Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

Raja Ravi Varma | Biography | Life | Paintings

Hansa Damyanti By Raja Ravi Verma
Hansa Damyanti By Raja Ravi Verma

At this juncture of an identity crisis, Raja Ravi Varma emerged with his oeuvre—a large body of paintings, drawings, watercolors, and oleographs— that was Western in style and technique and Indian in theme. 

A member of the ruling family of Kerala, he subscribed to the ethos of his class. He glorified the national—the mythical and the religious. In his paintings, the moral got precedence over everything else including stylistic expression. 

He found his model, both thematic and stylistic, in French Neo-classicism and his art contained messages of a high moral order tailored to suit the quest for national identity in every sphere of Indian life. It is not easy to define Ravi Varma’s unique style, nor to describe, by words, the proper means of acquiring it. 

One can only say, that Ravi Varma— who initially learned the art of painting from his uncle Raja Raja Varma and later acquired the technique of oil painting from Theodore Jensen—a portrait painter of Dutch origin—keenly observed the works of nature, used his skills in selecting and carefully digesting, methodizing and comparing his observations and perceptions. 

He profited by experience whereas most people are not because of their incapacity in finding their object, but from not knowing what object to pursue. 

Ravi Varma broadly followed the technique of the British academic tradition then being promoted in India and endeavored to attain dexterity in imitating objects. 

He also studied the style and works belonging to the local traditions, i.e the Tanjore School. Although he revealed the influences of Raphael, Vermeer, David, Ingres, and Manet, he refrained from an implicit submission to the authority of anyone master and avoided the danger of being just a copyist. 

He also did not copy nature too closely. He must have realized that a mere copier of nature could never produce anything to uplift or ‘warm the heart’ of a viewer. 

In any case imitation of nature has never been a mode of expression in Indian art. Ravi Varma’s paintings possess their own splendor despite the unkind criticism leveled against him by some enthusiastic promoters of today’s fashionable styles. 

According to them Ravi Varma’s works neither possess artistic essence nor exemplify a skillful rendering of the academic technique. 

Such criticism is unfounded as, in fact, his academic skills were duly recognized when he was conferred a prestigious award for his Sairandhri by the Bombay Art Society in 1891. 

He represented India at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, one of the grandest international expositions of the nineteenth century. He was greatly patronized by Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda and rulers of other princely states. 

Ravi Varma deliberately modified the poetic exaggerations of the epics, In Ravana kidnapping Sita, he deviated from the description to build an illuSion that was visually acceptable. 

His Ravana is a haughty muscleman minus the extra heads and the flying chariot. The episode was used as an allegory of the ultimate victory of good over evil. 

Havell accused Ravi Varma of deviating from the spirit of Indian poetry, though Balendranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, hailed his works for the message they contained. 

Instead of endeavoring to amuse the viewer with minute neatness, Ravi Varma attempted, in his paintings, to convey his ideas. 

And instead of superficially appeasing the viewer, he strove to captivate his imagination. He gained popularity by reaching out to the people by choosing themes that were known to them and infusing the same with poetic and philosophical quality. 

His art was, in that sense, greatly appreciated, both by the common man and the enlightened. Although Ravi Varma is known to have used models, he did not copy a model just as it was. 

He obviously had his own idea of what constituted ideal beauty and sought to create that image which he conceptualized in his mind from the description in the literary sources, such as that of Sarasvati, Darnayanti or Judith. 

He provided familiar faces to portray the divine and mythological characters from the epics, and the likenesses were accepted for reverence and even worshipped. 

Out of common figures, he conveyed an abstract idea. And in what may seem a paradox, he learned to design naturally by drawing figures, unlike any standard type. 

Although Ravi Varma was successful in reintroducing Indian themes as national ideals, the issue of evolving a national style different from the existing conventional styles remained unresolved.

List of major works:

 A list of the prominent works of Ravi Varma.

1.  Mohini playing with a ball

2.  Yashoda and Krishna

3.  Village Belle

4.  Lady Lost in Thought

5.  Damayanti Talking to a Swan

6.  The Orchestra

7.  Arjuna and Subhadra

8.  The heartbroken

9.  Swarbat Player


11.Lord Krishna as Ambassador

12.Jatayu, a bird devotee of Lord Rama is mauled by Ravana

13.Victory of Indrajit

14.The gypsies

15.A Lady Playing Swarbat

16.Lady Giving Alms at the Temple

17.Lord Rama Conquers Varuna

18.Gheevarghese Mar Gregorios of Parumala

19.Nair Woman

20.Romancing Couple

21.Draupadi Dreading to Meet Kichaka

22.Shantanu and Matsyagandha

23.Shakuntala Composing a Love Letter to King Dushyanta

24.Girl in Sage Kanwa’s Hermitage (Rishi-Kanya)

25.Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore

26.Sri Shanmukha Subramania Swami

27.Woman holding a fan

28.3D painting of The Mysore king in a horse (available at the Mysore palace)

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