravi Varma’s Paintings With Trans Models to Disrupt Beauty Standards

Freelance photographer Sharun S has recreated the most famous works of art by painter Raja Ravi Varma, with trans models, in a bid to break existing notions of beauty.

For some, art is mere entertainment. For Kollam-born photographer Sharun S, it is a way of demolishing age-old stereotypes and beauty standards.

His most recent photoshoot is a testament to that. He has recreated the art and paintings of legendary painter Raja Ravi Varma, considered among the greatest in India’s art history, with transgender models.

Varma was noted for portrayal of women as Indian goddesses, and his work has been recreated by many artists over time. “There is no doubt,” Sharan says, “that each of these artists is extremely talented. But I found that they were repeatedly portraying female figures with fair complexions and curvy slim bodies. There was zero inclusivity. What is the use of art if everyone cannot find a space there?”

Leaving our obsession with fair skin and slim bodies behind

Right from when he was in school, Sharun was attracted to photography and always wished to pursue it professionally.

“I think it’s better to say that I was interested in art. Photography is a medium through which I felt confident of conveying my creativity. Not that I am an incredible content creator, but I constantly felt that everything is not right about society, and wanted to bring about a change in the perception in my own way,” says the 26-year-old, who is settled in Kochi.

Sharun took a diploma course in photography after Class 12 and worked as a trainee photographer in a company. Later, using the earnings from his job and some freelance shoots, he bought a semi-professional camera.

Sharun kerala photographer recreated ravi varma paintings
Photographer Sharun S

“Like every other photography enthusiast, I, too, wanted a professional camera. But I can’t afford it even today. Using the one I have, I do travel as well as fashion photography. In the case of this thematic shoot, I rented a professional camera and completed the project,” he shares.

Sharun was in search of a theme for his upcoming shoot when he stumbled upon Varma’s paintings. The more he researched, the more he felt like letting the world know — “Fair, young, and slim women are not the only ones that exist around you!”

“I discussed this idea with a journalist friend, who had contacts of a few trans women who are also activists. That’s how we met Sheethal Shyam,” he explains.

Sheethal is a trans woman and LGBTQIA+ activist. She has also appeared in several Malayalam movies. While the photographer first met her to get contacts of other trans women who could be interested in his project, he ended up casting her as well. Other models who appeared in the shoot include Sandra Larwin and Honey Aarohi.

Sharun kerala photographer recreated ravi varma paintings with trans models
Honey Aarohi

“Sharun’s theme was very interesting,” Sheethal says. “I was surprised when he asked if I could be a part too, but I had no second thoughts. I saw Sharun and his friends struggling to find the perfect costume, makeup artist, and set. With help from many kind people, we completed the shoot within a day.”

Sharun kerala photographer recreated ravi varma paintings with trans models
Sheethal Shyam, through Sharun’s lens.

Despite the fact that the photographs came out well, Sharun says, ”There were many limitations in the process. We were a small team and most of the people who worked on the project were newbies including me. This is my first big shoot. My close friends became the assistant director and editor. The makeup was done by Arathi and Asha, who worked for free, understanding our struggle.”

The shoot was conducted in the house of Purushan Eloor, a social activist who was instantly attracted to the project after listening to the theme. The costume, an integral part in recreating the work, was stitched after a long hunt for the clothes.

“We helped arrange some properties for the shoot,” says Sandra, an actor and model, among the three who appeared in the shoot. “I am a fan of classic paintings and when Sheethal chechi called explaining the theme, I found it fascinating. I felt that finally someone decided to include the trans community in a classic art work or at least its recreation, that too during pride month.”

Sharun kerala photographer recreated ravi varma paintings
Sandra Larwin as the muse.

Sharun says that releasing the photographs during pride month was not pre-planned. “The shoot was delayed due to many reasons, but now I feel it was for the best.”

“Pride month celebrations in Kerala this year were so satisfying for the entire trans community. College students and social groups all over the state organised pride walks, which brought a feeling that finally we are seen,” says Sheethal.

Meanwhile, Sharun is busy with new projects that he assures will be bigger than the first one, in terms of ideas and inclusivity.

Edited by Divya Sethu

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