Raja Ravi Varma - The Painter Prince





Ravi Varma's name conjures a vision of an artist who was revolutionary in his contribution to Indian art. A popular and significant artist of his time he was a prominent representative of Europeanised School of Indian artists. His oleographs of Indian divinities still survive in many homes and shrines and these kitsch prints are framed and sacredly worshipped for posterity. His works are also popular and visible in religious prints, calendars, posters, and other popular arts. Interestingly enough, in the last decade of the Twentieth Century, with changing perceptions and trends in collecting art, Ravi Varma's paintings have soared in the art collector's esteem. Even after a century he is still one of the most celebrated painters of India.

Ravi Varma's life began in the small village of Killimanoor, 40 km to the North of Trivandrum in Kerala. Born on 29th April 1848, he hailed from a princely family, very closely linked to the ruling house of the former State of Travancore. Ravi Varma grew up in a traditional environment, learning Sanskrit, listening to the music of the Bhagavatas and watching the performances put up by the Kathakali Kurpe maintained by the family. His uncle, Raja Raja Varma, was an amateur artist who painted in the Tanjore style. Ravi Varma's mother, Uma Amba Bai Tampurathi was a poet and his father Ezhymavil Neelakantan Bhattatripad was a Sanskrit scholar. Therefore when Ravi Varma displayed his interest in painting, his uncle encouraged him with the initial lessons.

Early Years

Even as a boy of six he filled the walls of his home with pictures of animals and vignettes from his everyday life. In these scrawls and doodles, his uncle Raja Raja Varma, discovered the signs of a genius. Raja Varma gave his nephew all the lessons he knew but it was not adequate.

At the age of thirteen, Ravi Varma was brought to the Palace at Trivandrum. Maharaja Ayilyam Tirunaal was impressed by the quality of Ravi Varma's artistic efforts and directed the young boy to stay in Trivandrum. Ravi Varma sought the guidance of the palace artist Ramaswami Naicker, who had mastered the European style of painting, and later from Theodore Jensen, a Dutch portrait painter who came to Travancore. But due to their own personal interests none of them helped much. But this merely strengthened Ravi Varma's resolve to master the art.

For nine years Ravi Varma experimented with crude colours and different techniques. Despite the mediocre nature of the materials, his efforts were creditable. In his struggle to understand the principles of European art, he spent more time studying albums and the prints and paintings in the Travancore palace collection. Ravi Varma devoted all his time and energy in mastering painting as an art form and was encouraged by his uncle Raja Raja Varma as well as Maharaja Ayilyam Tirunaal.

Ravi Varma the Artist

The year was 1870. A question that bothered him was whether he should take up art as a profession. Especially since artists were not important persons in higher societies he wondered if he had adequate skills to establish an identity of an artist. Nevertheless he decided to make a break with tradition when the ruler assured him that art was a great profession. To make an auspicious beginning he travelled by foot to Mookambika temple in South Canara district of Karnataka, to worship and gain the blessing of the goddess. On his way back he received the first paid commission to do a portrait of a family in Calicut.

With the influence of the West, Ravi Varma, acquired new materials and new techniques, convinced of their power and serviceability. Through self-instruction and by the simple method of trial and error he learnt the art of mixing colours. He painted both portraits and landscapes and introduced new elements into Indian painting. For the first time in the annals of Indian art, he had mastered and introduced the principle of perspective, the usage of canvas and oil colours. He brought in a perfect blend of European Academic realism and the true spirit of the Indian context. What sustained him were his will to excel and his faith in Divine grace.


His marriage, in 1866, to Pooroouttati Naal Tampuratty of Mavelikkara Kottaram Royal family and its social status brought him into contact with the British Resident at Trivandrum. It was the Resident who persuaded him to participate in the Fine Art Exhibition, Madras in 1873. His work titled "A Nair Lady at the Toilet" showing a pretty woman adoring her hair with a garland of jasmine was adjudged to be the best. Not only did he win the first prize Governor's Gold Medal but was also granted an interview by the Governor Lord Hobart, who spoke encouragingly of his work, and advised him to persevere and make a name for himself The Maharaja of Travancore feted him on his return to Trivandrum for bringing honour to the State. In the same year the painting was sent to an international exhibition at Vienna, where it was awarded a medal and a Certificate of Merit. And more importantly, this award received appreciative notices in the English dailies published from Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, thereby spreading Ravi Varma's reputation as an artist of merit to other parts of India.

In 1874, Ravi Varma once again received the first prize at the Madras Exhibition for his painting titled ''A Tamil Lady Playing the Sarabat". The Maharaja of Travancore presented, this prize-winning painting along with two other paintings, to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward  VII, during the Prince's visit to Madras in 1875. His majesty expressed his admiration of the works and said, "for an artist who had no European training, the paintings were highly creditable".

These paintings marked a big change not only in Ravi Varma's career but also in the entire span of Indian Art in the decades to follow. His painting, Shakuntala's love letter to Dushyanta, created a stir at a show. The theme from 5th century Sanskrit classic composed by poet Kalidas was as innovative and appealing as its rendition. The painting was so greatly admired by the visitors to the, exhibition that it became the talk of the town. It prompted Lord Buckingham, the Governor, to announce that he would buy the painting as soon as the exhibition was over.


In 1881, Sir R. Madhvarao, the British Regent of the State of Baroda decided to invite Ravi Varma to paint the ceremonial portrait of Sayajirao Ill, the Gaekwad of Baroda. Sir R. Madhvarao, who had earlier been the Dewan of Travancore, was a great admirer and also familiar with the artist's work. At Baroda, Ravi Varma was welcomed as a privileged guest and all facilities were extended to him. A special studio was built in the palace grounds. The various assignments from the Gaekwad of Baroda brought Ravi Varma much renown and fame. Princes from different native states of India sought his services and he was invited to Bhavnagar, Puddukkottai, Mysore, Bikaner, and Jaipur to revive pictorial art history in their states. Though born in Travancore, he was the first of a new generation of Indian artists to cross regional barriers in receiving commissions and executing paintings on a pan Indian level.

During his stay at Baroda, Ravi Varma provided Lakshmi Vilas Palace, with two dozen large canvasses depicting episodes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, as also a good number of family portraits. His brother, C. Raja Raja Varma, and sister Mangalabai Tampuratty assisted him. These are the best works of Ravi Varma. Several paintings like Nala and Damayanti, Radha & Madhava, Arjuna and Subhadra, Bharata, Shantanu and Ganga, Shantanu and Matsyagandhi, Vishwamitra and Menaka, Krishria Drishtha, Radha waiting for Krishna in Brindavan, Shakuntala writing letter with two sakhis, Mitrayani & Priyamvada and Urvashi, sleeping beauty, Lakshmi & Saraswati are in Baroda Museum & Palace.


In 1885 Ravi Varma went to Mysore at the invitation of the Maharaja, Sri Chamarajendra Wodeyar. The Maharaja had heard of him only as an artist who usually won first prizes at exhibitions, but when the British Resident at Mysore informed His Highness of the fabulous paintings Ravi Varma had executed for Baroda and the honour bestowed to him, the Maharaja made up his mind to invite the artist. The ruler received Ravi Varma like an equal than like a patron, and gave him a mansion to live in and regaled him with music, dances and plays every night at the palace. But all that he wanted were portraits of himself and members of his family and this Ravi Varma painted life size. On the eve of the artist's departure, after a three-month stay, the Maharaja assembled all the elephants from his stables and asked the artist to pick out any he liked. Ravi Varma chose two and sent them to Killimanoor. His paintings in Mysore are at the Palace in the Jagamohan Palace Art Gallery.

Lithographic Press

When Ravi Varma's paintings were exhibited in Bombay with the permission of the Gaekwad, they were publicly exposed for some days. They produced quite a sensation, since it was the first time that subjects from the Great Indian epics had been depicted on canvas so truthfully and emotively. Vast crowds of people gathered from all parts of the Bombay Presidency to see the paintings. Hundreds and thousands of their photographs were sold all over India.

The popularity of these pictures led to the establishment, by the artist, at his own expenditure, a Lithographic Press in Bombay in 1894. Bombay was chosen for its location, due to the convenience of importing machinery from Germany and distributing the prints. This need evolved with the purpose of printing his works in colour and placing them within the reach of the masses. By this he planned to create a love for the fine arts through religious and mythological subjects with which they were familiar.

Realizing that a successful artist need not make a successful businessman, Ravi Varma looked out for a partner who could manage the affairs of the Press for him. Moreover, the capital at his disposal, a sum of Rs. 50,000/-, which he got from the Baroda commission, was not adequate, and this too necessitated going into partnership. He consulted his friends in Bombay, like Dadabhai Naoroji and Justice Ranade and on their advice took in as partner the Bombay industrialist, Goverdhandas Khatau Makhanji. A building was found in Girigaum to house the press and services of four German technicians, chief among whom was one Mr. Schleizer, whose knowledge of elementary Sanskrit was the reinforcing link.

The press brought him in close touch with the finest men of his times, including leaders who found in his contribution a mighty influence for national awakening. He was close to Dadabhai Naoroji and later to Gopala Krishna Gokhale also.

Unfortunately, the plague which devastated Poona & Bombay in 1898 & the political upheaval spearheaded by Bal Gangadhar Tilak led to the closure of the press for a few months, and inevitably its finances fell into bad shape. Ravi Varma raised a loan of Rs. 33,000/- through the good offices of his friend, Dr. Balachandra Krishna, and bought his partners shares. He simultaneously shifted the press to Malavli, near Lonavla.

Ravi Varma's success in this enterprise far exceeded his expectations. His oleographs were based on his paintings featuring mythological subjects, divine figures and women in secular settings. The Hindu divinities, devoid of multiple arms or heads, looked like real people. These portrayals became immensely popular. The depiction of Goddesses Saraswati and Laxmi, in particular, received acceptance as the new iconographical types and all previous representatives lost their appeal and before long faded from public memory. His prints found an honoured place in cultural homes all over India. As Rabindranath Tagore mentioned, "In my childhood, when Ravi Varma's age arrived in Bengal, reproductions of European paintings on the walls were promptly replaced with oleographs of his works".

Even though the Lithographs brought Ravi Varma much fame, they were also the cause of his financial disaster. Within a few years of starting the Press, in 1901, he was eventually forced to close it owing to the political turmoil in the region and the devastation caused by the plague epidemic. Monetary losses began to rise and Ravi Varma came to the reluctant conclusion that it was difficult for him to manage the day-to-day business of the press. Finally, he decided to sell it together with the reproduction rights to Sriram Pant on 20th July 1901 for Rs. 25,000/- in addition to paying off all debts contracted for the press.

Raja Ravi Varma nee Ravi Varma

From the time Ravi Varma made his debut into the world of art in 1873, his work had received appreciation from high ranking British officials. Such approval from various sources transformed itself into accolade when the British Government conferred the title of "Kaiser in Hind" upon Ravi Varma in 1904. The award as inadvertently inscribed Raja Ravi Varma instead of Ravi Varma was instrumental in the name of the artist changing to Raja Ravi Varma. The Maharaja of Travancore wondered how a subject of his could become Raja. He lost no time in taking up the matter with the British Resident. Kerala Varma who had encouraged him with the first box of oil colours also wondered how Ravi Varma had become a Raja. He went one step further and spoke of the artist in reproachful terms.

Bombay was almost a second home for Ravi Varma. He patronized the theatres of Bombay Parsi, Gujarati, Marathi and English. It was often during such outings that Ravi Varma was inspired by the life in Maharashtra and deeply impressed by the costumes of Maharashtrian ladies and gentlemen. He used the nine-yard sari for his heroines like Sairandhri. And if his heroines seem human inspite of all idealization, it is only because they were placed in human situations. He painted men with equal, and sometimes with superior felicity, obvious from his portraits and studies.

In the last few years, at Killimanoor, Ravi Varma underwent Ayurvedic treatment for his physical well-being and also consulted doctors for diabetes, but the deterioration of his health could not be arrested. In May 1906, he attended the marriage Rani of Setu Lakshmi Bai, the elder of his two grand daughters adopted into the Travancore house and spent three months in the capital. He returned to Killimanoor, where he engaged physicians to resume treatment. But there was no response. The diabetes worsened and he suffered from insufferable thirst and exhaustion, shunned food and in a few days took to bed. He breathed his last on October 2nd, 1906.

There was no greater artist than Ravi Varma either during his lifetime or in Indian Art History. Tributes came in from various places and people. Perhaps the most memorable is by Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, a revered name in Indian art, "it is rare to come across men like him, artists like him, lovers of India like him".

Parsram Mangharam


Bibliography: Venniyoor E.M.J. “Raja Ravi Varma” The Government of Kerala