The royal artist

PRINCE AMONG PAINTERS: A self portrait by Ravi Varma.

PRINCE AMONG PAINTERS: A self portrait by Ravi Varma.  


The death centenary of Raja Ravi Varma, considered a pioneer among Indian painters, falls on October 2.

Raja Ravi Varma, considered one of the pioneers of Indian painting, played a significant role in highlighting the Indian ethos of painting, especially portraits, and brought Indian painting to the attention of the world. The royal artist's death centenary falls on October 2. When the six-year-old Ravi Varma's charcoal drawings on the palace walls, depicting animals and visuals of daily life, came to the notice of Raja Raja Varma, his uncle, the young boy was formally initiated into the art of drawing and he was given preliminary lessons in painting.


At the age of 14, on the initiative of Ayilyam Thirunal Maharaja of Travancore, Ravi Varma was sent to the palace to train in watercolour painting under Rama Swamy Naidu, the then palace painter. Three years later, he was trained in oil painting by a British artist Theodor Jenson. This had a deep influence on Ravi Varma, who was bowled over by the powerful expression and strokes of European paintings. This stewardship revolutionised his concept and approach towards painting. In 1873 Ravi Varma won the first prize at the Madras Painting Exhibition. Winning a prize in an exhibition in Vienna in the same year changed his artistic life, as he gained international recognition. Ravi Varma turned to Indian mythology for inspiration. Many of his paintings are based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But he also gave us glimpses of life in India at that time. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of subjects and experience, which was an eye-opener to him in shaping and sharpening his artistic outlook. During his stay in Mumbai, he drew several portraits of women from different backgrounds. Many characters in the epics were visualised by Ravi Varma who successfully identified dramatic moments in the stories, which were later expressed by him in vivid colours. Later, Ravi Varma was accused of poor taste by many art critics in India for using modern hues and oils in his paintings and for not adapting down-to-earth subjects. While some of them criticised the western influence in his paintings others mocked him for dispensing with the Mughal style of abstraction. In fact, it was Ravi Varma who built a vital link between traditional Indian art and contemporary art and between the Tanjore School and Western ideas. Interestingly, many of the critics had never seen any of his original works and most of the criticisms levelled against the painter were based on the widespread reproduction of his works as calendar prints and oleographs. The criticism, however, did not cast a shadow on his reputation as a painter or the popularity of his work, which was often considered an aesthetic blend of Indian traditions and European techniques. Simultaneously many, both in India and abroad, considered him as the pivotal artist of Indian painting and often described as the greatest artist of modern India, whose painting can be broadly classified as portrait-based compositions and theatrical compositions based on myths.

Change in hair style

The change in the coiffure of Mohiniyattam, made at Kerala Kalamandalam during 1960s, was inspired from Ravi Varma's paintings of Kerala women. Guru Sathyabhama initiated this change to refrain from imitating Bharatanatyam. During 1950s, Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair redesigned the costumes of the character Parasurama, which was approved by poet laureate Vallathol and other Kathakali scholars when he explained that the change was based on Ravi Varma's portrayals of Parasurama.Today Ravi Varma is considered a modern artist among the traditionalists and a rationalist among the traditional artists. He was a prince among painters and a painter among princes.

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