Raja Ravi Varma (29 April 1848 – 2 October 1906) was a celebrated Indian painter and artist. He is considered among the greatest painters in the history of Indian art. His works are one of the best examples of the fusion of European academic art with a purely Indian sensibility and iconography. Additionally, he was notable for making affordable lithographs of his paintings available to the public, which greatly enhanced his reach and influence as a painter and public figure. His lithographs increased the involvement of common people with fine arts and defined artistic tastes among common people. Furthermore, his religious depictions of Hindu deities and works from Indian epic poetry and Puranas have received profound acclaim.
Raja Ravi Varma was closely related to the royal family of Travancore of present-day Kerala state in India. Later in his life, two of his granddaughters were adopted into that royal family, and their descendants comprise the totality of the present royal family of Travancore, including the latest three Maharajas (Balarama Varma III, Marthanda Varma III and Rama Varma VII).
Raja Ravi Varma was born M. R. Ry. Ravi Varma, Koil Thampuran of Kilimanoor at Kilimanoor palace in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (present-Kerala) into an aristocratic family that for over 200 years produced consorts for the princesses of the matrilineal Travancore royal family. The title Raja was conferred as a personal title by the Viceroy and Governor-General of India.
Ravi Varma was the son of Ezhumavil Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad and Umayamba Thampurratti. His mother Uma Ambabayi Thampuratty (or Umayamba Bayi Thampuratty) belonged to the baronial family which ruled the Kilimanoor feudal estate within the kingdom of Travancore. She was a poet and writer of some talent, and her work Parvati Swayamvaram was published by Varma after her death. Ravi Varma’s father was a scholar of Sanskrit and Ayurveda and hailed from the Ernakulam district in Kerala. Ravi Varma had two siblings, a sister named Mangala Bayi and a brother named Raja Varma (born 1860). The last-named was also a painter and worked closely with Ravi Varma all his life.
In 1866, at the age of 18, Varma was married to 12-year-old Bhageerthi Bayi (known formally as Pooruruttati Nal Bhageerathi Bayi Thampuratty) of the royal house of Mavelikkara, another major fief of Travancore kingdom. Notably, the house of Mavellikara was a branch of the Royal House of Travancore. Bhageerthi was the youngest of three sisters, and both of her elder sisters had been adopted into the royal family of Travancore in 1857 in order to carry on the lineage.His son’s name is Rama Varma Raja.
Varma was patronised by Ayilyam Thirunal, the next Maharaja of Travancore and began formal training thereafter. He learned the basics of painting in Madurai. Later, he was trained in water painting by Rama Swami Naidu and in oil painting by Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson.
The British administrator Edgar Thurston was significant in promoting the careers of Varma and his brother. Varma received widespread acclaim after he won an award for an exhibition of his paintings at Vienna in 1873. Varma’s paintings were also sent to the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 and he was awarded three gold medals. He travelled throughout India in search of subjects. He often modelled Hindu Goddesses on Indian women, whom he considered beautiful. Ravi Varma is particularly noted for his paintings depicting episodes from the story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, and Nala and Damayanti, from the Mahabharata. Ravi Varma’s representation of mythological characters has become a part of the Indian imagination of the epics. He is often criticized for being too showy and sentimental in his style but his work remains very popular in India. Many of his fabulous paintings are housed at Laxmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara.
Raja Ravi Varma Press
Apparently on the advice of the then Dewan (Prime Minister) of Travancore, T. Madhava Rao, Ravi Varma started a lithographic printing press in Ghatkopar, Mumbai in 1894 and later shifted it to Malavli near Lonavala, Maharashtra in 1899. The oleographs produced by the press were mostly of Hindu gods and goddesses in scenes adapted mainly from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas. These oleographs were very popular and continued to be printed in thousands for many years, even after the 1906 death of Ravi Varma.
The Ravi Varma press was the largest and most innovative press in India at that time. The press was managed by Varma’s brother, Raja Varma, but under their management, it was a commercial failure. By 1899 the press was deeply in debt and in 1901, the press was sold to his printing technician from Germany, Fritz Schleicher. Schleicher continued to print Ravi Varma’s prints but later employed less talented artists to create new designs. Schleicher also broadened the product of press to include commercial and advertisement labels. Under the management of Schleicher and his successors, the press continued successfully until a devastating fire destroyed the whole factory in 1972. Many of Ravi Varma’s original lithographic prints were also lost in the fire.
In 1904, Viceroy Lord Curzon, on behalf of the British King Emperor, bestowed upon Varma the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal. A college dedicated to fine arts was also constituted in his honour at Mavelikara, Kerala. Raja Ravi Varma High at Kilimanoor was named after him and there are many cultural organizations throughout India bearing his name. In 2013, the crater Varma on Mercury was named in his honor. Considering his vast contribution to Indian art, the Government of Kerala has instituted an award called Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram, which is awarded every year to people who show excellence in the field of art and culture.
- On his 65th death anniversary, India post issued a commemorative postal stamp depicting Ravi Varma and his famous painting ‘Damayanti and Swan’
Raja Ravi Varma is sometimes regarded as the first modern Indian artist due to his ability to reconcile Western aesthetics with Indian iconography. The Indian art historian and critic Geeta Kapur wrote,
Ravi Varma is the indisputable father figure of modern Indian art. Naive and ambitious at the same time, he opens up the debate for his later compatriots in the specific matter of defining individual genius through professional acumen, of testing modes of cultural adaptation with idiosyncratic effect, of attempting pictorial narration with its historic scope.
List of major works
The following is a list of the prominent works of Ravi Varma. On the anniversary of what would be his 150th birthday, Google Arts and Culture released over 300 of his works online for everyone to view.
- Mohini playing with a ball
- Yashoda and Krishna
- Village Belle
- Lady Lost in Thought
- DamayantiTalking to a Swan
- The Orchestra
- Arjunaand Subhadra
- The heartbroken
- Lord Krishnaas Ambassador
- Jatayu, a bird devotee of Lord Ramais mauled by Ravana
- Victory of Indrajit
- The gypsies
- A Lady Playing Swarbat
- Lady Giving Alms at the Temple
- Lord Rama Conquers Varuna
- Gheevarghese Mar Gregorios of Parumala
- Romancing Couple
- DraupadiDreading to Meet Kichaka
- Shantanuand Matsyagandha
- Shakuntala Composing a Love Letter to King Dushyanta
- Girl in Sage Kanwa’s Hermitage (Rishi-Kanya)
- Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayiof Travancore
- Sri Shanmukha Subramania Swami
- Woman holding a fan
- 3D painting of the Mysore king on a horse (available at the Mysore palace)