Raja Ravi Varma

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Raja Ravi Varma was a renowned and notable Indian painter, whose work has influenced generations of Indian painters with his classical Indian style, folk inspired, traditional and culturally rich art infused with the European techniques. His work is characterized for depicting religious figures along with folklore and popular tales from Indian literature such as Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Raja Ravi Varma was born on April 29, 1848, in Kilimanoor, Kerala, India. His father, Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad was a notable scholar while his mother, Umamba Thampuratti was a poet and author. Ravi hailed from a background of great artistic and creative talent and potential, there were countless scholars, poets and painters in his family. And therefore, his passion and ingenuity for art was nurtured, encouraged and he was allowed to purse his education and career in art without any aberrations. From the very young age of seven, Ravi began exhibiting a natural and remarkably impressive talents, he would immerse himself in drawing countless pictures of animals, and other routines scenes all day.

It was his uncle, Raja Raja Varma, a notable Tanjore artist, who spotted his talent and encouraged his passion. His uncle took him under his wing, and began instructing him in his first lessons as an art student. Later, with the assistance of King Ayilyam Thirunal, his uncle managed to arrange for Ravi professional and official artistic training and education. Hence, at the age of 14, young Ravi moved to Thiruvanthapuram, where he was placed under the guidance and tutelage of Rama Swamy Naida, the court painter, who taught him how to achieve perfection in water painting.

Ravi was provided residence at the Moodath Madam house at the Kilimanoor Palace, and during his stay at the Palace, he benefitted from the patronship of Ayilyam Thirunal who recognized his artistic talent, encourage his expression and praised his work.

A striking aspect about Ravi’s art and techniques is the fact that for most of his life, he preferred the use of conventional and natural paints, for instance, indigenous paints made from soil, flowers, tree bark and leaves. One day, while reading the newspaper he came across an advertisement that was selling oil paints, and hence, Ravi Varma bought his first set of oil paints in Madras. Ravi wanted to improve his knowledge of oil painting by studying under the tutelage of a professional oil painter who could perfect his skill through training and education, however, the only person who was capable of doing this job, Ramaswamy Naicker, the only painter who worked with oil paints at that time, refused to teach Ravi as he did not want to lose the exclusivity of his position as the only artist who produce oil paintings.

Ravi then turned to Arumugham Pillai, Naicker’s student, who decided to teach Ravi against the wishes of his teacher. Later, Ravi also benefitted from the guidance and techniques shared by renowned Dutch portrait artists, Theodor Jenson, when he was invited at the court to paint the royal couple. However, Ravi’s work did not demonstrate the influence of any particular style or techniques, and exhibited an abundant and limitless pool of creativity. His early works are characterized for taking their influence from epic sagas, folklore, veteran songs, Kathakali dancers and the histories of ancient families.

During the 1870s, Ravi gained immense fame as a prominent and widely commissioned portrait artist whose services were sought after by Indian Royalty, nobility, merchants as well as the British officials. His meticulous attention of every fine detail, the sharpness of the texture and the intensely clear message that is portrayed in his work is what set him apart from the other famous portrait artists. In 1973, Ravi was awarded the first prize at the Madras Painting Exhibition, garnering him immense fame in his country and hometown, and the same year, he struck gold when he managed to bag the first prize at the Vienna exhibition that firmly established his status as a prominent Indian painter all over the globe. In 1893, Ravi’s paintings were sent to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, his paintings were awarded three gold medals for their finesse and sensitive attention to detail that worked to transferring emotions to the canvas.

Some of Raja Ravi Varma’s critically acclaimed and best known works include, ‘Nala Damayanti’, ‘Shantanu and Matsyagandha’, ‘Shantanu and Ganga’, ‘Radha and Madhava’, ‘Kamsa Maya’, ‘Shrikrishna and Devaki’, ‘Arjuna and Subhadra’, ‘Draupadi Vastraharan’, ‘Harischandra and Taramati’, and ‘Birth of Krishna’ among others.

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