Hamsa Damayanti, Shakuntala, Jatayu Vadham – all these and many such scenes have a fixed image in the collective consciousness of all Indians, especially Malayalis, thanks to the works of Raja Ravi Varma. Known as the father of Modern Indian Art, Ravi Varma was the first to introduce the style of modern European painting into Indian art history.
Ravi Varma Koil Thamburan, who later came to be known as Raja Ravi Varma, was born on 29th April 1848, in Kilimanoor, Travancore. He was born to Ezhumavil Neelakanthan Bhattathiripad and Umayamba Thampurratti, into a family of artists, poets, scholars, and warriors. His father was a scholar of Sanskrit and Ayurveda while his mother was a poet and a writer. Her work Parvati Swayamwaram was published after her death. Ravi Varma ‘belonged’ to his mother’s family, as they followed a matrilineal system of lineage and succession. Ravi Varma also had two siblings, his sister Mangala Bayi and brother Raja Varma.
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His connection to the royal family of Travancore tightened after his marriage with Bhageerathi Bayi, whose two sisters were adopted by the royal family of Travancore. They had two sons – Kerala Varma and Rama Varma, and three daughters – Mahaprabha Amma, Uma Amma, and Cheriya Kochamma, who were all royal by birth because of the matrilineal system that their family followed.
The entire royal family of Travancore that exists today are the descendants of Raja Ravi Varma, with the well-known descendants being writers Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi and Shreekumar Varma, artist Rukmini Varma and musician Ashwati Thirunal Rama Varma.
His training in art
Ravi Varma’s uncle Raja Raja Varma had recognised his blossoming artistic talent at the age of 7, and it was he who gave the young artist his first lessons in painting. At the age of 14, Varma was patronised by Ayilyam Thirunal, the next Maharaja of Travancore, which was followed by further training in art. He remained as a trusted courtier of Ayilyam Thirunal, who had immensely contributed to the growth of his career.
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After learning the basics in Madhurai, he was further taught the art of water painting by his mentor Rama Swami Naidoo and oil painting by Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson. He was among the first artists in India to use oil paints in his work.
As his artistic flair grew, more and more people started to recognise the talent in him and supported him. He was gifted his first box of oil colours by Kerala Varma Koil Thampuran of Ananthapuram Palace, Haripad (a famous Malayalam litterateur and the consort of Varma’s sister-in-law Rani Lakshmi Bayi, who was adopted into the Travancore dynasty).
Style of art
Raja Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist whose paintings depicted Hindu gods and deities in human forms and earthly backgrounds. He used the European technique of realism to depict the scenes from Hindu mythology. He had to face harsh criticism for hurting religious values. But his paintings remained popular, and even now are used as a universal depiction of actual incidents.
Apart from mythology he also borrowed themes from the classics. His subjects were never gods but mortal humans, and mostly women as main figures. He believed that through portraying women he could easily show the diversity of Indian culture, through attire and customs.
He also showed a love for nature and the world in general, with his paintings like Gypsies being raw portrayals of the world he saw. He was praised for the realistic visual effect of his paintings, with his splendid use of realism and also his effective placement of characters in the frame.
Ravi Varma’s first paid commission work came seeking him in the year 1870. It was to do a family portrait of Kizakke Palat Krishnan Menon, Sub-judge of Calicut Court.
Following this were various milestones that strengthened his future in the field as his work gained popularity. He started to garner international fame after winning an award at an exhibition in Vienna, in the year 1873. Another major achievement was his participation in the World’s Columbian Exhibition at Chicago in 1893, one of the grandest expositions of its kind. He had entered ten of his paintings representing India and had won three gold medals.
1904 was one of the most important years in his life, as he had appeared in the New Year’s Honours List of that year. The Imperial Government awarded him the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal that year, and it was the first time in history that an artist had received such an honour usually given to rich men and officials. The title ‘Raja’ was mentioned against his name for the first time in the citation of this award, and he then continued to use it.
A public figure as well as an artist
Ravi Varma had great love towards his audience and wanted his paintings to be accessible to all. He planned to create lithographs of his original paintings which would be affordable for the common people. This had tremendously increased his reach among the public as more people got to know about his best works. The Birth of Shakuntala was the first chromolithograph printed at Ravi Varma Press, in the year 1894. He was the first artist to make such a move, as art was considered only for the upper classes back then. He was criticised by many who said that he had destroyed the sanctity of art by giving them away to low-class audiences. But Ravi Varma’s decision remained unchanged and he became a public figure.
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Ravi Varma had tried to get an art gallery established at Thiruvananthapuram. However, the art gallery was established long after his time during the rule of Sree Chithra Thirunal Rama Varma.
Death in 1906
After the death of his brother Raja Varma, Ravi Varma became secluded. He announced, on his 57th birthday, that he wished to accept sannyasa and leave all worldly pleasures for the next three years. But at 58, his health took a turn for the worse. He was bedridden due to physical exhaustion and a carbuncle, which wouldn’t heal, also appeared on his shoulder.
In 1906, Ravi Varma breathed his last at the age of 58.
Subramaniam Bharathi, a renowned Tamil poet had sung dedicated beautiful lines in honour of the artist-
And now to earthly glory
He has bade adieu
And to heaven risen
O Though, who hast so oft painted
The celestial nymphs,
Rambha, Urvasi and all the rest!
Some of his famous works include Nair Lady Adorning Her Hair (1873), Hamsa Damayanti (1899), Shakuntala (1898), Galaxy of Musicians (1889), There Comes Papa (1893), and Gypsies (1893).
Ravi Varma in popular culture
Ravi Varma’s reputation still thrives among the people and he has been honoured in many awe-inspiring ways.
‘Vivah Patu’, the world’s most expensive saree, is flanked by 11 of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. Vivah Patu is an 8-kg saree and is the most expensive saree in the world; worth ₹40 lakhs. It was designed by Sivalingam, director of Chennai Silks, as a tribute to Ravi Varma.
There are 4 also movies that are said to be based on Ravi Varma’s life, the latest being Rang Rasiya (2008).