History of Raja Ravi Varma: Inborn talent
Raja Ravi Varma
born on April 29, 1848, in Kilimanoor, a small hamlet in the southern
state of Kerala, Ravi Varma belonged to a family of scholars,
poets and artists. Noted in his family were, among others, Vidwan
Koil Tampuran, author of the famous Kathakali work Ravana Vijayam,
Raja Raja Varma, who painted after the Tanjore style, and Uma
Amba Bai Tampuratty, who, composed Parvati Swayamvaram, a work
for the Tullal dance. As only a small boy, he filled the walls
of his home with pictures of animals, acts and scenes from his
daily life, which though irked the domestics, were noted by his
uncle, Raja Raja Varma as the signs of a blossoming genius.
The uncle, himself a Tanjore artist, not only gave the first drawing
lessons to Ravi Varma, but also took a keen interest in his further
training and education with the help of the ruling king, Ayilyam
Thirunal. When a young boy of 14, RaviVarma was
sent to Thiruvananthapuram where he stayed at the Moodath Madam
house of the Kilimanoor Palace and was taught water painting by
the palace painter Rama Swamy Naidu. Here Varma’s talent
was nurtured by the personal interest of Ayilyam Thirunal who
exposed him to the famous paintings of Italian painters.
Ravi Varma had been using the indigenous paints made from leaves,
flowers, tree bark and soil which his uncle Raja Raja Varma prepared
for him. His first set of oil paints was brought from Madras after
noticing a newspaper advertisement. Excited and nervous, he handled
the paints he had waited for a long time.
Varma’s next dilemma was learning to paint. This dilemma
may seem incongruous more than a century after he started to paint,
but the medium was very new and the technique equally elusive
in those days. Only one person in Travancore knew the technique
of oil painting - Ramaswamy Naicker of Madura, who, recognizing
a potential rival in Varma, refused to teach him the know-how.
Naicker's student, Arumugham Pillai would actually sneak into
Moodath Madam at nightfall to share his knowledge with Varma,
against his teacher’s wishes.
This clandestine education was only supplemented by watching a
visiting Dutch portrait artist who painted the portraits of Ayilyam
Thirunal and his wife. Through trial, error and hard work, Ravi
Varma worked with the pliable medium, learning to blend, smooth
and maneuver the flexibility that was afforded by this slow drying
When Varma himself painted the portraits of this royal couple,
this self-taught artist’s blazing talent far outshone the
Ravi Varma’s creativity was further tampered by listening
to the music of
veterans, watching Kathakali, going through the manuscripts preserved
in ancient families and listening to the artistic interpretations
of the epics. Ravi Varma’s fame as a portrait artist soared
with several important portrait commissions from the Indian aristocracy
and British officials between 1870 and 1878, and the sensitivity
and immense competence this artist still remains unsurpassed.
His clever portrayal would add elegance to the personality of
the protagonist, like unmasking the fragrance of a flower. The
small town of Kilimanoor was compelled to open a post office,
as letters with requests for paintings arrived from every where.
The recognition that Ravi Varma received in major exhibitions
abroad was for the portrait-based renditions, which were meticulous
compositions of people, their demeanor and attires.
These works finely blended the elements of the early Tanjore custom
of painting Nayikas (the feminine emotions being the central theme)
and the graceful realism of European masters. In 1873 he won the
First Prize at the Madras Painting Exhibition and he became a
world famous Indian painter after winning in 1873 Vienna Exhibition.
Though not really qualified for the title of a Raja, when an imperial
citation happened to come across in the name of Raja Ravi Varma,
the name stuck and stayed.
Besides portraits, and portrait-based compositions, Varma now
embarked on honing an oeuvre for theatrical compositions based
on Indian myths and legends. " Nala
Damayanti", " Shantanu
and Matsyagandha", " Shantanu
and Ganga", "Radha
and Madhava", " Kamsa Maya", "Shrikrishna
and Devaki", "
Arjuna and Subhadra", " Draupadi
Vastraharan", " Harischandra
and Taramati", "Vishwamitra and Menaka", "
Seetaswayamvaram", " Young Bharat and a Lion Cub",
" The Birth of Sri Krishna", ' Keechaka and Sairanthri'
took new forms under his skillful brush.
With oil paints applied thickly, Ravi Varma created lustrous,
impasted jewellery, brocaded textures, and subtle shades of complexions.
Though several folk and traditional art forms of India since time
immemorial subsisted as illustrations for religious narratives,
yet, illusionist paintings as a medium for story telling was Ravi
Varma’s invention. He cleverly picked the particularly touching
stories and moments from the Sanskrit classics. Though often considered
as lacking in overall congruity, by the sheer mastery of painting
beautiful areas and expressions, his compositions would enchant
the beholder no end.
Ravi Varma was convinced that mass reproduction of Raja ravi varma
paintings would initiate millions of Indians to real Art, and
in 1894 he set up an oleography press called the Ravi Varma Pictures
Depot. For photo-litho transfers, the Pictures Depot relied on
Phalke's Engraving & Printing whose proprietor, Dhundiraj
Govind Phalke, became famous as dadasaheb of Indian Cinema a few
In 1894 and 1888, Ravi Varma and his younger brother C.Raja Raja
Varma took a tour around India, in search of images and landscapes
for inspiration. On his return from the second tour, Ravi Varma
painted a batch of pictures especially for reproduction at his
new press, the Picture Depot. The aristocratic orientalism in
his imagery was now replaced by a little more folkish, more iconic
and more marketable forms, and also seen was a crises of gender
identity of contemporaneous European forms.
The Calendar-Art thus brought-forth by Ravi Varma has been the
origin of lakhs of gaudy god-pictures by ultramodern litho presses
for decades. Raja Ravi Varma died of diabetes on October 2, 1906,
in his Kilimanoor Palace home overflowing with friends, relatives,
dignitaries and the media. Yet, the rich heritage of the fragrance
of his paintings continues to charm and influence the art of India.
Raja Ravi Varma passed away on 2nd October 1906. Tributes
Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, connoisseur of Indian art, most aptly
encompasses the personality of RaviVarma in a single sentence.
It is rare to come across in these days, men like him, artists
like him, lovers of India like him.
An artist who is credited
with bringing about a momentous turn in the art of India, Raja
RaviVarma inexorably influenced future generations of artists
from different streams. He was the first artist to cast the Indian
Gods and mythological characters in natural earthy surroundings
using a European realism; a depiction adopted not only by the
Indian “calendar-art”- spawning ubiquitous images
of Gods and Goddesses, but also by literature and later by the
Indian film industry- affecting their dress and form even today.
His dazzling oil paintings of India’s ancient glory delighted
turn-of-the-century India and his mass reproductions through oleography
reached out to the Indian populace in an unprecedented scale.