Born: 29 April 1848
Died: 2 October 1906

Raja Ravi Varma - Artworks


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 trivial occurrences.

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 way.2

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 populace.

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.

Text Reference:
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


  • First Prize Award, Vienna Art Exhibition, 1873
  • Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal, The British Raj, 1904



  • Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial Indian, Rupika Chawla, Mapin Publishing, India, 2010
  • Raja Ravi Varma – Oleographs Catalogue, D. Jegat Ishwari, ShriParasuraman Publishing, India, 2010,
  • Ravi Varma Classic: 2008, Vijayakumar Menon, Genesis Art Foundation, India
  • The Painter: A life of Ravi Varma, Deepanjana Pal, Random House India, 2011
  • Raja Ravi Varma – The Most Celebrated Painter of India: 1848–1906, Parsram Mangharam, India ,2007
  • Raja Ravi Varma – The Painter Prince: 1848–1906, Parsram Mangharam, India, 2003
  • Raja Ravi Varma and the Printed Gods of India, Erwin Neumayer & Christine Schelberger, Oxford University Press, India, 2003
  • Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Celebrated Painter of India : 1848 – 1906, Classic Collection, Vol I & II, Parsram Mangharam, India, 2005
  • Raja Ravi Varma: Portrait of an Artist, The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma, Erwin Neumayer & Christine Schelberger, Oxford University Press, India, 2005
  • Divine Lithography, Enrico Castelli and Giovanni Aprile, Il Tamburo Parlante Documentation Centre and Ethnographic Museum, India, 2005
  • Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, Christopher Pinney, Reaktion Book, London, 2004
  • Raja Ravi Varma: Raja Ravi Varma, E.M Joseph Venniyur
  • Raja Ravi Varma: A Novel, Ranjit Desai, translated by Vikrant Pande, Harper Perennial, 2013

Top 10 Auction Records

Title Price Realized
Untitled (Damayanti) USD 1,692,500
Untitled (Tilottama) USD 795,000
The Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother welcoming Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Governor-General of Madras (1875-80), on his official visit to Trivandrum in 1880 USD 784,124.80
Arjun and Subhadra USD 590,573
Untitled ( Portrait of a Young Woman in Russet and Crimson Sari USD 586,000
Untitled (Shiva) USD 545,455
Vasantasena USD 420,000
Maliyali Beauty USD 130, 700
Court Scene USD 119,500
Nala and Damayanti USD 119,500