hylas & the nymphs


John William Waterhouse (1849–1917, England)

Scenes from mythology

Waterhouse was an English painter known for working in the Pre-Raphaelite style, as well as being one of the last exponents of this aesthetic. His artworks are known for their depictions of women from both ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend.

“Visha Kanyas”

For part 3 of the desi remix series I chose to illustrate“Visha Kanyas” (poisonous damsels). These young women were used as assassins against kings and other powerful enemies. They were often sent by kings to kill their enemies by seduction and giving their targets poisoned alcohol. It was believed that their blood was extremely poisonous to humans, and that even a single look or touch could kill a person.  

“Visha Kanyas” is a remix of “Hylas and the Nymphs” by John Williams Waterhouse, in which Hylas (the companion of Greek God Hercules) is abducted by water nymphs. 

Part of my goal is to easternize western paintings, but my main goal with these remixes isn’t necessarily to highlight religion or to make religious iconography. I see a lot of young desi women trying to rebel against traditional images of how desis have been depicted in the past and how they should look in order to create a new image of what modern desi women look and feel like today. I definitely support this notion, however instead of using my paintings to create a single snapshot of what the modern desi looks like, or instead of rebelling against my culture in any way, I’d rather create a scene that shows women taking action. I don’t want to make portraits to suggest that how I paint someone is what I believe beauty should look like because then the conversation becomes just about what we look like on the outside. I make paintings rooted in mythology because it tells a story of women doing things their way and being powerful. So much of history in Indian mythology is about men fighting epic battles, but you don’t hear enough about HERstory. I want to show examples from our past to prove that not all traditionally depicted women are weak, shy, or whatever other stereotypes give us negative sentiments about who we are as Indian women today. The point is that there are stories to be told that show action, not just questions about beauty captured in a single way. Whether this power comes through women defeating men by trickery, using seduction to get what they want, or going as far as killing men, these stories all show women having the upper hand, which if you ask me, defies stereotypes just as much as being a “rebel” or changing up our looks. 

The encounter of Hylas and the Nymphs - Giovanni Demin.
Palazzo Papadopoli, Santa Marina, Venice. 

Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 26 mythographer C2nd A.D. 
“The boy Hylas went carrying a pail to the River Askanios (Ascanius) to fetch water for the leaders [Argonauts]. And when the Nymphai (Nymphs), who were the daughters of this River, saw and fell in love with him, they pulled him in, dragging him down into the spring. After Hylas had disappeared, Herakles saw that he was not coming back to him and deserted the heroes, searching everywhere in the thickets, calling ‘Hylas’ again and again. The Nymphai, fearing that Herakles might discover that they had hidden the lad among them, changed him into an echo which again and again echoed back the cries of Herakles … To this day local people make sacrifices to Hylas by the spring. The priest calls him by his name three times and an echo replies three times.”