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Raja Ravi Varma is a celebrated Indian painter who’s known for bringing detail and realism into imagery. He’s recognized for painting beautiful canvases that have influenced several generations of Indian painters. He’s also the first person to make lithographs of his paintings easily affordable and available to the masses. He used European realism along with art techniques and Indian subjects to portray Indian Gods as well as mythological characters. Ravi Varma’s paintings significantly shaped the Indian art calendar and have influenced Indian film as well as well as literature.
Ravi Varma was born in Kilimanoor, Kerala in 1848 into a family of poets, artists, and scholars. Since his mother’s family followed the matrilineal system of succession, he belonged to his mother’s family while his children belonged to their mother’s family. Ravi Varma’s uncle recognized his artistic talent when he was still young so he sent him to Ayilyam Thirunal, the then ruling king, who helped him study arts and exposed him to western painting styles.
I am from Kerala. My mother is from Thiruvananthapuram (the capital of Kerala) and my father is from a small village called Muthana. Muthana and Kilimanoor (Raja Ravi Varma’s birthplace) are very close to each other. People in this part of Kerala even today have a deep respect for the royal family of Thiruvithamkoor. It is very common to see photos of the members of the royal family and Ravi Varma’s paintings in houses in this region.
Ravi Varma married 12-year old Bhageerthi Bayi at the age of 18. They were then blessed with five children; 3 daughters and 2 sons. In 1904, Ravi Varma was given the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal by Viceroy Lord Curzon (India was part of the British Empire at that point). He for the first time used the title ‘Raja’ against his name. Ravi Varma’s fame grew so rapidly in his birth town that Varma opened a post office to receive painting letters and requests.
Lady playing the Veena. Wikimedia Commons.
Madhav with Radha, Wikimedia Commons
Ravi Varma started his printing press in 1894 for lithographic painting but it was later sold to a German printing technician. The oleographs that were produced by this printing press mainly depicted gods, goddesses, and scenes from Puranas, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. Most information about his life is through ‘The Diary of C, Raja Ravi Varma’ which was written by his brother who was Varma’s assistant and business manager. Although Varma died from diabetes in October 1906, his son, Rama Varma continued his artistic lineage.
Raja Ravi Varma’s Notable Paintings.
I like all Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. I particularly like those that are not religious in nature. The following are a few of his notable paintings.
- Damayanti with a Swan: This is among the best works of Raja Ravi Varma (and probably the most popular). Damayanti is a character in the Vana Parva Book of the Mahabharata. This book is basically about a love story of a princess from the Vidarbha Kingdom who married King Nala of Nishadha Kingdom.
Lady playing the Veena. Wikimedia Commons.
- Galaxy of Musicians: This is a unique painting of Indian women wearing regional attire playing various musical instruments in different areas of the country. There are eleven women in this portrait.
- Goddess Lakshmi: This painting is an amazing painting of goddess Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity. She’s married to Vishnu, a powerful god in Hinduism. She’s also been an abundance and fortune goddess for Buddhists. Additionally, she was represented on stupas as well as cave temples of Buddhism.
Lady sleeping. Wikimedia Commons.
- Lady with a Pot of Mud: This painting portrays a typical village life. One reason why Raja Ravi became popular is that he featured people from all walks of life in his paintings.
- Woman Thinking: Ravi Varma was good at depicting the emotions of Indian women. This painting is simply about a woman who appears to be in deep thoughts while starring at a man.
Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings have inspired many Indian artists. His collection is still displayed at the Laxmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara. In 2014, a movie by the name Rang Rasiya (Colors of Passion) was released based on his life. His paintings were also the inspiration behind India’s best-selling comic book series, Amar Chitra Katha comics. There is even a crater on Mercury that was named ‘Varma’ in his honor.
Which is your favorite Raja Ravi Varma’s painting?