Raja Ravi Varma: A prince among painters

Raja Ravi Varma was a legendary painter who laid the foundation for oil painting in India, and attained a cult status during his time. Many of his life-size portraits are the pride of palaces in India.

Raja Ravi Varma was one of the greatest painters of India who, in the latter half of the 19th century, strode across like a colossus in the history of Indian painting and laid the foundation for oil painting. While Kalidasa gave a perfect portrayal of feminine beauty with all its divinity while describing Paravati, the consort of Lord Shiva in his magnificent Kavya ‘Kumarasambhava’, it was Ravi Varma who upheld Kalidasa’s tradition by concrete visualisations while painting such feminine beauties like Shakuntala in the textural qualities and thus paid homage to the beauty of a woman. The whole wealth of Nayika literature in Sanskrit got true representation in the brush of Ravi Varma.

Varma’s inborn talent gets a boost

Ravi Varma was born in April 1848 at Kilimannor, a village 24 miles from Kottayam in central Kerala. He hailed from a princely family which was closely linked with ties of blood to the royal house of the former State of Travancore. He was born with a brush in his mouth since, it appears, that by the time he was five years old he had scribbled the walls of his house with doodles from charcoal and chalk-piece. This inborn talent was recocgnised at an early age by his uncle Raja Raja Varma who was himself a painter of repute. He encouraged his nephew with initial lessons in painting and later when Ravi Varma was 14 years old, his uncle took him to the Palace of Travancore. In 1869 a Dutch painter by name Theodre Jensen was invited by the Maharaja of Travancore and commissioned him to do a few paintings. The Maharaja, by that time, had another palace painter by name Ramaswamy Nayudu as the court painter. Ravi Varma picked up the elements of painting by these renowned painters, although the Maharaja had to occasionally intervene in the reluctance of both the teachers to teach the youngster. Oil, Jensen’s medium of painting, was a fascinating new world for the youngster and Ravi Varma took it up with all dedication and enthusiasm. Varma was probably a pioneer in making oil painting a popular medium of art expression even in European countries.

His fame spreads far and wide

At 18, Ravi Varma married the youngest sister of the Maharaja of Travancore and this connection with royalty put him on a higher pedestal in social circles. This also brought him into close contact with the British resident at Trivandrum who persuaded him to participate in the art exhibition held in Madras in 1873. He won the first prize there and this catapulted his name and fame. The Duke of Buckingham who was the Governor of Madars commissioned many works to Ravi Varma and sent them to England. The Government of Madras also presented a few of Varma’s paintings to the Prince of Wales when he visited Trivandrum in 1875. His paintings were also highly appreciated and applauded in the Poona Art Festival in 1880 and at the International Art Festival held in Vienna and Chicago in 1882. With these credits, Ravi Varma became a celebrity and was in great demand by art lovers.

When Swami Vivekananda went to Chicago in 1893 to address the Parliament of World Religions, he was extremely happy to see Ravi Varma’s paintings displayed at the venue. On his return to India after his successful tour of the West, Vivekananda was the guest of honour of Ravi Varma with whom he stayed for a day. Varma was also invited by the Maharajas of Baroda and Mysore who gave him large commissions. The Art Gallery in the Jaganmohan Palace
at Mysore was inaugurated with several of Ravi Varma’s paintings which are a connoisseur’s delight even today.

Mass production of Ravi Varma’s paintings

Sri V. P. Madhava Rao, Dewan of Baroda, wrote to him “There are many of my friends who are desirous of possessing your paintings. It would be hardly possible for you, with only one pair of hands, to meet such a large demand. Send therefore a few of your select works of Europe and have the others oleo graphed. You will thereby not only extend your reputation but will be doing a real service to your country”. Acting on this advice, Varma established an oleo graphic printing press in Bombay. Thus began an era of mass production of his paintings which flooded every Hindu home with illustrations of religious legends in the form of Calendars.

Ravi Varma became a house-hold name in Calcutta Art Circles when he held an exhibition there in 1885. Ten years later in 1895 when the Maharaja of Travancore visited Calcutta on some official work, many Britishers who met him recognized him as ‘The King of Ravi Varma’s Place’. This incident may remind us of the well-known adage in Sanskrit “Swadeshe Poojyathe Raja, Vidwan Sarvatra Poojyate”, meaning ‘a king is honoured in his native place whereas a meritorious person is honoured all over’. Even though Ravi Varma got several invitations from Germany and England, he could not go overseas due to the then prevailing traditional custom which did not permit overseas travel.

Bestowed with the title of ‘Raja’

In 1904 Viceroy Lord Curzon, on behalf of the King Emperor, bestowed upon Raja Ravi Varma the Kaiser-i- Hind gold medal. At the time his name was mentioned as “Raja Ravi Varma” for the first time, raising objections from the Maharaja of Travancore.

Ravi Varma, it is said, defended the title stating his ancestors had been the Rajas of Beypore in Malabar and besides, as per a local Malayali tradition, the name of the maternal uncle (Raja Raja Varma) was prefixed to the name. Thereafter he was always referred to as Raja Ravi Varma.

During his last days Ravi Varma could not devote much time to painting, as he became the guardian of the next ruler of Travancore, who was a minor then. He died in October 1906 at Attingal near Trivandrum. In India his paintings can be studied at the Sri Chitralayam Gallery in Trivandrum, the Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, the Jaganmohan Art Gallery in Mysore, the City Palace in Udaipur, the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad and the National Art Gallery in New Delhi.

While the Maharaja of Baroda purchased 14 paintings of Ravi Varma for Rs. 14,000 more than 100 years ago, sometime in 1997 his painting ‘Begum’s Bath’ fetched Rs. 32 lakhs, and at a auction held a few years back his oleograph ‘Shakuntala’s Love letter’ earned Rs. 16 lakhs while his other painting ‘Yashoda and Krishna’ fetched Rs. 56 lakhs.

When Ravi Varma began to paint, the Moghul and Rajput schools of painting had declined and a hybrid style had emerged in places like Lucknow, Delhi, Patna and Tanjore. It was in Tanjore style that Ravi Varma started to paint. Considering the fact that Varma did not have the benefit of formal training in an Art School, his claim as a painter in a medium, new to Indian tradition, cannot be denied.


late BMN Murthy

The writer was a prolific writer who contributed articles and columns on Indian heritage, tradition, vedic wisdom etc. The above article has been taken from his collection of write ups from his book, ‘Mahati’.

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