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Father of Modern Indian Art

Self-Portrait by Raja Ravi Verma

Personal Life:

Elegance, aesthetic and Indian Mythology. When you are looking for these three things in a painting, many art pieces come to mind. But among them, what shines brightest is the name of a legend who combined these elements and smeared them onto a canvas so gracefully that it left everyone in awe. Raja Ravi Varma.

Raja Ravi Varma was born on 29 April 1848 but not as Raja Ravi Varma. His full name is M. R. Ry. Ravi Varma, Koil Thampuran of Kilimanoor. He was born in the Kilimanoor palace in the princely state of Travancore which is currently called Kerala into an aristocrat family that had consorts for the princesses of the Travancore royal family. Born to Ezhumavil Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad and Umayamba Thampurratti. His mother was a part of the baronial family who ruled the Kilimanoor feudal estate and was a poet and writer. His father was a Sanskrit and Ayurveda scholar. Raja Ravi Varma had a sister and two brothers. His brother Ravi Varma was also a painter and was closely associated with Ravi Varma all his life. They even painted together sometimes. He received his education from University College Thiruvananthapuram.

At the age of 18, Varma married Bhageerathi Bayi from the royal house of Mavelikkara. They had five children, two sons and three daughters. His younger son Rama Varma inherited his father’s talents and attended college to receive training in art at the renowned JJ School of Arts, Mumbai.

Art Career:

There Comes Papa by Raja Ravi Verma

“There Comes Papa”, one of his most loved work is an oil on canvas which has his daughter and grandson looking towards an approaching father. During the 19th century, Indian artists aimed at modernizing art but also retaining the strong Indian identity. If you look closely at the painting, the light is focused on the direction where papa is approaching which might be symbolism to the light and love papa brings into the life of his family. Varma’s shading and lighting technique have been one of the most renowned techniques among his contemporaries.

This was one of the 10 paintings sent by Ravi Verma to the International Exhibition in Chicago. The dog in the painting appeals to the European idea of domesticity even though Indian culture considered it to be unclean. The woman is dressed like a typical upper-class Nair lady but the stance is not Indian, it reminds us of the confidence exuded mostly by the European women in that era. The absent but approaching father signifies the need of the audience to complete the small, perfect and happy nuclear family.

Nair Lady Playing Veena by Raja Ravi Verma

“A Nair Lady Playing The Veena” is an oil on canvas of a Keralaite lady in a traditional Nair saree draped around her and sitting comfortably to play the veena. Everything about this painting says grace and simplicity at its best. It speaks volumes about the ancient tradition of women playing the veena in the king’s court. The way he has made the piece of saree on her shoulder appear slightly see through shows his great detailing and observation of even the material and texture of the saree. Her jewellery gives a royal element to the painting.

The absence of male figures in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings is an important aspect of his style as initially, it was obvious how distant the relationships of men and women were but in his paintings, the women yearning for their husbands establishes a new emotion which lacked in Indian paintings, longing.

Portrait of Tanjore Madhav Rao by Raja Ravi Verma

“Tanjore Madhava Rao” is a portrait Varma painted on multiple occasions using oil paints on a canvas. This painting has a focus mostly on expression. The way he added tiny details like his rings and earrings, his groomed moustache and shadow of the turban on his forehead portrays the European shading technique Jenson taught Varma. It was Madhava Rao who introduced Raja Ravi Varma to the rulers of Baroda when he was the Dewan and he also encouraged him to paint.

Influence on Indian Art:

“There Is No Failure. It’s Only Un-Finished Success.”

Raja Ravi Varma was one of the greatest painters in the history of Indian Arts. He brought Indian paintings to the attention of the larger world; provided a vital link between the traditional Indian art and contemporary art. Raja Ravi Varma is most remembered for his paintings of beautiful sari clad women, who were portrayed as very shapely and graceful.

During his time, oil painting was an absolutely new medium, not known by many but he still managed to successfully learn it and apply it in a way that it made into the books of art history.

After leaving behind his legacy, he passed away on October 2, 1906.

His influence on India was so large that many people continued his legacy, one of them being the inspiration for India’s largest selling comic book series, the Amar Chitra Katha! Even Bollywood took part in celebrating Varma’s life. Rang Rasiya is a film based on Raja Ravi Varma’s life starring Randeep Hooda. In 2008, a saree featured a reproduction of 11 of Varma’s paintings which entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive silk saree and its main highlight was the famous “Galaxy of Musicians” painting made by Varma.

He is considered as modern among traditionalists and a rationalist among moderns.

We wouldn’t say a mark but his technique has definitely left a large blob of paint on our hearts and whenever we see a painting with a fusion of two different styles, Varma’s legendary work will always be remembered.


By Manasi Telang

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