The years 1848 to 1906 represent an important period for the fine art of painting in India. They are marked by the legendary artist Ravi Varma, later honored with the title of ‘Raja’ by the British aristocracy, and better known as the ‘Great Raja Ravi Varma.’

He was born in Kilimanoor Palace as the son of Umamba Thampuratti and Ezhumavil Neelakandan Bhattathiripad. He was from a princely family, very closely linked to the ruling house of the former State of Travancore.

Photograph taken about 1900 by the Government photographer, Zacharias D'Cruz of the Travancore Maharaja's State Carriage in Trivandrum.

Ravi Varma grew up in a traditional environment, learning Sanskrit, listening to Indian classical music and watching the performances by the Kathakali Kurpe maintained by the family. Ravi Varma's mother, Uma Amba Bai Tampurathi was a poetess and his father Ezhymavil Neelakantan Bhattatripad was a Sanskrit scholar. His uncle, Raja Varma, was an amateur artist who painted in the Tanjore style. Therefore when Ravi Varma displayed his interest in painting, it was his uncle who encouraged him with the initial lessons.

His uncle was also instrumental in bringing him to Thiruvananthapuram where Ayilyam Thirunal accorded him royal patronage. Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma was the ruler of the princely state of Travancore from 1860 to 1880. His reign was highly successful with Travancore gaining the appellation of "The model state of India".

In Travancore Ravi Varma became exposed to many new influences –western and Indian alike. One of the helpers of Ramaswamy Naicker, (the palace artist), named Arumukham, used to visit Ravi Varma secretly in the dead of night to enlighten him with the secrets of oil painting that he had learned from his master.

Ravi Varma was obviously quick to learn on his own and adapt any new technique. He was bold enough to explore things and thus remained an untutored painter all his life. As his name began to spread, he was soon commissioned to execute portraits all over the country

Ravi Varma’s talent never went unrecognized. Although he lived for only fifty-eight years, his enormous contribution to various aspects of Indian art has made an lasting impact.

A popular and significant artist of his time he was a prominent representative of Europeanized School of Indian artists. His oleographs (lithographic prints textured to resemble an oil painting) of Indian divinities still survive in many homes and shrines and these kitsch prints are framed and sacredly worshipped for posterity. His works are also popular and visible in religious prints, calendars, posters, and other popular arts. Interestingly enough, in the last decade of the Twentieth Century, with changing perceptions and trends in collecting art, Ravi Varma's paintings have soared in the art collector's esteem. Even after a century he is still one of the most celebrated painters of India.
As we mentioned before Ravi Varma sought the guidance of the palace artist Ramaswami Naicker, who had mastered the European style of painting, and later from Theodore Jenson, a Dutch portrait painter who came to Travancore. But due to their own personal interests none of them helped much. But this merely strengthened Ravi Varma's resolve to master the art.
For nine years Ravi Varma experimented with different color pigments and techniques and in his struggle to understand the principles of European art, he spent lots of time studying albums and the prints and paintings in the Travancore palace collection. In this, his uncle as well as Maharaja Ayilyam Tirunaal encouraged him.
With the influence of the West, Ravi Varma, acquired new materials and new techniques, convinced of their power and utility. Through self-instruction and by the simple method of trial and error he learnt the art of mixing colors. He painted both portraits and landscapes and introduced new elements into Indian painting. For the first time in the annals of Indian art, he had mastered and introduced the principle of perspective, the use of the stretched canvas and oil colors. He brought in a perfect blend of European Academic realism and the true spirit of the Indian milieu.

Most of his oil paintings are based on devotional epic stories and characters. In 1873 he won the First Prize at the Madras Painting Exhibition. He became a world famous Indian painter after winning the Vienna Exhibition in 1873.

Ravi Varma’s paintings won virtually all the accolades that were possible for an Indian painter of his times. He was invited to Baroda, Mysore, Bhavnagar, Jaipur, Alwar, Gwalior, Indore and Udaipur.  Wherever he went he painted portraits and paintings on a variety of devotional themes. His diaries written between 1895 and 1904 are perhaps the earliest personal accounts of an Indian artist.  They reveal the inner workings of a creative mind. Raja Ravi Varma has been credited with the title of the earliest Indian landscape painter. Effectively landscape painting was an absolutely unknown art in India at the time.

Portrait of Raja Ravi Varma

Child Krishna and mother Yashoda by Ravi Varma

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Birth of Krishna by Ravi Varma
Sir Madhava Rao, the Diwan of Travancore of that time and later the administrator of Baroda State was quick to see the possibilities in Ravi Varma’s popularity. He suggested they reproduce his works through the technique of Oleography. Oleography was a comparatively new mode of printing perfected in 1885 by George Boxter in England and it was another mode of lithography. Ravi Varma’s oleographs established his reputation as an Indian artist. 

Several oil paintings by Ravi Varma

His marriage, in 1866, to Pooroouttati Naal Tampuratty of Mavelikkara Kottaram Royal family and its social status brought him into contact with the British Resident at Trivandrum. It was the Resident who persuaded him to participate in the Fine Art Exhibition, Madras in 1873. His work titled "A Nair Lady at the Toilet" showing a pretty woman adoring her hair with a garland of jasmine was adjudged to be the best.

Lady at her toilet by Ravi Varma

Not only did he win the first prize Governor's Gold Medal but was also granted an interview by the Governor Lord Hobart, who spoke encouragingly of his work, and advised him to persevere and make a name for himself The Maharaja of Travancore welcomed him on his return to Trivandrum for bringing honor to the State. In the same year the painting was sent to an international exhibition at Vienna, where it was awarded a medal and a Certificate of Merit. And more importantly, this award received appreciative notices in the English dailies published from Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, thereby spreading Ravi Varma's reputation as an artist of merit to other parts of India.

His marriage brought him two sons and three daughters.
Raja Ravi Varma's elder daughter, Ayilyam Nal Mahaprabha Thampuran, actually appears in two of his prominent paintings.
His descendants comprise the Mavelikara Royal house while two of his granddaughters, including the said Sethu Lakshmi Bayi were adopted to the Travancore royal family, the cousin family of the Mavelikara House, to which lineage the present Travancore Maharaja Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma belongs. Well known among his descendants are writer Sri Kumar Varma (Prince Punardam Thirunal), artists Rukmini Varma (Princess Bharani Thirunal) and Jay Varma, classical musician Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma and others.

Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi the grand daughter of Raja Ravi Varma adopted by the Travancore Royal family.

Representations illustrating the "Puranas" (Vedic scriptures), were the most popular with the public because they found their place in the " Puja Rooms " (prayer rooms) in millions of Hindu houses. Indeed, for the first time probably ordinary people had access to a visual representation of gods and goddesses. This contributed to the huge success of these works of art, success made ​​possible by lithography. The mass production of prints by Varma was however short-lived. Indeed, the artist had no business sense and he was forced to sell his printing in the early 1900s.

This date does not necessarily marked the end of the craze for chromolithographs by Ravi Varma, since these reproductions were later embellished with embroidered fabrics. Although the tradition of embroidered lithographs is difficult to trace, some clues for the place where it started is in South India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the area of ​​Chetinad. These embellished versions of the reproductions of Ravi Varma often decorated and still adorn the walls of Indian houses.

These chromolithographs played a major role in the development of contemporary Indian art and the technique of reproduction of paintings. The valuable Indian culture is expressed perfectly in the art of the country and especially in these reproductions.

By the turn of the 20th century Raja Ravi Varma. had become almost a cult figure and when he died in October 1906, people had already started worshipping his paintings.

We owe the popularization of chromolithography to Raja Ravi Varma. We also owe the introduction of oil painting on canvas as a medium in India, Indian landscape painting and more.