Raja Ravi Varma

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Updated On September 20, 2023
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Raja Ravi Varma was a well-known Indian painter who had a significant impact on subsequent generations of Indian painters. Coming from a naturally creative family, pursuing a career in the arts was not an anomaly for young Varma, who was encouraged to pursue a career in painting by his uncle Raja Raja Varma. After receiving training from a number of professional artists, he established himself as a classic Indian painter, specializing in depicting scenes from Indian literature and epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. What set him apart from other painters of his generation was his ability to combine Indian tradition and European technique, thereby creating a new genre of painting in India. He depicted on canvas a variety of Indian folk and traditional art forms. At a time when India was seeking inspiration to break free from British rule, his dazzling oil paintings of India’s glorious past gained widespread popularity. His works have been exhibited in major exhibitions throughout the world, for which he has received numerous awards.

Childhood & Adolescence

Raja Ravi Varma was born on April 29, 1848, in the princely state of Kilimanoor, Kerala, to Umamba Thampuratti and Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad. While his mother was a professional poet and writer, his father was a scholar. Goda Varma, Raja Varma, and Mangala Bayi were his siblings.

Coming from a creative family of scholars, poets, and painters, it was only natural for young Varma to be endowed with artistic ability.

At the tender age of seven, he began to exhibit signs of artistic prowess. Whatever he encountered in his daily life, such as images of animals, everyday acts, and scenes, later adorned the walls of his home, expressing his creativity and artistic sensibility.

While his family despised young Varma’s behavior, it was his uncle, Raja Raja Varma, a Tanjore painter, who recognized his true potential and calling. He resolved to harness the young boy’s inventiveness in order to develop him into a skilled artist.

He received training and education in the arts with the assistance of his uncle and the ruling king, Ayilyam Thirunal. Additionally, his uncle gave him his first drawing lesson.

He moved to Thiruvananthapuram at the age of 14, where he was trained in water painting by Rama Swamy Naidu, the palace painter.

Later Years of Raja Ravi

In Thiruvananthapuram, he stayed at the Kilimanoor Palace’s Moodath Madam house. His talent was nurtured and developed at Kilimanoor Palace by Ayilyam Thirunal, who alternated between exposing him to famous Italian painters and Western artists.

Throughout, he eschewed conventional paints in favor of indigenous pigments derived from leaves, flowers, tree bark, and soil. He brought his first set of oil paints from Madras only after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper.

Oil painting was a novel medium at the time, and only one person in Travacore possessed knowledge of oil painting techniques, namely Ramaswamy Naicker of Madurai. However, he refused to teach Ravi Varma oil painting because he viewed him as a potential rival.

It was then that Arumugham Pillai, Naicker’s student, took it upon himself to teach him the nuances of oil painting, much to his teacher’s chagrin. This knowledge was then supplemented by additional information provided by Dutch portrait artist Theodor Jenson, who had traveled to India to paint Ayilyam Thirunal and his wife.

He eventually mastered the nuances of oil painting through trial and error, blending colors, mixing them in pliable medium, and smoothly manoeuvring through the strokes, allowing time for the color to dry.

Notably, his painted portrait of the royal couple, Ayilyam Thirunal and his wife, far surpassed the work of a Dutch artist, demonstrating his true artistry and inventiveness.

He did not confine his creativity to the teachings of Dutch painters or Arumugham Pillai’s tips, but was influenced by a variety of other factors, including veteran singers’ music, Kathakali dancers’ interpretations, and artistic interpretations of epics and manuscripts of ancient families.

Between 1870 and 1878, he painted several portraits of prominent Indian aristocrats and British officials, establishing a strong reputation as a portrait painter. What distinguished him from other painters was his sensitivity to the subject and the dexterity with which he executed it.

The year 1873 began a prosperous era in the career of this accomplished painter, who won first prize at the Madras Painting exhibition. This was only the beginning, as the following year, he won the coveted first prize at the Vienna exhibition, establishing himself as a world-renowned Indian painter.

His popularity soared to the point where his works were sent to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The majority of his works depict mythological characters from the epics as well as tales from religious texts and manuscripts. His early works exemplified the fundamental elements of Tanjore painting, which entails expressing feminine emotion on canvas.

Throughout his career, he did not confine his paintings to a single or two subjects, but rather traveled throughout India in search of subjects that piqued his interest. While episodes from religious texts inspired him greatly, he was also awestruck by the beauty of South Indian women.

The majority of his paintings depicted heartwarming subjects and events, such as ‘Nala Damayanti’, ‘Shantanu and Matsyagandha’, ‘Shantanu and Ganga’, ‘Radha and Madhava’, ‘Kamsa Maya’, ‘Shrikrishna and Devaki’, ‘Arjuna and Subhadra’, ‘Draupadi Vastraharan’

In 1894, with the goal of bringing Indians closer to art, he founded the Ravi Varma Pictures Depot, a lithography printing press for mass production of his paintings. He relocated the Press from Ghatkopar to Malavli, near Lonavala, five years later. His brother oversaw the majority of the press’s managerial functions. The press was sold to a German printing technician in 1901.

Awards and Accomplishments

In 1873, he began his career by winning an award in Vienna, where his paintings were exhibited. In 1893, he was awarded three gold medals for his work of art at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Viceroy Lord Curzon presented him with the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal in 1904 on behalf of the King Emperor.

Numerous schools, colleges, institutions, and cultural organizations bear his name, including Raja Ravi Varma High School in Kilimanoor, Kerala, and Raja Ravi Varma Fine Arts College in Mavelikara, Kerala.

Mercury’s crater was named in honor of this great Indian painter in 2013.

Personal History and Legacies

He married Pururuttathi Nal Bhageerathi, a member of the Mavelikara royal family. Five children were born to the couple, two sons and three daughters.

He died on October 5, 1906, in the village of Kilimanoor in the Travancore district. He was 58 years old when he died.

His family carried on his artistic ancestry. While his second son, Rama Varma, was an artist trained at the JJ School of Arts, his daughters inspired his paintings and carried on his artistic creativity through their offspring and grandchildren.

Due to his immense contribution to the field of art, the Government of Kerala established the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram, an annual award in his honor that is given to artists who have made significant contributions to the fields of art and culture.

Estimated Net Worth

The net worth of Raja Ravi is $12million.


Raja Ravi Varma’s fame had grown to such proportions that the small town of Kilimanoor was forced to establish a post office to handle the flood of letters requesting paintings from various parts of the country.