Raja Ravi Varma

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Raja Ravi Varma
Born 29 April 1848 (1848-04-29)[1]
Kilimanoor, Trivandrum, Travancore
Died 2 October 1906 (1906-10-03) (aged 58)
Kilimanoor, Trivandrum, Travancore, British Raj
Occupation Painter
Signature Raja Ravi Varma signature.png

Raja Ravi Varma (Malayalam: രാജാ രവി വര്‍മ്മ) (29 April 1848 – 2 October 1906) was an Indian artist from the princely state of Travancore (presently in Kerala) who achieved recognition for his depiction of scenes from the epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. His paintings are considered to be among the best examples of the fusion of Indian traditions with the techniques of European academic art.

Varma is most remembered for his paintings of sari-clad women portrayed as shapely and graceful. Varma's paintings became an important motif of the time, reproductions being found in almost every middle-class home.[2] His exposure in the west came when he won the first prize in the Vienna Art Exhibition in 1873. Varma died in 1906 at the age of 58. He is considered among the greatest painters in the history of Indian art.

Early life[edit]

The studio used by Varma during his stay at the Laxmi Vilas Palace

Raja Ravi Varma was born as Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran of Kilimanoor palace, in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (Thiruvithankur) in Kerala. His father Ezhumavail Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad was an accomplished scholar, and his mother Umayamba Thampuratti (died 1886) was a poet and writer whose work Parvati Swayamvaram was published by Varma after her death. His siblings were C. Goda Varma (born 1854), C. Raja Raja Varma (born 1860) and Mangala Bayi Thampuratti, who was also a painter.

At a young age he secured the patronage of HH Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal of Travancore (a relative) and began formal training thereafter.[3] He learned the basics of drawing in Madurai Chithirakara veddhi(Artist's street). He was trained in water painting by Rama Swami Naidu and later in oil painting by Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson.

Raja Ravi Varma High School at Kilimanoor was named after him. There are many cultural organisations throughout Kerala in his name. His palace is nearly 6 kilometres from Ponganadu, 7.7 kilometres from Pazhayachanda and 36 km from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala.

Art career[edit]

Varma received widespread acclaim after he won an award for an exhibition of his paintings at Vienna in 1873. Varma's paintings were also sent to the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 and he was awarded three gold medals.[4] He travelled throughout India in search of subjects. He often modelled Hindu Goddesses on South Indian women, whom he considered beautiful. Ravi Varma is particularly noted for his paintings depicting episodes from the story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, and Nala and Damayanti, from the Mahabharata. Ravi Varma's representation of mythological characters has become a part of the Indian imagination of the epics. He is often criticised for being too showy and sentimental in his style. However his work remains very popular in India. His many fabulous paintings are available at Laxmi Vilas Palace of Vadodara.

Raja Ravi Varma Press[edit]

Ravi Varma apparently on the advice of Dewan Madav Rao, started a lithographic printing press in Ghatkopar, Mumbai in 1894 and later shifted it to Malavli near Lonavala, Maharashtra in 1899. The Press was managed by Varma's brother, Raja Varma. In 1901 the press was sold to his printing technician from Germany, Mr. Schleizer and closed down later, after it was gutted in a fire accident.[5]

The oleographs were mostly of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in scenes adapted mainly from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Puranas. The oleographs were very popular and continued to be printed in thousands for many years, even after the expiry of Ravi Varma in 1906. Such was their popularity, that every pooja room in any middle-class home of the previous century was expected to have framed prints of the Gods and Goddesses from the Press. The oleographs generally carried the press names The Ravi Varma Press Ghatkoper, The Ravi Varma Press Malavli, The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press Bombay (F.A.L. Press), The Ravi Varma Press Karla, The Ravi Uday Press etc.

In addition to their popularity, the Ravi Varma oleographs set the trend for future artists in the field of Bazaar or Calendar art. This influence is all the more discernible in the prints of C. Kondaiah Raju, M. V. Dhurandhar, S. M. Pandit and others.

The Maharashtrian Lady
"Galaxy of Musicians", Indian women dressed in regional attire playing a variety of musical instruments popular in different parts of the country.
The demi-god vulture Jatayu is struck down by the demon Ravana, as Jatayu attempted to intercede in the demon's kidnapping of Sita.
Damayanti sending a message to Nala via a swan


In 1904, Viceroy Lord Curzon, on behalf of the King Emperor, bestowed upon Varma the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal. At this time his name was mentioned as "Raja Ravi Varma" for the first time, raising objections from Maharaja Moolam Thirunal of Travancore and besides, as per the Marumakkathayam tradition, the name of the maternal uncle (Raja Raja Varma) was prefixed to the name. Thereafter he was always referred to as Raja Ravi Varma.[3]

In 1993, art critic Rupika Chawla and artist A. Ramachandran jointly curated a large exhibition of Varma's works at the National Museum, New Delhi. Considering his vast contribution to Indian art, the Government of Kerala has instituted an award called Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram, which is awarded every year to people who show excellence in the field of art and culture. Awardees include:

The renewed interest in Varma has spilled into the area of popular culture as films and music videos have started using his images.

A college dedicated to fine arts was also constituted in his honour at Mavelikara, Kerala. Raja Ravi Varma High School at Kilimanoor was named after him. There are many cultural organisations throughout Kerala in his name.

In 2013 the crater Varma on Mercury was named in Varma's honor.[6]

Personal life[edit]

There Comes Papa: Raja Ravi Varma paints his daughter Mahaprabha Thampuratti of Mavelikara with her daughter and the future Queen Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.

Varma was married to Pururuttathi Nal Bhageerathi Amma Thampuran (Kochu Pangi) of the Royal House of Mavelikara and they had two sons and three daughters.

Their elder son, Kerala Varma, born in 1876 went missing in 1912 and was never heard of again. Their second son was Rama Varma (born 1879), an artist who studied at the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, married to Srimathi Gowri Kunjamma, sister of Dewan PGN Unnithan.

Varma's eldest daughter, Ayilyam Nal Mahaprabha Thampuran, appears in two of his prominent paintings and was mother of Maharani Pooradam thirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore. His second daughter, Thiruvadira Nal Kochukunji Thampuran, was grandmother of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma Maharajah. His third daughter, born in 1882, was Ayilyam Nal Cheria Kochamma Thampuran.

His descendants comprise the Mavelikara Royal house while two of his granddaughters, including the said Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, were adopted to the Travancore Royal Family, the cousin family of the Mavelikara House, to which lineage the present Travancore Maharaja Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma belongs. Well known among his descendants are writer Shreekumar Varma (Prince Punardam Thirunal), artists Rukmini Varma (Princess Bharani Thirunal) and Jay Varma,[7] and classical musician Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma among others.

List of major works[edit]

The following is a list of the prominent works of Ravi Varma.

Popular culture[edit]

  • Bollywood film maker Ketan Mehta directed a movie Rang Rasiya on the life of Varma in 2008 in which Randeep Hooda played the role of the artist.
  • Indian director Lenin Rajendran made a Malayalam movie named Makaramanju (The Mist of Capricorn) in 2010, which narrates Varma's life at a certain stage in his life. Indian director/cinematographer Santhosh Sivan played the lead role of Varma.
  • The Marathi textbook of Maharashtra State Board contains a chapter titled 'अपूर्व भेट' meaning 'A meeting which had never happened before' portraying Verma meeting Swami Vivekananda who was a recognised Hindu monk. It has been edited from the novel 'राजा रविवर्मा (Raja Ravi Varma)' written by Ranjit Desai.



  • Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial Indian by Rupika Chawla, Pub: Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, March 2010, ISBN 978-0-944142-41-7
  • Raja Ravi Varma – Oleographs Catalogue by Dr. D.Jegat Ishwari, Pub: ShriParasuraman, Chennai, 2010, ISBN 9788191002614
  • Ravi Varma Classic −2008, Pub: Genesis Art Foundation, Cochin-18;45 clour plate with text by Vijayakumar Menon.
  • Raja Ravi Varma – The Most Celebrated Painter of India: 1848–1906, Parsram Mangharam, Bangalore, 2007
  • Raja Ravi Varma – The Painter Prince: 1848–1906, Parsram Mangharam, Bangalore, 2003
  • Raja Ravi Varma and the Printed Gods of India, Erwin Neumayer & Christine Schelberger, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2003
  • Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Celebrated Painter of India : 1848 – 1906, Classic Collection, Vol I & II. Bangalore, Parsram Mangharam, 2005
  • Raja Ravi Varma: Portrait of an Artist, The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma/edited by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2005
  • Divine Lithography, Enrico Castelli and Giovanni Aprile, New Delhi, Il Tamburo Parlante Documentation Centre and Ethnographic Museum, 2005
  • Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India by Christopher Pinney. London, Reaktion Book, 2004
  • Raja Ravi Varma:Raja Ravi Varma:E.M Joseph Venniyur,former director of AIR
  • Raja Ravi Varma: A Novel,Ranjit Desai -Translated by Vikrant Pande, Pub: Harper Perennial (2013), ISBN 978-350296615.


  • Ravi Varma – A critical study by Vijayakumar Menon, Pub: Kerala Laitha Kala Akademy, Trissur, 2002
  • Raja Ravi Varmayum chitrkalayum, Kilimanoor Chandran, Department of Cultural Publications, Kerala Government, 1999.
  • Chithramezhuthu Koyithampuran, P. N. Narayana Pillai.
  • Raja Ravi Varma, N. Balakrishnan Nair.


See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Joshi, Om Prakash (1985). Sociology of Indian art. Rawat Publications. p. 40. 
  2. ^ Mitter, Partha (1994). "5 – The Artist as Charismatic Individual – Raja Ravi Varma". Art and nationalism in colonial India, 1850–1922: occidental orientations. Cambridge University Press. pp. 179–215. ISBN 978-0-521-44354-8. Retrieved 12 December 2011. 
  3. ^ a b "The Diary of C. Rajaraja Varma"
  4. ^ Kilimanoor Chandran, Ravi Varmayum Chitrakalayum(in Malayalam), Department of Culture, Kerala, 1998
  5. ^ Raja Ravi Varma Prints - Google Sites http://sites.google.com/site/ravivarmalithos/
  6. ^ "Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature". 
  7. ^ jayvarma.com

External links[edit]