Raja Ravi Varma was among the first Indian painters to successfully adapt academic realism to the visual
interpretation of Indian mythology and adopt Western painting techniques of portraiture. His genre of
paintings, which eventually led to the oleographs, has maintained a lasting effect on the Indian sensibility,
making him the best-known classical painter of modern times.1
Born in Kilimanur Palace about 40 km out of Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala during the British Raj, to
the Kilimanur clan (a kshatriya family or warrior class - second to the four-tier caste of India), Ravi Varma
enjoyed a privilege childhood. His family with their considerable favor from the Travancore royal family, was
rewarded with great honor and right to marry into royalty. But despite the close connection with the royal
family, the prefix Raja attached to his name does not connote kingship but more of a recognition and
acknowledgement from the British and the Indian aristocracy for his achievement as a painter.
Coming from a well-born family, the system of education was well organized in Kilimanur palace. Designed
to empower succeeding generations, the members of the palace learned not only primary education but
scholarship in all the branches of Indian sciences. With such orthodox education, commenced an early
initiation into religious texts and the recitation of verses in Sanskrit. His deep understanding and vast range
of Sanskrit and Malayalam religious and classical literature would become the basis of his works and will
serve him well in years later, while evolving into the role of a painter. Aside from the formal tutoring, his love
for painting was nurtured, in matters like visual devices and imagery. The common place and the ordinary
inspired him enough to get absorbed into his canvases including domestic life in the palace and everyday
Favored by the court due to his exemplary skills, he was eventually married into the youngest sister of the two
ranis (queens) of Travancore. This alliance established an even closer connection to the royal family. The
time spent in the capital before and after the marriage provided Ravi Varma with all the encouragement to
become a painter. The Maharaja’s generosity gave him the opportunity to study rare art books and improve
his proficiency in English. Reading naturally opened his horizons in history, subject matters and the potential
of oil painting, popular in Europe since the 15th century. His early days in court was full of discovery and
growth as he became aware of different styles of painting, Tanjore being one of them. This method of
painting would remain one of the many influences on Ravi Varma’s visual representation.
Leaving Kilimanur for Trivandrum, he encountered enriching impressions and different cultural
experiences that would continue to expand his insight. A gifted painter enriched by his Kilimanur
upbringing, his exposure to court, and his determination to succeed, propelled him on course.
His proximity to the royal family of Travancore and his aristocratic status further augmented his
entry into the wealthy and powerful circles of India. He befriended many influential people who
gave him painting commissions and further recommended him. Armed with charm, education,
refinement and connection, he was commissioned to make portraits of several royal families, from
which many more painting commissions follow. He interacted with the British and painted their
portraits but retained his nationalistic spirit and his Indian sensibility.
He started to travel professionally from 1878 onwards, journeying relentlessly all over the country.
Accompanied by his younger brother, Raja Raja Varma, they accomplished many paintings
together, their joint signature appearing in some of them.
During Ravi Varma’s time, India’s painting tradition had gone over two millennia of impressive
custom that had existed through genre and mediums very different from the one he chose to use.
Aside from the well established mural traditions, such as the ancient wall painting at Ajanta, there
was miniatures among others. It was further enriched with the introduction of paper from central
Asia, that gave way to the Mughal, Pahari and Rajasthani schools. Responding to the
sociocultural and environment which inspired and nourished them, styles of painting on cloth,
wood, glass and other genres coexisted for centuries. It was much later when oil paints were
introduced by Europeans to their colonies along with the idea of easel painting.
Ravi Varma took advantage of the innovations from the west, and readily adapted academic
realism into his works. The technique with its principles of perspective, foreshortening and
highlighting were applied in order to create a work that evoke visual of life. By embracing and
adapting academic realism readily, Ravi Varma earned the disapproval of practitioners and
philosopher of classical Indian art.
Although aware of the ancient conventions and new thinking, he consciously underwent a
selection of themes, genre and mediums he wished to make - mainly historical paintings of gods
and heroes and the portraits of the rich and the powerful. He went against the grain of prescribed
traditional Indian convention and preferred easel painting and oil medium over established
medium and materials all the while integrating the flavors and texture of India. With great
understanding and appreciation of the power of the classical texts and realism as his tool, Ravi
Varma transferred the wealth of stories and mythology into paintings of great resonance. He was
the first to attempt to blend the modern and the ancient reflecting deeply upon this particular
combination of factors.
The advent of technology and the improvement of transportation and communication liberated
Ravi Varma from the constraints of distance and geographic isolation. With the establishment of
the train system across the country, the itinerant lifestyle of European artists became possible for
him. He embarked from court to court on commission and from this recommendations, his
patronage grew. With the emergence of the newspaper, his reputation and popularity profited.
The stories he selected for interpretation were further analyzed in order to arrive at the most
appropriate moment in a narrative delineation. With great clarity, Ravi Varma divided his mythological paintings into logical categories, where he qualified his paintings as puranic or religious and
scenes from Hindu classical drama. He turned to the epics to provide him with the requisite resource pool
for references and source materials. They become the basis of explanation for the moods and emotions his
paintings demanded, and for the delineation of faces and form. These aspects were clearly interwoven into
Western academic norms and devices, making both influences fuses together in a remarkable and imaginative
By this point, the masses were aware of his genius following the reproduction of his oleographs in his
printing press, Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press. His imagery, culturally comprehensible, found
new resonance in the dissemination of the inexpensive oleograph that gave mythological image to the
The thematic strength of his paintings was deeply rooted and derived from religious texts which eventually
encouraged the growth and development of Indian iconography as it made its way to contemporary times.
His range of puranic and religious paintings reflecting in his deep understanding of Sanskrit and Malayalam
literature have deeply influenced the forms of gods and goddesses in the 20th century visual culture of India.3
With his lingering influence on the Indian mindset, he inspired the new generation of artists and influence
visual perception of the the country down the century long after he was gone.
1 2 3 Excerpts from the book Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India by Rupika Chawla published by
Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, India and Grantha Corporation, Ocean Township, New Jersey, US