Ravi Varma was the most well-known artist in India in the final quarter of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries. He created portraits for Indian and Anglo-Indian aristocracy members and visualised scenarios from national myths, which he then transferred to gigantic canvases with gold frames. He was one of the first Indian artists to use oil paintings and is known as the “father of modernity”. Varma created a new and distinctive visual approach to Indian art by adding depth, texture, and a subtle interplay of light and shadow. This aesthetic is still enticing and influential, as it was more than a century ago.
Many of the colourful prints of gods and other mythical creatures that eventually started to make their way into Indian homes beginning in the middle of the 19th century could be traced back to Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. The Ravi Varma press challenged conventional beliefs about the privilege of faith and the possession of the art. It was possible to quickly break caste hierarchies that dictated who had access to temple. The “royal” artist blurred the lines between “high” and “low” art and became an advocate for making art more inclusive.1
His paintings had a smooth blending between European Realism and Indian cultural ethos that gained popularity across the globe. The gems that lavishly ornamented his subjects shimmered in a perceived angle of light with heavier strokes. His works are teeming with life, from trees laden with fruits and flowers to rivers radiant with their myriad hues, and his people seem poised to blink their eyes and resume their activity. Compared to the paintings of the time, this was a striking change.
An excellent illustration of Varma’s devotion to painting precise details on clothing and jewellery is that of ‘Rani Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore’. The Queen wears a lavish gold skirt with silver accents. Her upper body is covered in a richly gold-bordered crimson fabric, in contrast to her royal blue blouse. She is adorning herself with pearls and traditional Malabar jewellery. She has rings on her fingers that are set with priceless stones.
Varma’s fondness for Tanjore paintings, coupled with European realism, is evident in the use of gold. Figures in ‘There Comes Papa’ included Marthanda Varma (his grandson) and Mahaprabha Thampuratti of Mavelikkara (Varma’s daughter). Mahaprabha is depicted in this twin image donning a traditional sari from southern India. This was how a sari was traditionally worn without a blouse. It is asserted that the British colonials in India prior to its independence started the practise of concealing the upper body. Their Victorian morality of covering every portion of the body collided with the Indian sari, exposing some skin. The young boy is dressed exclusively in jewels. The comforts of family life and motherhood are honoured in this picture. It is not surprising that Varma painted more portraits of women as he was surrounded by accomplished and strong women in the matrilineal society of the Travancore Royal family. Additionally, in Indian culture, women’s attire and ornaments serve as indicators of the social standing of their families. Red and gold are colours connected to married ladies in Indian society who were of a certain social rank.
His extensive work reflects Ravi Varma’s explorations of the nation’s diverse landscape. At that time, few people travelled, but the country’s railroad construction gave his quest more momentum. His extensive travels inspired many of his paintings’ symbolism and subjects. “In an age when travel was frowned upon as it was said to make you ‘impure’, nothing deterred him from exploring the country with his brother. On many of his travels, he made rough sketches, sometimes even watercolours, of the things he saw,” explains Author Shreekumar Varma, Ravi Varma’s great-great grandson.
Oleographs by Ravi Varma made art accessible to the middle class. In his works, he depicted gods, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and stunning women in various locations. They were widely distributed and produced in vast quantities, giving the icons and legendary individuals a commonality.
The nation recognised gods and goddesses, with women wearing six and nine yards saris. In Tamil Nadu, dressing the oleographs in silks and chiffons with elaborate needlework and even semi-precious stones sewed on became an everyday female activity. Many Chettiar women traders shipped the oleographs to Burma, where indigenous Burmese ladies adorned the women with zari embroidery and saris made of silk.
Characters from Hindu mythology were beautifully brought to life by Raja Ravi Varma. Most of these painted characters were flat up until that point, and the deities could be identified only by their accessories. Thanks to modern realism, Raja Ravi Varma gave them a face to identify with. And other charming scenes from the fascinating Hindu epics came to life in full-bodied form, with palpable hue and emotion. He carefully examined the stories he chose for interpretation to locate the ideal point in the story for characterisation. He classified his mythical paintings into clusters with exceptional clarity, establishing justifications for his definitions. An unforgettable episode from a particular narrative that would inevitably have a number of repercussions and effects was necessary for a Puranic painting to be sketched. The majority of Ravi Varma’s Puranic paintings are enormous works that feature multiple characters frozen in the middle of dramatic actions. They show a historical event from a classic text that is meant to be honourable, significant, and moving. The age old stories of Hindu Mythology often got a new face and meaning as Varma dipped them into his canvases. Some of Ravi Varma’s most stunning Puranic-themed works were done for Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV of Mysore. The Maharaja commissioned nine of these works for the new Durbar Hall at Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore.
“What stands out about RRV is not that he was the only Indian artist who painted from mythology or the most talented, but that he had ambition and was willing to hustle to succeed,” Manu S. Pillai (eminent Indian author and historian) tells BBC Culture “Of course, his aristocratic family connections opened many doors for him, and he was never treated as an artisan, but as a high-caste artist received with robes of honour and pearl necklaces in royal courts. [But] to his credit he never rested on his privilege, and worked very hard till the very end.”3
His paintings remained on the walls of middle-class homes for many years after his passing, but other schools of art emerged soon after. As a part of the nationalist movement, the Bengal School of Art responded angrily to Raja Ravi Varma’s European academic style of painting. Similarly, several art historians disapproved of his work since it combined Indian motifs with Western academic methods, making him so prominent in the first place. His inspiration is apparent in everything from matchbox labels to tin candy boxes, political and religious posters, mythical tales, calendar graphics, and early Indian film aesthetics. The pop culture of the day loves to revere him as the creator of the Indian aesthetic.5
Besides being a contemporary Indian painter and a royal artist, Ravi Varma has somehow promoted nationalism through his works of art. He has depicted the diversity of Indianness and given a new outlook on the culture and society of India. From the flutter of the pleated folds of saris to the subtle sparkle of jewellery to the swing of flowers in the air and the sighs of parting lovers, he brought his subjects to life, creating an enduring legacy that continues to shape how a million people perceive them.
(Series of articles on Raja Ravi Varma concludes)