Raja Ravi Varma was an Indian painter best known for combining Hindu mythological elements and European realist historicist painting style. Ravi varma stood out as one of the first Indian artists to work with oil paints and master the technique of lithographic printing. Varma produced several portraits of Indians and British in India, in addition to scenes from Hindu mythology.
In the state of Travancore, Varma was born into an elite family. His uncle Raja Raja Varma, observing his early enthusiasm for drawing on the palace walls, offered his first rudimentary painting instruction. Varma’s artistic career was supported by Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal, the ruler of Travancore. Soon after, Rama Swamy Naidu, the royal painter, began teaching him how to paint with watercolours. Three years later, Varma began studying oil painting with Theodore Jensen, a Danish-born British artist.
Life of the Painter
Raja Ravi Varma married Rani Bhageerathi Bayi (Kochu Panki Amma), a 12-year-old girl from the Mavelikkara Royal House when he was 18 years old. He had five children, the youngest of whom, Rama Varma, went on to study art at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai and became an artist. In his later years, Ravi Varma lived in Mysore, Baroda, and several other Indian cities. This exposure helped him extend his perspective. At the same time, he broadened and refined his talents, allowing him to become a more productive painter.
Varma was the first Indian artist to adopt Western perspective and composition techniques to Indian subjects, styles, and ideas. In 1873, he received the Governor’s Gold Medal for his painting Nair Lady Adorning Her Hair. As a result, he became a much-desired artist among the Indian royalty and Europeans in India, who commissioned him to paint their portraits.
Varma became known for his portraiture, but he also painted scenes from Indian mythology. In the epics and Puranas, his depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses and characters revealed his immersion in Indian culture. Harischandra in Distress, Jatayu Vadha, and Shri Rama Vanquishing the Sea were among his paintings that represented dramatic episodes from Indian mythology. His representations of Indian women were so well received that a lovely woman was frequently characterised as looking “as if she stepped out of a Varma canvas.”
Varma transformed Western realism into an Indian art movement. In 1894, he established a lithographic press to mass-produce oleographs of his paintings, making them affordable to the general public. His images grew in popularity due to this innovation, and they became an important component of popular Indian culture.
Later artists chastised Varma, claiming that his work was only superficially Indian since it copied Western painting approaches despite depicting mythological Indian themes. That viewpoint influenced the establishment of the Bengal School of Art (also known as the Bengal School), whose members combined traditional Indian creative traditions with a modernist perspective
Despite some dismissing Varma’s work as “calendar art,” his work has maintained a steady level of popularity. The Begum’s Bath, for example, sold for a record sum for an Indian artist in 1997. In addition, Varma’s sense of beauty and grace can be seen in works like The Maharashtrian Lady, Shakuntala, The Milkmaid, Expectation, and Pleasing.
Raja Ravi Varma- the Painter
With his excellent skill, Varma was also responsible for bringing Indian art to the rest of the globe. While Europeans and other art enthusiasts admired his technique, ordinary Indians appreciated his work for its simplicity. Varma’s paintings frequently emphasised the beauty of South Indian women, which was adored by all. Many individuals from the lowest castes turned to his depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses as worship material. These people were frequently barred from accessing temples at the time. Therefore, they praised Varma’s works since they showed how the deities appeared within the temple.
He also succeeded in developing artistic understanding and raising awareness of the value of art among Indians. He did so by creating inexpensive lithographs that even the impoverished could afford. Alternatively, this made him a household name, and Raja Ravi Varma quickly won everyone’s hearts. Viceroy Lord Curzon bestowed the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal on him to recognise his achievements in the public good.
Raja Ravi Varma began his profession early and quickly became well-known for his work. His paintings were not only shown at a prestigious exhibition in Vienna in 1873, but he also won an award for one of them. When his art was taken to Chicago to be presented at the prestigious World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, he was awarded three gold medals. It’s only fair to state that British administrator Edgar Thurston was mostly responsible for exporting Varma’s works.
The artworks, however, spoke for themselves once they arrived in foreign countries. His intellect was undeniable. Varma travelled all over India throughout his career, searching for suitable topics for his paintings. He was particularly interested in capturing the allure of South Indian women. He even frequently featured and popularised his close relatives through his work. Varma’s daughter Mahaprabha, who was shown bearing one of her boys, and his sister-in-law Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi, who later adopted his granddaughters, were among them.
Portraits, portrait-based compositions, and theatrical compositions based on myths and stories are the three types of paintings he creates. Raja Ravi Varma is most known for his work in the third category of paintings. He gave individuals who were not fortunate enough to hear or read the classic mythical stories an insight into them through his paintings.
The paintings showing incidents from the stories of Dushyanta and Shakuntala and Nala and Damayanti are among Raja Ravi Varma’s most famous and remarkable works in this category. Lord Rama’s victory over Varuna and Ravana’s arrogance while clipping one of Jatayu’s wings are two examples from the Hindu epic Ramayana. He also modelled Hindu Goddesses on ladies from the southern portions of India in many of his works. It was for this that he was chastised on many grounds.
Lithographic Printing Press Varma
Lithographic printing was gaining popularity in numerous European countries and the United States around Ravi Varma’s birth. T. Madhava Rao, the then Dewan of Travancore, proposed Varma and his brother start their press based on its global appeal. Inspired by this innovative concept, Ravi Varma established a press in Mumbai and eventually relocated it to a location near Lonavala. The press produced numerous oleographs showing Hindu gods and goddesses.
The press in India at the time was the largest and most advanced in the world. The great painter’s brother managed the press after his death. However, it soon fell into financial difficulties. Fritz Schleicher, a German technician bought it. By employing less gifted painters and commercialising the press by accepting proposals from advertising labels, Fritz Schleicher was able to turn the tide. However, in 1972, the entire unit was destroyed by a horrific fire that consumed the entire factory, including some of Raja Ravi Varma’s most remarkable original lithographic prints.
Great Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma
During his lifetime, Raja Ravi Varma created numerous masterpieces of art. Here is a comprehensive list of Raja Ravi Varma’s most well-known works:
- A Family of Beggars – This painting depicted the dire economic situation in India.
- A Lady Playing Swarbat – Like many of his works, a South Indian woman inspired him for this.
- Arjuna and Subhadra – This painting depicts a scene from the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic.
- Damayanti Interacting with a Swan – This is another Mahabharata scene.
- Draupadi Fearful of Meeting Kichaka – This image depicts another Mahabharata incident.
- The Girl in Sage Kanwa’s Hermitage (Rishi-Kanya) – The story of Shakuntala is told in this story.
- Jatayu (a birds devotee of Lord Rama) – This is undoubtedly Raja Ravi Varma’s most well-known masterpiece. The image depicts Jatayu, who surrenders his life after defeating the terrible evil Ravana in the Ramayanam.
- A Lady Giving Alms at the Temple – Today, this is still a frequent sight in India.
- Lady Lost in Thought – A South Indian woman again inspired this artwork.
- Lady with Fruit – This picture, based on Ravi Varma’s mistress, gives the feeling of being one of Varma’s particular favourites.
- Lord Krishna as Ambassador – This is a Hindu deity depiction in an artwork.
- Lord Rama Conquers Varuna – Following ‘Jatayu,’ this is arguably the most well-known Ramayanam story.
- Nair Woman – This picture depicts a Malayali woman in all her splendour, as the name says.
- Romancing Couple – This picture further demonstrates that Raja Ravi Varma was not a painter who just painted gods and goddesses.
Works of Raja Ravi Varma
- Shakuntala – The mythical woman Shakuntala marries Dushyanta in this picture. After whom ancient India was named, Bharata was born to the couple later.
- Shakuntala Penning Down a Love Letter to King Dushyanta – This depicts Shakuntala and King Dushyanta’s love story.
- Shantanu and Matsyagandha – This Mahabharata narrative recounts Shantanu and Matsyagandha’s connection.
- The Heartbroken – This painting depicts a South Indian woman who appears to be heartbroken.
- The Orchestra – This represents a South Indian band of musicians.
- Maghanada Victory (Indrajit) shows Lanka royal Indrajit’s victory over Indra Loka. The story depicts in the Ramayana, an Indian epic.
Criticism of the Painter
There have been heavy criticism of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings for being excessively flashy. There was also chastisim of his works for obscuring traditional Indian art traditions, particularly those depicting Hindu gods and goddesses. Many people states that the method of Raja Ravi Varma lacks the vitality of expression inherent in traditional paintings. There have also been chasticism of him for modelling gods after prostitutes. Critics state that Varma’s depictions of deities have demeaned them to the status of mortals. Many chasticised him for representing Indian ladies with pale skin, particularly those from Hindu myths. However, women from the lower classes always earned the honour of displaying dark skin in his works.
The Kerala government established an award in Raja Ravi Varma’s honour to honour his significant contribution to Indian art. The prize, known as the ‘Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram,’ is for people who show great promise in art and culture. In the Kerala district of Mavelikkara, there is a college folllowing his name Raja Ravi Varma. In 1873, he earned first prize for his paintings at the Vienna Art Exhibition, bringing him international renown.
Raja Ravi Varma- The Royal Artist
Varma became a popular artist among the aristocracy. Many aristocrats offered commission to paint several portraits in the late 1800s. According to legend, he became so well-known that the Kilimanoor Palace in Kerala had to open a post office to handle the influx of painting requests. He travelled extensively throughout India for work and inspiration.
He has commissioned 14 Puranic paintings for the Durbar Hall of the new Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda after creating a portrait of Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda. Varma drew on events from the Mahabharata and Ramayana to depict Indian culture. Several other kings supported him, including the Maharaja of Mysore and Udaipur Maharaja. The artist received an award for an exhibition of his paintings in Vienna in 1873, as his popularity grew. He received three gold awards at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Taking India on the Global Scene
Raja Ravi Varma wanted to make his art accessible to the general public. Therefore he established a Lithographic Press in Bombay in 1894. Sir T Madhava Rao, former Dewan of Travancore and afterwards Baroda, reportedly proposed the concept in a letter to Varma. He stated that because he couldn’t keep up with the high demand for his work, he should send some of his best works to Europe and have them printed as oleographs. But on the other hand, Varma decided to start his printing press. The Birth of Shakuntala is the first picture to undergo printing at Varma’s factory. After that there were printing of numerous legendary figures and saints such as Adi Shankaracharya.
Ravi Varma sold the printing equipment to Fritz Schleicher, a German lithographer, in 1901, who continued to produce the lithographs. The prints’ popularity lasted well into the twentieth century, with Varma’s style inspiring artists who drew the classic comic book series, Amar Chitra Katha.
Raja Ravi Varma was a master painter whose work helped put India on the map and elevated him to the ranks of other great artists. His paintings had a polished, elegant aspect due to his attention to detail, clever use of colours, and rich texture, which is why his works are still valuable today. Raja Ravi varma’s realistic depictions and interpretations of religious and mythological figures that adorn today’s homes enthralled and fascinated both a domestic and international audience.
Ravi Varma’s art went beyond painting; he was a poet, scholar, and visionary who lived in a time well beyond his own. His work also drew attention to his skilled contemporaries and paved the path for a new generation of musicians. Ravi Varma’s goal was to make art accessible to the general public rather than a select few. Ravi Varma created a strong foundation of admiration and respect by creating a press to make reproductions of his works.