Raja Ravi Varma (Trivandrum, April 29, 1848) was an Indian painter, born under British rule, in the princely state of Travancore, now in Kerala. He is considered a great painter for Indian art and an artist of academic reputation internationally, for having promoted a pictorial integration between Indian traditions and European techniques, became famous thanks to his works representing topical events in the literature of his country, especially the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Varma also made portraits of women wearing saris, which are still reproduced today and can be found in many mansions and homes.
Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran was born in Kilimanoor Palace, to Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad, an accomplished scholar, and the poet and writer Umayamba, whose writings were published posthumously in the collection Parvati Swayamvaram by Varma. He had three brothers, Goda in 1854, Raja (C. Raja Raja Varma) in 1860, and Mangala Bayi, who were also painters. As per Marumakkathayam tradition, his maternal uncle”s name (Raja Raja Varma) was put before his own thus being referred to as Raja Ravi Varma.
Varma was in the employ of Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal before beginning his formal education. He learned the first procedures on painting in Madurai. He was later a disciple of Rama Swami Naidu, who trained him in watercolor, and of the Dutch portrait painter Theodor Jenson in oil painting.
Varma received wide acclaim after winning a prize for an exhibition of his work in Vienna in 1873. Paintings by Varma were also taken to the Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where he won three gold medals.
He traveled around his country looking for subjects. He took local South Indian women as models to paint his Hindu goddesses.
Varma married Pururuttathi Nal Bhageerathi of the Royal House of Mavelikkara, by whom he had five children; two boys and three girls. Their firstborn, Kerala Varma, who was born in 1876, mysteriously disappeared in 1912. Their second son, Rama Varma, born in 1879, studied art at the J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai, and later married Gowri Kunjamma, sister of Dewan P.G.N. Unnithan.Ayilyam Nal Mahaprabha, the eldest daughter, who appears in two famous paintings of her father, was the mother of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and grandmother of Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. Ayilyam Nal Cheria Kochamma, the third born daughter in 1882, was another important personality of the local aristocracy.
He started, on the advice of Dewan Madav Rao, a lithographic printing business in 1894 in Ghatkopar, now a suburb of Mumbai, then moved to Malavli in Maharashtra in 1899. The house was run by Varma”s brother, Raja Varma. In 1901 it was sold to the company”s in-house German technician, Mr. Schleizer, who terminated it due to his death from an incendiary accident. The main themes of the oleographs were mostly scenes from the Mahābhārata, Ramayana, and Purāṇa; they became iconic and continued to be printed after Varma”s death for many years.
In 1904, Viceroy George Curzon, on behalf of the emperor, awarded Varma the “Kaiser-i-Hind” Gold Medal.
A College of Fine Arts in Mavelikkara was also dedicated to him. To this day, several institutions in the country are named after him. In 2013, a crater on Mercury was named after him. The Government of Kerala has instituted the “Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram”, an award given annually to personalities from the world of art and entertainment.
Ravi Varma is particularly known for bringing the stories told in the Mahābhārata to canvas. His mythical depictions helped to introduce and identify India”s epic heritage. Although he was subjected to criticism for his style, his work remains popular in India to this day. Many of his fabulous paintings are preserved at the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, where he was a longtime resident.