No other Indian artist blazed as many trails as Raja Ravi Varma. He was
the first Indian to master perspective, the first to use human models to
depict Hindu gods and goddesses, the first to make his work available not
just to the rich but to ordinary people too. The immense popularity of his
work also made this deeply pious aristocrat the first Indian artist to
become well known — before him painters were largely anonymous.
Raja Ravi Varma was born in 1848 into the royal house of Kilimanoor, 25
miles from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala state. The Kilimanoor princes
were renowned for their cultural accomplishments, and Ravi Varma's
artistic talents blossomed early: by the time he was 14, he had secured
the patronage of the maharaja of Travancore.
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Western painting fascinated Ravi Varma: he instinctively sympathized with
its vigorous realism, so different from the stylized, contemplative Indian
tradition. He also preferred oil paints, then new in India, to tempera,
the traditional Indian medium. Though Ravi Varma had to teach himself the
techniques of oil painting, by the early 1870s he was mixing oils
perfectly, and his portraits show a remarkable ability to depict a variety
of skin tones and fabrics.
Ravi Varma's career gradually took off. For the next three decades he was
in great demand, with everyone from businessmen to maharajas vying to
commission him. One 1888 commission by the maharaja of Baroda for 14
paintings fetched Ravi Varma Rs50, 000, an astronomical sum for the time.
Ravi Varma exhibited his canvases abroad too; he won several medals at
international exhibitions, including one at Vienna and two at Chicago. And
he was awarded so many prizes in India that at one stage he announced that
he'd no longer take part in competitions so that other artists would have
In his paintings, Ravi Varma idealized women, often making his subjects
more stately and graceful than they actually were. Indeed, at one time,
telling an Indian woman that she looked like a Ravi Varma painting was the
ultimate compliment. Though he painted women of many communities and
classes, Ravi Varma had a special fondness for depicting the sari-clad
women of Bombay where he lived for many years. He found the sari — then
not worn in Kerala and many other parts of India — with its striking
colors and graceful folds especially appealing, and it's often said that
the popularity of Ravi Varma's paintings helped make the sari the national
dress for all Indian women.
In 1906 at the age of 58 he passed away. At the time of his death, Ravi
Varma was indisputably India's best known and most honored artist. But
within a few years, critical opinion turned against him. Critics and
artists, some even jealous of his great success, accused him of being a
sentimentalist, a mere illustrator, an unimaginative copier of European
techniques and thus not Indian enough. Some even criticized him for using
oils, then seen as a "colonial" medium! However, the Indian
public never once rejected him. In recent years, critics too have begun to
reassess him as an old master who pioneered in India the best form of fine
art and based his ideas and themes on the deepest of Indian traditions.
Today Ravi Varma paintings are in great demand at auctions, and fetch
higher prices than for any Indian painter.