Ravi Varma and his Impact on Modern Indian Art

By: Badhari Raj

It is rare to witness individuals born into the ruling elite redirect their passions and professions elsewhere. Ravi Varma, however, defied this trend. Born into an aristocratic family with ties to the Travancore royal family, Ravi Varma’s artistic talents were recognized at an early age by his uncle, Bharani Thirunal Raja Raja Varma Koil Thampuran. Following aristocratic traditions, Ravi Varma received his education at the Palace. Yet, his uncle went beyond the customary curriculum and introduced him to the art of picture-making, particularly focusing on drawing. Raja Raja Varma became his tutor, sharing his knowledge to the best of his abilities.

It is worth noting that Raja Raja Varma, perceiving painting as merely a hobby, never anticipated his nephew pursuing it as a profession, as such a notion was deemed unthinkable for an aristocrat. Nevertheless, Ravi Varma’s early training significantly contributed to his development as a skilled draftsman. Subsequently, he embarked on a journey to Madurai to pursue further education in art under the guidance of professionals. His artistic career gained prominence after winning exhibitions in Vienna and Chicago, marking the beginning of Ravi Varma’s journey as an artist.

Upon returning home, Ravi Varma took up residence in a building owned by the Kilimanoor family, situated within the Fort’s boundaries, as instructed by Ayilyam Thirunal, the nephew of Swathi Thirunal and a fervent patron of the fine arts. Recognizing Ravi Varma’s talent, Ayilyam Thirunal expressed satisfaction and urged the young artist to immerse himself in the city’s artistic milieu. Ravi Varma was encouraged to study and replicate the paintings within the Palace, observe painters at work, and even experiment with oil painting based on his progress.

This marked the inception of Ravi Varma’s experimentation with the fusion of Indian art and European techniques. As a young enthusiast, he would spend considerable time contemplating the paintings adorning the walls of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, carefully analyzing their execution. This, coupled with exposure to European paintings, paved the way for uncharted territory in Indo-European art.

However, what distinguishes Ravi Varma’s art from the rest of the crowd? To answer this question, it is essential to understand Ravi Varma’s perception of art and the world. A deeply religious man, he drew inspiration from the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It didn’t take long for him to realize the scarcity of visual depictions of these Indian epics. For Ravi Varma, paintings evoked stronger memories of the epics than the written word itself. Through his art, he aimed to address the prevailing dearth of “bhakti” (devotion) in Indian society at that time.

Today, Ravi Varma’s paintings are revered and celebrated throughout India. They possess two distinct characteristics: first, the portrayal of Hindu goddesses in the form of Indian women, and second, the amalgamation of Western painting techniques with Indian depictions, as mentioned earlier. Ravi Varma skillfully merged European “academic” art with the iconic figures from Indian epics, a groundbreaking approach. This resonated deeply with the Indian masses, who, historically averse to cultural fusion, especially with European influences, found a profound connection with this style of art.

Despite their popularity, Ravi Varma’s paintings remained a luxury accessible only to royalty, out of reach for the common masses. This prompted Ravi Varma, with the assistance of Travancore’s then diwan, T Madhava Rao, to establish the “Ravi Varma Press” in 1899. The press primarily printed Ravi Varma’s paintings, making them more accessible to the common people and elevating his art’s popularity. Ravi Varma had a strong desire to share his art with the masses, aiming to educate and inspire them through captivating visuals that depicted India’s deep-rooted religious heritage. Additionally, he hoped that his artistic values would be embraced and improved upon over time.

Although the press encountered financial difficulties and was eventually sold to a German buyer in 1901, it continued to produce Ravi Varma’s paintings until the 1970s. By then, almost every Indian household and business displayed paintings of Ravi Varma’s goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi. To this day, numerous presses reproduce the works of this distinguished artist. Ravi Varma’s paintings find their way into calendars, magazines, and even adorn the walls of small temples in South India.

What led to the popularity of his paintings? Primarily, Ravi Varma was the first to visually popularize the Hindu epics. Prior to the arrival of the British and the printing press in India, these epics were predominantly known through written material and textbooks. Introducing a more visual representation contributed to their increased popularity, as it provided a new dimension to the society’s understanding of the epics.

Additionally, Ravi Varma centered his art around Indian women, who played significant roles in Hindu epics. In his paintings, he portrayed Indian women as goddesses. Even in his other artworks, common themes were depicted through women, enabling him to convey the diversity of India in terms of attire, customs, and way of life across geographical boundaries. Some of his most renowned paintings include “Goddess Kali,” “Goddess Lakshmi,” “The Gypsies of South India,” “At the Well,” “The Disappointing News,” and “The Bombay Singer.”

With his paintings becoming more accessible to the general public, an unexpected phenomenon occurred—his artworks began to be extensively used in advertisements. From a marketing perspective, it made sense. If gods and goddesses were revered as symbols of purity, incorporating Ravi Varma’s depictions of gods and goddesses allowed companies to promote their products as “perfectly pure.” For instance, British company Vinolia soap marketed their products as “pure” by featuring Goddess Saraswati on their calendars and soap covers.

Ravi Varma’s paintings were truly marvels of their time, and he is now regarded as the father of Indian Modern Art. However, with the evolution of art techniques and the advent of art and AI integration, some question the relevance of human creation in art. Presently, Ravi Varma’s paintings continue to occupy a unique position as luxury artworks that adorn the living rooms of households, accessible even to those who cannot afford them. They are still showcased in exhibitions, despite their widespread availability


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