Raja Ravi Varma

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Raja Ravi Varma
രാജാ രവിവർമ്മ
Born 29 April 1848[1][2]
Kilimanoor, Travancore
Died 5 October 1906(1906-10-05) (aged 58)
Attingal, Travancore, British Raj
Occupation Painter, artist
Signature Raja Ravi Varma signature.png

Raja Ravi Varma (Malayalam: രാജാ രവിവർമ്മ; 29 April 1848 – 5[citation needed] October 1906) was an Indian painter and artist from the princely state of Travancore (presently in southern Kerala & some parts of Tamil Nadu) who achieved recognition for his paintings depicting scenes from Indian literature and mythology including the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. He is considered among the greatest painters in the history of Indian art and his paintings are considered to be among the best examples of the fusion of Indian traditions with the techniques of European academic art[citation needed] . Varma's paintings portrayed sari-clad women in graceful manner, which became an important motif of that time, reproductions being found in many homes.[3]

Art career[edit]

Varma was patronized by Ayilyam Thirunal, the then Maharajah of Travancore and began formal training thereafter.[4] He learned the basics of painting in Madurai. Later, he was trained in water painting by Rama Swami Naidu and in oil painting by Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson.

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

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.[5] 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 criticized for being too showy and sentimental in his style but his work remains very popular in India. Many of his fabulous paintings are housed at Laxmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara.[6]


As narrated in the novel "Raja Ravi Varma" by Ranjit Desai, There was a woman called Sugandha Bai who became inspiration for Raja Ravi Varma to paint gods and goddesses as human beings. Once Ravi Varma happened to see this beautiful lady in a temple and suddenly felt inspired. He then sketched Sugandha Bai's portrait and gifted her. Sugandha Bai got attracted towards Raja Ravi Varma's sketches and agreed to become his model to portray Hindu Goddesses in his paintings.

Raja Ravi Varma Press[edit]

Apparently on the advice of the then Dewan (Prime Minister) of Travancore, T. Madhava Rao, Ravi Varma 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. Schleicher and later closed down after it was gutted in an accidental fire.[7] The oleographs produced by the press were mostly of Hindu gods and goddesses in scenes adapted mainly from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas. These oleographs were very popular and continued to be printed in thousands for many years, even after the 1906 death of Ravi Varma.


In 1904, Viceroy Lord Curzon, on behalf of the British King Emperor, bestowed upon Varma the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal. 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 and there are many cultural organizations throughout India bearing his name. In 2013, the crater Varma on Mercury was named in his honor.[8] 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.

Personal life[edit]

Ravi Varma Thampuran was born in Kilimanoor palace in the erstwhile Thiruvithankur in Kerala. His father Ezhumavil Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad was an accomplished scholar, who hailed from the Ernakulam district in Kerala. His mother Umayamba Thamburatty was a poet and writer whose work Parvati Swayamvaram was published by Varma after her death. He had 3 siblings namely Goda Varma (born 1854), Raja Varma (born 1860) and Mangala Bayi, who was also a painter. As per the Marumakkathayam tradition, the name of the maternal uncle (Raja Raja Varma) was prefixed to his name and later he was referred to as Raja Ravi Varma.[4]

Varma was married to Pururuttathi Nal Bhageerathi Thamburatty of the royal house of Mavelikkara 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 Rama Varma (born 1879), an artist who studied at the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, married to Gowri Kunjamma, sister of Dewan PGN Unnithan. Varma's eldest daughter, Ayilyam Nal Mahaprabha, appears in two of his prominent paintings and was mother of Maharani Pooradam thirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the Regent of Travancore. Their second daughter, Thiruvadira Nal Kochukunji was the mother of Amma Maharani Moolam Thirunal Sethu Parvathi Bayi and the grandmother of Maharajah Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. Their third daughter, born in 1882, was Ayilyam Nal Cheria Kochamma.

His descendants comprise the Mavelikara Royal house while two of his grand daughters, including the said Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi, were adopted to the Travancore Royal Family, the cousin family of the Mavelikara House, to which lineage the present Travancore Maharajah (Titular), Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, belonged. Well known among his descendants are writers Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, Shreekumar Varma, artist Rukmini Varma 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.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Bollywood film maker Ketan Mehta directed a movie Rang Rasiya on the life of Varma in 2014 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 Unique Gift' portraying Varma meeting Swami Vivekananda. 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,
  • Raja Ravi Varma – Oleographs Catalogueby Dr. D.Jegat Ishwari, Pub: ShriParasuraman, Chennai, 2010, ISBN 9788191002614
  • Ravi Varma Classic: 2008, 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 Lalitha 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. ^ K.R.N. Swamy (28 April 2002). "A great painter, no doubt, but controversial too". Spectrum–The Tribune. Retrieved 28 October 2014. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ a b "The Diary of C. Rajaraja Varma"
  5. ^ Kilimanoor Chandran, Ravi Varmayum Chitrakalayum(in Malayalam), Department of Culture, Kerala, 1998.
  6. ^ Vadodara, Lakshmi Vilas Palace. "Raja Ravi Varma Paintings, Vadodara". www.historyofvadodara.in. 
  7. ^ Raja Ravi Varma Prints - Google Sites http://sites.google.com/site/ravivarmalithos/
  8. ^ "Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature". 
  9. ^ http://english.manoramaonline.com/news/kerala/rare-painting-of-ravi-varma-found-at-mannanam.html

External links[edit]