Galaxy of Musicians By Raja Ravi Varma (Credits: Wikipedia)
India, India, People
Raja Ravi Varma – The Royal Indian Artist
Storytrails Team
JANUARY 13, 2021

Close your eyes and imagine a Hindu goddess. Any goddess. Parvathi, Lakshmi, Saraswathi… Did you see a beautiful, fair-skinned woman with a generous figure, dressed in a perfectly draped sari, and adorned with gorgeous jewellery? Who gave her this image? The credit for that goes to a painter from Kerala named Raja Ravi Varma, who lived in India between 1848 and 1906.

Raja Ravi Varma (Credits: Wikipedia)
Saraswathi by Raja Ravi Varma (Credits: Wikipedia)
Lakshmi by Raja Ravi Varma (Credits: Wikipedia)

Ravi Varma’s family was related to the royal family of Travancore. Even at a young age, Ravi Varma showed a flair for painting. At that time, Travancore was a British protectorate. So a stream of European painters went in and out of the palace. One of his uncles got him access to the royal court, where he watched the court painters and picked up many tricks of European portraiture and oil painting. 


The Travancore Kings patronised a number of Indian artists too. And Ravi Varma learnt many other techniques from them, sometimes without their knowledge. In one instance, he got the assistant of an accomplished Indian artist to meet him in secret and show him the colour mixing techniques techniques the master artist used in oil paintings. Soon Ravi Varma began his own artistic career. 


Back then, Kerala was famous for its  murals, like the ones you can see here.

Thodeekkalam Mural Pintings By Vijayakumarblathur - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 (Credits: Wikipedia)

But while they were detailed, they were not meant to look realistic. Even in the western world, until the renaissance period, the use of light in paintings, to shape perspective or define a point of view was rare. 


So when Ravi Varma started using those techniques on Indian themes, it was unlike anything seen before. He began painting court portraits for the royal families of India. He also found inspiration in the myths and epics of India and took great pleasure in painting some of the key moments in the stories. Soon he had a fan following. He was so popular that he couldn’t keep up with the demand for his work. Around that time, lithographic printing, which used stone or metal plates, was becoming popular in Europe. It allowed for almost perfect replicas of original works of art. Ravi Varma and his brother decided to set up their own lithographic press in Mumbai. His best selling pictures were paintings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The press was eventually sold off and the new owner realised that there was still much profit to be made from the paintings of the Gods. So he hired a host of lesser known artists to paint more pictures of Gods in Ravi Varma style. 


The result? Thousands of marvellous Hindu calendar images you see in houses even today. Ravi Varma’s critics point out that his images of goddesses are rather limiting. Where before, the Goddess could look like anyone, or in fact anything, she now had a face. It was the face of a high class South Indian woman. Even today, you can spot Ravi Varma’s pictures of gods and goddesses in the private altars of many Hindu households. Copies of the original prints are valuable collector’s pieces now.


One question remains: the title ”Raja” means a king, so did Raja Ravi Varma ever rule Travancore or even parts of it? Never. For his brilliant art, he received the ‘Kaiser-I-Hind’ medal from the British Emperor. That was when the title Raja was mistakenly mentioned in his citation, and Raja Ravi Varma happily continued to use the title, much to the annoyance of the king in Travancore! But two of Ravi Varma’s granddaughters went on to become Queens of Travancore and exercised real power under Kerala’s matrilineal system of succession. 

Do read this post for that story.

And watch this video on Kerala’s unique matrilineal system that gave more power to the Queens than the kings.

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