Raja Ravi Varma biography

Raja Ravi Varma



Raja Ravi Varma
Raja Ravi Varma
Kilimanoor, Travancore
Died5 October 1906 (aged 58)
Attingal, Travancore, British Raj
OccupationPainter, artist


No other Indian artist blazed as many trails as did Raja Ravi Varma. He was the first Indian artist to master perspective, the first to use human models to depict gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. He was the first Indian artist to study and learn from the European artists and then use oil as a medium unlike other Indian artists who were using temperas. He was the only artist who tried to bring his art to the homes of the rich and the poor alike. He was the first artist whose Works were exhibited in galleries of Europe and America, though he never ventured beyond Indian shores. To this day his works are in great demand in India as well as in London and Paris.
Ravi Varma was born on 29 April 1848 in Kilimanoor Palace, his mother’s home, which is about forty kilometers from Thiruvananthapuram. His father was Sreekantan Bhattathiripad and mother was Princess Uma Arriba Bai. The family was related to the Travancore royal family and had easy access to the durbar.
Ravi Varma did not have any formal education but his parents taught him Sanskrit and his mother introduced him to the rich mythological lore of India. She also taught him some classical music. Ravi started learning the rudiments of art at the age of six from his uncle Raja Varma who was an artist of some repute. He also studied the working of the court artists of Travancore among who was a European, Theodore Jenson. All this helped Ravi Varma’s artistic talents to blossom and by the time he was fourteen he was able to secure the patronage of the Maharaja of Travancore. The Maharaja was an ardent lover of art and could see the making of a great artist in the young lad. On the suggestion of the Maharaja, Ravi moved to Thiruvananthapuram from Kilimanoor. The Maharaja set up a studio for the young artist and managed to get European art books for him. Western painting fascinated Ravi Varma. He instinctively sympathized with its vigorous realism, so different from the stylized, contemporary Indian tradition. He also preferred oil paints, then new in India, to tempera, the traditional Indian medium." Ravi had to teach himself the technique of oil painting as no artist around was using oil as a medium. He started mixing oils perfectly by trial and error. He was doing portraits to begin with and showed remarkable ability to depict a variety of skin tones and fabrics, the variety which abounds in India. His portraits not only revealed the likeness of the subject but also the character. With diligence and an innate talent his proficiency improved; so also his fame. He was introduced to distinguished visitors to the court and he got invitations from many Indian princes to do their portraits: Mysore, Baroda, Gwalior, Bhavnagar, and Udaipur. In 1888, he was commissioned by the Maharaja of Baroda to do fourteen paintings which fetched Ravi Rs. 50,000, a fabulous amount at that time.
One of the paintings which outshone his other paintings was of Sakuntala writing a love-letter to King Dushyanta. It won the Madras Governors Gold Medal and was purchased by the then governor, the Duke of Buckingham. Sir William Jones, the famous Orientalist used this painting titled Sakuntala Patra Lekhan as a front piece of his translation of Kalidasa’s Sakuntala. Ravi Varma’s paintings started leaving the shores of India, making him famous in distant lands. Not only the Indian rulers but also British dignitaries commissioned him for doing their portraits. The Duke of Buckingham asked him to paint a life-size portrait of him and was very much impressed by the quality of his work. Another governor, Sir Arthur Havelock, governor of Madras (1895-1900) commissioned Ravi Varma to paint his portrait from a photograph which he did, earning high praise from his distinguished subject.
A hardworking and a meticulous artist, he studied his subjects carefully and did not confine his activities to Travancore. He travelled widely in India and even learnt several regional languages to interact freely with the people. While he painted Nair people, especially their women in the beginning, he was equally fascinated by the women of Maharashtra and their style of wearing the sari. It is claimed that he made the sari popular even in Kerala where it was not part of a woman's attire. However, Ravi Varma is best known for his paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses as well as scenes from Sanskrit epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. This came naturally to Ravi Varma as he was a highly religious man. His paintings of deities like Krishna, Saraswati, and Lakshmi look sublime though in human form. So popular were these paintings that, ever since, Hindus have visualized their gods very much the way Ravi Varma depicted them. He was so touched by the response of the common people to his paintings that he wanted the reprints of his paintings to be available at a reasonable price to them. For that purpose he set up a colour press in Bombay with the name Ravi Varma Press and opened a picture depot at Lonavala, where the press was shifted later. The prints became very popular and were displayed in innumerable houses and shops. Even today the imitations of his paintings are selling throughout the country. After initial success the press ran into difficulties and in 1901 he had to sell the press. He lost a tidy sum in this venture but he never regretted the loss as through the reproductions his genius came to be more widely known and appreciated.
In 1873, at the International Art Exhibition, Vienna, Ravi Varma’s painting of a Nair lady won a gold medal and a diploma. Again in 1893, in Chicago, at the International Art Exhibition, he sent ten of his paintings. They secured the first prize, two gold medals and two diplomas and brought him international fame." The Maharaja of Travancore bestowed on him the Vira Sringhala (Bangle of Valour, the highest decoration of the state, the first time a painter had been so honoured. In 1904, Edward VII of England awarded him the Kaiser-i-Hind Gold medal.
Ravi Varma died in 1906 at the age of fifty-seven. In 1866, he had been married to Poorooruttathi Nal, a princess of Mavelikara Palace. They had five children. One of his sons, Rama Varma also became a noted painter and in 1915 he set up the Ravi Varma Institute of Fine Arts at Mavelika.
Ravi Varma had been criticized by art critics as a “mere illustrator, and an unimaginative copier of the European tradition”. However his popularity during the last hundred years has never waned. In 1992, a special exhibition of Ravi Varma’s paintings was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. During a recent auction of Indian paintings in London, Ravi Varma’s paintings fetched the highest price, several times more than those of M.F. Husain.

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