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Raja Ravi Varma

Indian Modern Artist

Born 1848, Travancore, Kerala, India

Died 1906, Trivandrum, Kerala, India

Raja Ravi Varma was associated with academic realism in India. He had introduced a western style to Indian paintings, that’s why he has an influential and important role in Indian Art. His works mainly revolve around the great epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. He owns his success to a systematic training, first in traditional art of Thanjavore and later in European art.



Learnt oil painting from European Painter, Theodre Jensen, and Alagiri Naidu, a court Painter of Swati Tiruna, Maharaja of Travancore


Self-taught and received first painting lessons from his uncle Raja Varma


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A pioneer of all times, he contributed monumental changes in Indian art

He in his creative endeavours attempted to blend Indian mythology, natural aesthetics and European realism. He left us what has now come to be associated with academic realism . His oil paintings and oleograph reproductions reached out every Indian possible in his and in later times.  Raja Ravi Varma, a self-taught artist, furthered his creative talent by listening to classical music, watching Kathakali dances, oral narrations of epic stories, reading ancient manuscripts preserved by his family. His first commissioned works was a painting of family group in which he painted ten-twelve family members. He appeared at a historical time when "for the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie which arose within the colonial context,the nation was a convenient site at which to construct their own hegemonic projects, in opposition to colonialism but also to displace the preceding and existing pluralities of indigenous society" . The emergence of his work led to the construction of the cultural elite and development of notions of taste in the public sphere.

Raja Ravi Varma, Usha’s Dream, oleograph

Works in the allegorical style of painting for storytelling, mastering composition and expressions

"His works are mostly in three forms: portraits, portrait based compositions and theatrical compositions based on myths and legends" . Between 1870 and 1878, he painted portraits for Indian aristocracy and British officials, maintaining perfect gesture, depicting sensitivity and subtlety. His portraits and compositions exude elegance, fragrance of the subject. His genius lay in exactly imitating their attire and demeanour for which he became renowned. For paintings, he took scenes from epic stories which involved reading these epics, listening to various artistic-retellings and discussing them with the temple priest. He did 100 sketches related to the scenes and afterwards he drew them on canvas. Thick application of oil colours, lustrous texture, play of light and shade, mastery over beautiful depiction of subject and sub-subject became known as his style. His introduction of oleographs, not only circulated his work to all masses of the country but his depiction of mythologies in European style have been adopted by “Calendar Art”, Indian literature, advertising and eventually by Indian Cinema.

Raja Ravi Varma, Raja and Rani of Kurupam, 1902, oil on canvas.

His theatrical compositions are based on myths and legends

He is renowned for his theatrical compositions, where his skills are clearly visible along with his dramatic presentation of themes; characters heavily ornamented, expressing and in motion. His work shows how he clearly blends his study of Tanjore paintings, with European twist . Stories like “Nala Damayanti", "Shantanu and Matsyagandha", "Shantanu and Ganga", "Radha and Madhava", " Kamsa Maya", "Shrikrishna and Devaki", " Arjuna and Subhadra", Draupadi Vastraharan", "Harischandra and Taramati", "Vishwamitra and Menaka", "Seetaswayamvaram", "Young Bharat and a Lion Cub", "The Birth of Sri Krishna", “Keechaka and Sairanthri”, took new forms under his brush. These depictions became part of the larger discourse of Hindu nationalism.

Raja Ravi Varma, Jatayu Vadham, 1895, oil on canvas.

Depicts Indian women as flawless and as epitome of femininity and goddesses of domesticity

He depicted, curvy, elegant, and serene, women draped in traditional attire, subtle complexion, intriguing gesture and eyes, captivating enough to hold viewer’s eyes. His depiction of females was further used and simplified in mythological films, books, tele-soaps. “Saraswati” and “Lakshmi” are the two most popular prints ever produced in India, and made the artist a household name, which later become an iconic narrative image in books, and cinema. Art critics have constantly critiqued his depiction of women as demure, put on pedestals as goddesses and the domestic ideal. K.B.Goel in Jatayu Vadha sees the core convention of the rape-formula, fair north Indian Sita raped by dark Dravidian Ravana .

Raja Ravi Varma, Lady in her Dressing-Room, 1873, oil on canvas

His subjects are Indian but presentation western

He was known as a bridge between Indian and Western art. His acquaintance with aristocrats, colonial administrative system, and social networking by railway would give impetus to his work to become a pan-India enterprise. It was in this period when he did most of his influential work. His subjects changed according to the needs and situation of the patron. He was not even shy to use photographs, picture albums, which mark him as professional photorealist artist of his time. Raja Ravi Varma set the ultimate standard of skills and archetypal image of Indian culture and traditional, though there’s been a debate of him and his work being national or not. But his work and legacy he left behind aspired many and continues to do so, with freshness and vitality.

Raja Ravi Varma, There comes Papa, 1893, oil on canvas