February 1, 2023 11:34 pm

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A peek into the life of Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Verma spent most of his childhood immersed in the arts, learning Vedic courses, chants and hymns, and stories that got him closer to a spiritual understanding of art

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An artist from Kerala transformed the phase of art by introducing Indian sensibilities to the rest of the world through his paintings. Raja Ravi Varma is a celebrated Indian artist whose legacy still lives on through his works.

Varma was born into an aristocratic family of poets and scholars with royal connections, at Kilimanoor Palace in the former princely state of Travancore. Kilimanoor was famous for producing consorts for the princesses of the matrilineal royal family of Travancore.  His father was an expert in both Ayurveda and Sanskrit. His mother was a poet and writer who was well-versed in Kathakali music. He spent most of his childhood immersed in the arts, learning Vedic courses, chants and hymns, music and dance, and stories that got him closer to a spiritual understanding of art.

When he was a little child, he began to scribble and create pictures, which attracted the attention of his family, especially his uncle. Rukmini Varma, who also has lineage to the family, once stated in a BBC interview that “I have heard stories from my grandmother and mother of the artist drawing and scribbling on the walls with charcoal as a young child, and a servant sitting beside him with a bucket of water and cloth to mop it at regular intervals, and he would then continue to draw again.”  His maternal uncle, Raja Raja Varma played an instrumental role in this life by recognising and encouraging the young artist’s potential.

He was introduced to the Maharaja of Travancore, Aayilyam Thirunaal, when he was 13 years old, and he was given permission to access the palace library and pursue his love of drawing and painting. Ravi Varma witnessed the court painters working with the brand-new oil paints in this location. When he glanced through books on Italian paintings, he was delighted to observe that the three-dimensional paintings in the palace collection were very different from the mural paintings he had seen on the walls of the temples. He wished he could learn from Ramaswamy Naicker, the palace artist, how to master the European techniques of chiaroscuro and its perspective. Ramaswamy Naicker, however, refused to tutor him. The Maharaja asked Dutch artist Theodore Jensen to instruct this little kid in the nuances of European academic realism. Theodore Jensen was a royal artist and did not really take up the responsibility to teach him, instead, he allowed him to observe his work on a painting.  Ravi Varma took nine years to master the principles of perspective and colour mixing, particularly the medium of oil on canvas. At the age of 18, Varma married Bhageerathi Bayi, a member of the Mavelikkara royal family, who was 12 at the time. His marriage helped him advance his profession and create closer ties with the royal family.

Raja Ravi Varma travelled from his hometown to Mookambika temple in 1870 to spend a few days in reflection and meditation before returning home. He received his first professional commission to paint the family picture of Kizakke Palat Krishna Menon on his return, as though blessed by the Goddess herself. The great career of the artist commenced with this work. He then created the painting “Tamil Lady Playing the Swarbat” in 1874.  The artwork was given to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) on his tour of India in 1875 after being displayed at the Madras Fine Art Exhibition. He had already found success as an artist by the time he was about 22. His painting Nair Lady Adorning her Hair, which featured a woman wearing a jasmine garland, won the Governor’s gold medal in the Madras Fine Art Exhibition in 1873. The Duke of Buckingham and Chandos’ trip to Travancore in 1881 had a significant impact on the young artist’s career.  It is said that a diplomatic faux-pas involving Maharaja Vishakam Thirunal, the Duke and the artist left Ravi Varma being declared persona non-grata in the new Maharaja’s court.   Ravi Varma set out on his journey to the North after being shunned, where he met Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III.  His career really flourished after Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda became his main patron.

Ravi Varma was given the opportunity to paint Sayajirao Ill, the Gaekwad of Baroda, in 1881, and a separate studio was built for him on the grounds of the palace. He received several invitations to paint the portraits of princes from various princely nations. He was among the first Indian artists to be honoured as an artist by numerous aristocratic families and royals, according to Jay Varma The royal Maharaja was so moved by Varma’s creations that he brought him to Ooty in 1888 and gave him a commission for 14 mythical paintings that would decorate the new Durbar Hall in the brand-built Laxmi Vilas Palace and illustrate the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Although the epic came alive among the public, the royal families and other nobles kept these paintings in their personal collections. There Comes Papa is one of ten paintings by Ravi Varma of Indian women that he presented for the Chicago Exposition in 1893 representing India. His own daughter, the incredibly beautiful Mahaprabha, served as the model for this painting. For a person who was not allowed to travel over the ‘dark-waters’, his paintings delighted the presence of Indians at the Exposition.3

Ravi Varma discovered a mentor in Dewan Madhava Row, a competent and dependable advisor. He also suggested Ravi Varma to broaden his vision by having his works oleographed in order to serve the nation and also introduced him to the British government. Varma always wanted the common people to have access to his paintings but it was humanly impossible for him to paint so many copies of his works. Like Ravi Varma, whose original works of art belonged to Indian aristocracy and nobility, Sir T Madhava Rao believed that it was unfair that a common person could not access the art.

But nothing was done until Raja Ravi Varma and his brother Raja Raja Varma sent a representative to India in 1894 to look for someone to set up and manage an oleograph press. Establishing the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press in Girgaum, Bombay, was a joint venture between Raja Raja Varma and Govardhandas Khatau Makhanji. The Birth of Shakuntala, the first oleograph, was released on July 12th, 1894, and sold for a regal price of Rs 6. Following that was Laxmi and Saraswati, both of which were sold for Rs 2 each. The Ravi Varma Press had a life of its own, determined to transform the average person’s ideas about society, religion, and aesthetics. This was successfully accomplished, and in addition, Ravi Varma’s name became permanently etched in the collective memory of Indians. It also printed match-box labels, picture postcards, textile labels and advertisements. Epic and Puranic story paintings, which had previously only been found in the houses and temples of the upper castes, were now widely available. The gods and epic tales could be hung on the walls of people’s homes because they could afford to do so.

Ravi Varma was determined to further integrate art through the building of museums because he was unhappy with being prevented from travelling overseas to see the great museums of Europe. To revive the neglected art in the State, Ravi Varma made every effort to establish an art gallery in Thiruvanthapuram. Unfortunately, in the end, he was given a commission to create two paintings for the State each year for a fee of Rs. 3000. The Art Gallery that exists now was built considerably later, under the epochal rule of the revered Sree Chithra Thirunal Rama Varma, the final Maharaja to rule the Travancore Kingdom. In 1896, “Draupadi at the Court of Virat” was the first painting commissioned for the Art Gallery.

By June 1901, numerous significant occasions had changed the course of Travancore’s history, and Ravi Varma personally experienced the consequences.  All of the Junior Rani’s offspring, including four princes, had perished, as had the Junior Rani herself (Ravi Varma’s sister-in-law). While Ravi Varma was gone from home, the senior Rani, who was also Ravi Varma’s sister-in-law, passed died due to ill health that could no longer withstand this string of tragedies. Ravi Varma had a personal stake in the Sethu sisters’ adoption as twins because they were both his granddaughters and the offspring of two of his daughters.  1904 was a significant year as the New Year Honors List of 1904 featured his name.  The Kaiser-i-Hind Medal was bestowed to Ravi Varma by the Imperial Government.  

Being the leader of a sizable, affluent aristocratic clan, Ravi Varma’s fifty-seventh birthday was celebrated with grandeur, both religiously and socially. At that moment, he made the announcement that he would accept Sanyasa and abandon all earthly pleasures three years later, when he would turn sixty. Upon his arrival back in Kilimanoor, his diabetes worsened, and the following unbearable thirst and physical tiredness forced him to resort to bed. The pain grew worse when a carbuncle developed on his left shoulder. When it was opened by the Travancore Durbar physician, there was some alleviation, but it did not heal.  Matters got out of hand and almost the whole country started worrying about him. On the afternoon of October 2, 1906, Ravi Varma departed the world that he had once painted and brightened with his wonderful imaginations and skills. With Vedic chants and traditional prayers, it was rather a very peaceful and spiritual goodbye for Varma. (This is part of series of articles on Raja Ravi Varma)

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