A Prince Among Painters and A Painter Among Princes

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was born in Kilimanoor Palace as the son of Umamba Thampuratti and Neelakandan Bhattathiripad. At the age of seven years he started drawing on the palace walls using charcoal. His uncle Raja Raja Varma noticed the talent of the child and gave preliminary lessons on painting. At the age of 14, Ayilyam Thirunal Maharaja took him to Travancore Palace and he was taught water painting by the palace painter Rama Swamy Naidu. After 3 years Theodor Jenson, a British painter taught him oil painting.

Most of his paintings are based on Hindu epic stories and characters. In 1873 he won the First Prize at the Madras Painting Exhibition. He became a world famous Indian painter after winning in 1873 Vienna Exhibition.

Here we have collected some of the classic paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. Images are 75 Kb to 150 Kb and may take a while to download. Click the thumbnail to enlarge.

Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

1848 – Born on 29th April in Kilimanoor
1862 – Visit to Trivandrum.
1870 – Travel to Mookambika Painting several portraits.
1873 – Participation, Vienna Exhibition (Award)
..........Exhibition at Madras (Receives Gold Medal)
1874 - Exhibition at Madras (Receives Gold Medal)
1876 – Exhibition at Madras
1880 – Exhibition at Poona ( Gaekwad Gold Medal)
1881 – Visit to Baroda Palace
1885 – Visit to Mysore.
1887 – Mother Uma Amma Bai passes away.
1888 – Travel- visits many places in India.
1891 – Second trip to Baroda Wife passes away

1893 – Exhibition at Chicago Receives two awards, Honorable Mention) Meeting Swamy Vivekananda.
1894 – Establishing Oleographic Printing Press at Bombay. ’Birth of Sakunthala’ production of the
..........first Oleograph Print.
1896 – Visit to many places in Northern India.
1899 – Shifting Oleograph Press to Slisher Visiting Udaipur.
1903 – Participating Madras Lalit Kala Sangam Exhibition.
1904 – Brother Raja Varma passes away.
1906 – Died on 2nd October in Kilimanoor.


The fragrance persists. In 1906 when Raja Ravi Varma died, he left behind a large body of work scattered all over India in palaces and privet collections. Today, these works are considered so valuable that there is litigation among the family members to inherit them. Even paintings remotely resembling his style and subject matters are passed on to collectors with  untrained eyes as originals with a high margin of profit. One important fact that Ravi Varma effectively bridge the two centuries signifying two period. Since his carrier started on later half of the 19th century, he fulfilled the historical necessity of transition from tradition  to modernity. Here the word modernity should not  be read as the modern art movement of Europe. It is a kind of visual revolution, which was required in the changing social structure of the country. In the earlier period, art activities were confined either to the court or to religious rites and ceremonies, and the artist, artisans and craftsman

co-executed in the society. But the position of the artist changed with emergence of new elite class which acquired western education and competitive administrative jobs, cultivating a new taste of patronage of art and culture from their foreign rules. Even the ever growing political consciousness for a “free India” was nurtured by these enlightened citizen who, in spite of their ardent admiration for culture, look great pride in their own heritage. Ravi Varma’s art fulfilled the aspiration of this class. Ravi varma was not trained in any academic school with the result that his understanding of European art was rather native. Although he had training in the Tanjore traditional painting under his uncle, he opted to paint oil, a medium which stands for status symbol even today. He understood the immense of potential of the medium not only for portraits like other artists of his time, but ventured other possibilities, specially to illustrate Indian mythology bereft of complexities of its canons. His images of gods and goddesses were formed in his mind after constant reading and listening to Indian classics and epics. He represented them in his paintings as frozen moments of literary descriptions like Shakuntala stealing a glance at Dushyanthan, pretending to remove a thorn from her feet. Even though he borrowed his vocabulary from European art, his language acquired a distinct south Indian flavour as if an educated south Indian was narrating the Indian stories in English with the south Indian accent. Of course, for the purists this usage of foreign language must have been rather banal. But if one think of the period when Ravi Varma adapted western realism, one may realize that it was no more a crime committed than using the borrowed individualistic styles of Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse or Bacon in later days.

Perhaps he was pioneering a new movement similar to early novels in Indian languages which were modeled on the works of Water Scott and Charles Dickens. The only argument could be that Ravi Varma was not following the style of his own contemporaries in the West the post – impressionists. When the company school in different parts of India were struggling for several in the fast changing society by laboriously adapting European elements, Ravi Varma easily established this superior position  as a professional artist, identifying all taboos attached to the profession in spite of hailing from a royal family. Thus he paved the way for the existence of a community of artist which could practise with individual style and signatures. Ravi Varma was a visionary and a modern man. He understood the need to adapt a new methodology of marketing techniques for propagating his art. Born in a small princely state he looked for a large
audience and patronage. Thus, he set out to travel all over India in order to interact with wider audiences and 

patrons. In this process he evolved a national style by combining  various elements like costumes, jewellery, facial features, etc. This become the frame work for a popular visual culture which penetrated into every shape of Indian life, somewhat like the Bollywood films and till now no artist or art movement has made any dent in it. His portraits of politicians and other historical figures were immediately accepted by the leaders of the nationalist movements.

His illustrations of Ramayana and Mahabharata become the standard  visual representation of the classics replacing the traditional miniatures and wall paintings. The style of Ravi Varma  become so popular that in the early part of the century if a novelist wanted to describe the beauty of his heroine he had only to write one sentence “She looked as if she had stepped out of a Ravi Varma canvas”. It is true that Ravi Varma exploited the popular taste; his mythological scenes were also theatrical. But in spite of all these drawbacks his images had validity and could hold together both the refinement of a classicist and the clumsiness of a popular artist. His paintings were always vibrant with tactile qualities both in terms of colour and texture. But above all, it was only Ravi Varma who could imbue a rare kind of beauty and grace to his characters that made his paintings stand above the works of other artists who opted for European realism.