Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

In our own times, among the arts, often the most misunderstood has been the art of painting. The painter is looked upon as one who is either a freak or an export from another time and place, or a mere craftsman, a worker. While there are many among us who believe that the duty of the painter is to represent life as it is in all similitude, there are others who look upon this art as being explorative and creative just like any other art form. True, the history of the art of painting has been quite long and it has taken a long time to evolve in its many phases and manifestations. In our part of the world the history of painting has been most exciting in its phases of discovery and reinventions. Raja Ravi Varma, has, no doubt, a significant place in this.

As an artist my self one of my earliest exposures to painting was to the work of Raja Ravi Varma. In fact as a child I used to regard them much more than as mere paintings—his lifelike depictions of devi devathas were the very sources for my imagination while trying to visualize gods and goddesses. Saraswathi seated on a rock playing the veena with a peacock beside her, Lakshmi, Parvathi– in short, the very essence and substance of the Hindu mythology in terms of the visual appeared through the visual language of this noble painter. The hero heroines of Vyasa and Kalidasa were not elsewhere either. Ravi Varma provided a visual language to a whole generation. And this he did through his amazing talent in adopting a European medium of the 19th century art, and also his equally great imitative capacity of illusionism. Not only did he change the way Indians perceived the world he also gave eyes to a pan Indian vision. How did he do it, what did he achieve, what is his true significance? Let us take a brief look at his life and works.

Born on 29th April 1848 to Umamba Thampuratty and Ezhumavil Neelakantan Bhattathirippad at Kilimanoor, in Travancore district ( Trivandrum in the present day Kerala state) Ravi Varma showed precocious talent at drawing.  His uncle Raja Raja Varma was instrumental in bringing him to Thiruvananthapuram where Ayilyam Thirunal accorded him royal patronage. In 1862 he moved into Moodath Matom which belonged to the Kilimanoor palace , inside Thiruvananthapuram Fort near to the Thevarathu Koikal Palace. Soon under the generous patronage of Ayilyam Thirunal, Ravi Varma was exposed to a whole lot of new influences, western and Indian alike. Traditonal Tanjore painters and then fashionable Italian artists as well. It was the technique of oil on canvas that drew his intimate attention and he began to practice it. However despite the wide variety of styles and techniques available to him, Ravi Varma was constantly aware of  his inadequate technical skills and also the lack of  a reliable Guru seems to have worried him. His biographers point out that Ramaswamy Naicker the noted painter from Madurai in the service of the crown prince Visakam Thirunal at that time jealously guarded the secrets of oil colour mixing, preparing the canvas, and the technique of perspective from the aspiring painter.   So too did the visiting Dutch painter Theodore Janson (visiting Thiruvananthapuram to paint royal portraits in 1868). Perhaps one can easily detect a clear trace of jealousy in this act: both the recognized painters were awestruck at the novice’s genius. Nevertheless one of the helpers of Ramaswamy Naicker, a man named Arumukham, used to visit Ravi Varma secretly in the dead of night to enlighten him with the secrets of oil painting he had learned from his master. Ravi Varma was obviously quick to learn on his own and adapt any new technique. He was bold enough to explore things on his own and thus remained an untutored painter all his life. As his name began to spread quite soon he was commissioned to execute portraits from all over the country

Ravi Varma’s talent never went unrecognized. He was awrded the highest honour of Veerasringala by Ayilyam Thirunal—the very first time such an award was given to a painter. In Madras his painting “Nair Woman with Jasmine Flowers in her Hair,” won the gold medal and later in 1873, for the same work he secured the most distinguished award at an art competition in Vienna. In 1876, his large figurative composition Sakunthala writing a Love Note was exhibited in Madras and was purchased by the English Lord Buckingham. When Sir Monier Williams later published his English version of Kalidasa’s Shakunthalam, this picture adorned the cover page.  And of course this has been the very mode in which later generations have visualized Kalidasa’s heroine.

Ravi Varma’s paintings won virtually all the accolades that were possible for an Indian painter of his times. He was invited to Baroda, Mysore, Bhavnagar, Jaipur, Alwar, Gwalior, Indore and Udaipur.  Wherever he went he painted portraits and paintings on a variety of mythological themes. His equally talented brother Raja Raja Varma also travelled with him and painted. His diaries written between 1895 and 1904 are perhaps the earliest personal accounts of an Indian artist.  They reveal the inner workings of a creative mind. Raja Raja Varma has been credited with the title of the earliest Indian landscape painter. While Ravi Varma concentrated on evolving a special technique of portrait paintings his brother chose mainly to capture the variations of the land. In fact their sister back home Mangala Bai Thampuratti was also credited with equally great talent as an artist. Her works can be seen in the Sri Chithra Thirunal Art Gallery in Trivandrum alongside the works of her brothers.

Sir T Madhava Rao, the then Diwan of Travancore and later the administrator of Baroda State was quick to see the possibilities in Ravi Varma’s popularity. He suggested they reproduce his works through the technique of Oleography. Oleography was a comparatively new mode of printing perfected in 1885 by George Boxter in England and it was another mode of lithography. Ravi Varma’s oleographs established his reputation as an Indian artist.  At the turn of his century Ravi Varma had become some sort of a cult figure so that when he came to die on 2nd October 1906, people had already started worshipping his pictures.

While he was dying Ravi Varma’s house was overflowing with his admirers—people who had come from all over the world. The small village of Kilimanoor would certainly have never seen such a crowd before or afterwards. Correspondents and reporters from all the world’s newspapers and dailies were there. And Ravi Varma breathed his last in great fame and popularity. Living at a time when the country was passing through the traumatic experience of colonization, he virtually invented visual prototypes out of a legendary past and reintegrated them with a new iconography. His achievements have been equally legendary.


Among Ravi Varma’s greatest works are his innumerable life-like portraits of people.  He appears to have discovered the effect of light on different textures of skin and that had definitely given him tremendous pleasure—his portraits speak to us of the people they show. Further he often delights in depicting the curves and falls of the clothing and the texture of ornaments.  It is often a delight to let your eye dwell on one end of the portrait and slowly allow it to migrate over the different textures—skin, clothing, ornament and more specifically the pattu kasavu and its metallic sheen!

The most outstanding pictures perfected by Ravi Varma would certainly be his majestic compositions of epical dimensions: Mohini Rukmangada, The Victorious Indrajit, Draupadi, Jatayuvadh, Viswamitra and Menaka – the list is elegant. It is definitely to Ravi Varma that one returns to get a visual depiction of Kalidasa’s Shakunthala, and Vyasa’s Bhishma. Among the noted dramatizations of Indian mythology Ravi Varma’s Damayanthi with the Hamsa and Shakunthala turning back for a quick glance at Dhusyantha would stand unrivalled.  He laid the foundations for later generations to visualize the Indian classics in a neoclassical mold. This is often cited as Ravi Varma’s strength as well as his weakness: he popularized the classical and brought the high dimensions of art into the levels of the ordinary. 

Ravi Varma’s Achivements : Critics and artists have argued that Ravi Varma gravitated to the medium of Oil on Canvas very much like the colonial Indians sliding into the English language. During British colonization only the western way of life was looked upon as valuable and desireable, the English language was raised into great position of prominence, and western manner of dressing, eating, living and thinking, came to be adored and imitated. Similarly in visual arts Ravi Varma symbolizes the colonial mode of painting.  Nevertheless, being a child of his times, Ravi Varma perfected his chosen art skills, and excelled in his medium. The art of portrait painting that he borrowed from his European ways of seeing, did not show any commitment to the earlier manner of painting practiced in the courts during the Mughal period: and yet Ravi Varma’s portraits reveal a touch of class.  He is most definitely a painter of great craft –be it in his proscenium stage-like dramatic compositions, or in his life like depictions of the goddesses Saraswathi, Lakshmy etc. He left a great legacy after him. He single-handedly pioneered a popularization of the art of painting through his oleographs.

And of course it is to him that we have to turn for a pan Indian vision.—the introducing of Oil on canvas as a medium, portrait-styles, the view as if from a proscenium stage, —invention of the sari as a Indian dress—and a pan Indian vision.

What Ravivarma means to me:

In a manifesto that wrote for a recent brochure of mine I pointed out that although my way of thinking is definitely different from that of Raja Ravi Varma his works have been a great influence on me. His painterly creations have been ingrained into the psyche of the land I grew up in. It was he who popularized the art of painting in this country. Of course when new influences seep in they shape up new and newer sensibilities. Ravi Varma imitated the early nineteenth century European decadent art no doubt, but he added a great deal to it in terms of his craft and meticulous eye for details. He transcreated the Indian myths and legends in a new language of perception. His greatest achievement as a painter I believe is his discovery of a pan Indian dress for Indian woman—the Sari. There are innumerable ways of wearing the sari in the Indian subcontinent. He chose the Maharashtra variety, and afterwards when the Indian Film industry developed this fashion had come to stay. There is a much debated painting of his entitled Here Comes Papa!   Art historians and social critics have discussed this as a text of the matrilineal societal practice giving way to the patriarchal. But this is not among my favourites as a painter. The painting that depicts Nala slowly leaving the sleeping Damayanthi in the middle of the forest captures the quietness of the night and also speaks volumes about the grief and anxiety in the eyes of the distraught king. This work stands out as an outdoor composition. In my childhood home there were innumerable oleographs of Ravi Varma, and my favourites among those were that of Saraswathi sitting on a rock playing the Veena and Damayanthi in a flowing red sari gazing deeply into the eyes of the Swan and dreaming of Nala. I cannot close this talk without mentioning the exquisite work figuring human figures in the street. On a pavement below a large palacial building a darkish woman sits with a thampura on her side and a child in her lap.  Her eyes lead us away from the painting surface into infinity. She is obviously singing. Her fingers are caught in the act of strumming the thampura. Beside her are her worldly possessions a few tattered bundles. On the floor a little child dressed in green sari crouches, and her eyes are oceans of sadness and apprehension. Just to her left id a boy carelessly examining a wound on his elbow.  In the middle of it all is an empty pot. The entire composition has been so carefully constructed and one can easily perceive the deliberateness of the painter’s craft. But the execution is exquisite. This Ravi Varma at his best. 

Contemporary critics like Aurobindo Ghosh dismissed Ravi Varma as a talentless imitative painter.  Even Ananada Coomaraswamy found him quite displeasing. His theatricality and want of imagination are reasons for their dislike.  However, for me Ravi Varma continues to be prince among painters and painter among princes.  Many differences not withstanding, he has left behind him a great legacy that the world will not willingly let die.    

See also Swati Tirunal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s