Modern Indian History-Events and Personalities

Raja Ravi Varma and his Arts


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Raja Ravi Varma

Mains level: Not Much

Raja Rai Varma’s Draupadi Vastraharan is expected to fetch between Rs 15 and Rs 20 crore at an auction.

Who was Raja Ravi Varma?

  • Raja Ravi Varma was born in April 1848 in Kilimanoor, Kerala, to a family which was very close to the royals of Travancore.
  • Often referred to as the father of modern Indian art, he is widely known for his realistic portrayal of Indian gods and goddesses.
  • While he majorly painted for the royalty, he is also credited for taking art to the masses with his prints and oleographs.
  • At a young age, he would draw animals and everyday scenes on the walls in indigenous colours made from natural materials such as leaves, flowers and soil.
  • His uncle, Raja Raja Varma, noticed this and encouraged his talent.
  • Patronised by Ayilyam Thirunal, the then ruler of Travancore, he learnt watercolour painting from the royal painter Ramaswamy Naidu, and later trained in oil painting from Dutch artist Theodore Jensen.

How he became an artist of the royals?

  • Varma became a much sought-after artist for the aristocrats and was commissioned several portraits in late 19th century.
  • Arguably, at one point, he became so popular that the Kilimanoor Palace in Kerala opened a post office due to the sheer number of painting requests that would come in for him.
  • He travelled across India extensively, for work and inspiration.

Fame as a notable painter

  • Following a portrait of Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda, he was commissioned 14 Puranic paintings for the Durbar Hall of the new Lakshmi Vilas Palace at Baroda.
  • Depicting Indian culture, Varma borrowed from episodes of Mahabharata and Ramayana for the same.
  • He also received patronage from numerous other rulers, including the Maharaja of Mysore and Maharaja of Udaipur.
  • As his popularity soared, the artist won an award for an exhibition of his paintings at Vienna in 1873.
  • He was also awarded three gold medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Nature of his artforms

  • Much of his celebrated art also borrows heavily from Indian mythology.
  • In fact, he is often credited with defining the images of Indian gods and goddesses through his relatable and more realistic portrayals often painted with humans as models.
  • The depictions include Lakshmi as the goddess of wealth, Saraswati as the goddess of knowledge and wisdom, and Lord Vishnu with his consorts, Maya and Lakshmi.

How he took Indian art to the masses?

  • Raja Ravi Varma aspired to take his art to the masses and the intent led him to open a Lithographic Press in Bombay in 1894.
  • The idea, reportedly, came from Sir T Madhava Rao, former Dewan of Travancore and later Baroda, in a letter where he pointed out to Varma that since it was impossible for him to meet the large demand for his work, it would be ideal for him to send some of his select works to Europe and have them produced as oleographs.
  • Varma, instead, chose to establish a printing press of his own.
  • The first picture printed at Varma’s press was reportedly The Birth of Shakuntala, followed by numerous mythological figures and saints such as Adi Shankaracharya.

Try this PYQ:

Q. There are only two known examples of cave paintings of the Gupta period in ancient India. One of these is paintings of Ajanta caves. Where is the other surviving example of Gupta paintings?


(a) Bagh caves

(b) Ellora caves

(c) Lomas Rishi cave

(d) Nasik caves


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