Childhood & Early Life
Raja Ravi Varma was born to Umamba Thampuratti and Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad on April 29, 1848, in the princely state of Kilimanoor, in Kerala. While his mother was a poet and a writer by profession, his father was a scholar. He had three siblings, Goda Varma, Raja Varma and Mangala Bayi.
Coming from a family of creative personnel comprising of scholars, poets and painters, it was only natural for young Varma to be blessed with artistic ingenuity.
At the young age of seven, he started showing signs of taking the artistic route. Whatever he came across in his day to day living, such as pictures of animals, everyday acts and scenes, later adorned the walls of his home, reflecting his creativity and artistic sense.
While his family abhorred this behaviour of young Varma, it was his uncle, Raja Raja Varma, a Tanjore artist, who realized his true potential and calling. He resolved to tap the creative ingenuity of the young boy to make him a proficient artist.
With the help of his uncle and the ruling king, Ayilyam Thirunal, he received training and education in arts. His uncle also gave him his first ever drawing lesson.
At the age of 14, he moved to Thiruvananthapuram, where he received training in water painting by the palace painter, Rama Swamy Naidu.
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In Thiruvananthapuram, he stayed at the Moodath Madam house of the Kilimanoor Palace. It was at Kilimanoor Palace that his talent was encouraged and reared by Ayilyam Thirunal, who alternatively exposed the former to the famous paintings of Italian painters and Western artists.
All through, instead of using the conventional paints, he opted for indigenous paints made from leaves, flowers, tree bark and soil. It was only after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper that he brought his first set of oil paints from Madras.
During those times, oil painting was a new medium and only one person, namely Ramaswamy Naicker of Madurai, had the knowledge of oil painting techniques, in Travacore. But he refused to teach Ravi Varma the art of oil painting as he saw him as his potential rival.
It was Arumugham Pillai, Naicker's student, who then took it upon himself to teach him the nuances of oil painting much against the wishes of his teacher. This knowledge was then supplemented by some more information from Dutch portrait artist Theodor Jenson who had come over to paint the portrait of Ayilyam Thirunal and his wife
It was through trial and error that he finally learned the nuances of oil painting by blending colors, mixing them in pliable medium and smoothly manoeuvring through the strokes, allowing time for the color to dry.
Interestingly, his painted portrait of the royal couple, Ayilyam Thirunal and his wife far excelled the one done by Dutch artist, thus reflecting his true spirit as an artist and his creative ingeniousness.
He did not restrict his creativity to the teachings of Dutch painter or tips by Arumugham Pillai and instead got influenced by a whole of other things including music of veteran singers, Kathakali dancers, and artistic interpretations of epics and manuscripts of ancient families.
From 1870 to 1878, he painted several portraits of important Indian aristocracy and British officials and gained much reputation for himself as a portrait painter. What gave him the edge over other painters was his sensitivity towards the subject and the finesse with which he executed the subject.
Year 1873 marked the beginning of a prosperous era in the career of this proficient painter who won the first prize at the Madras Painting exhibition. This was just the beginning, as the same year he won the coveted first prize in Vienna exhibition thereby becoming a world famous Indian painter.
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His popularity soared so high that his paintings were sent to World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893
Most of his paintings include pictures of mythological characters from the epics and tales from religious texts and manuscripts. His early works depicted the basic elements of Tanjore painting, which essentially comprises of demonstrating the feminine emotion on canvas.
In his career, he did not restrict his paintings to a single subject or two and instead roamed throughout India in search of topics that would interest him. While episodes from religious texts became a great source of inspiration, he was also marvelled by beauty of South Indian women.
Most of his paintings dwelled on touching subjects and moments such as ‘Nala Damayanti’, ‘Shantanu and Matsyagandha’, ‘Shantanu and Ganga’, ‘Radha and Madhava’, ‘Kamsa Maya’, ‘Shrikrishna and Devaki’, ‘Arjuna and Subhadra’, ‘Draupadi Vastraharan’, ‘Harischandra and Taramati’, ‘Birth of Krishna’ and so on.
With the aim to bring Indians closer to art, he started a lithography printing press called the Ravi Varma Pictures Depot in 1894 for mass production of his paintings. It was five years later that he shifted the Press from Ghatkopar to Malavli, near Lonavala. Most of the managerial work of the press was headed by his brother. In 1901, the press was sold to German printing technician.
Awards & Achievements
At the beginning of his career, in 1873, he won an award in Vienna where his paintings were exhibited.
At the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, he was bestowed with three gold medals for his work of art.
In 1904, on behalf of the King Emperor, Viceroy Lord Curzon awarded him with the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal.
Several schools, colleges, institutions and cultural organizations have been named after him, such as Raja Ravi Varma High School at Kilimanoor, a college dedicated to fine arts in Mavelikara, Kerala, and so on.
In 2013, a crater on Mercury was named in the honor of this greater Indian painter.
Personal Life & Legacy
He tied the nuptial knot with Pururuttathi Nal Bhageerathi, who belonged to the royal family of Mavelikara. The couple was blessed with five children, two sons and three daughters.
He breathed his last on October 5, 1906 in the village of Kilimanoor in Travancore. He was 58 at the time of his death.
His family continued his artistic lineage. While his second son Rama Varma was an artist trained at JJ School of Arts, his daughters served as his inspiration for his paintings and continued his artistic creativity through their offsprings and grand-children.
Due to his immense contribution in the field of art, the Government of Kerala initiated a yearly award in his name, Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram, which is given to artists who have contributed in the field of art and culture.