This is the story of Raja Ravi Varma and his paintings.
‘Raja’ in India is the title of a king. Raja Ravi Varma though was not a king. But his works of art were so popular that the Britishers honoured him with the title of Raja. Raja Ravi Varma has been the face of Indian art all over the globe for centuries now. He had a massive impact on the popularising of painting in India. So much so, that most of the present-day images of mythological figures and deities are inspired by Ravi Verma’s interpretation of them.
Ravi Varma was born into a well-to-do family in the princely state of Travancore, Kerala. His family was not royal but was still considered so. The reason for this was their many men married the princess of the Travancore royal family. Growing up, Ravi got all the right resources that would lead him to become a great painter.
His mother was a poet and appreciated his love for paintings. With deep connections to the Royal family, Ravi also visited the royal palace often. The royal palace was full of great paintings from all over India and the countries afar. The Britishers gifted many European paintings to the Kings of India. Ravi Varma was influenced by these paintings and the European style of painting.
It was in the courtyards of this palace where Ravi started learning painting formally. His teacher was no one other than the Maharaja or the King himself. He then went on to learn more about it in Madurai. He learned water painting by Rama Swami Naidu. And finally, learned about oil painting by Dutch royal portraitist Theodore Jenson.
Raja Ravi Varma’s initial works were inspired by the likes of Peter Paul Rubens and Joshua Reynolds. One could see the use of highlighted red colour throughout these three painters’ works. But Ravi also wanted to Indianise this style of Painting. He wanted the masses of India to be introduced to the beauty of oil paintings.
Ravi decided to take oil painting into the households of common India. Hence he moved to Bombay in 1894. Here he opened a lithography press. Here he used oil painting skills to depict the God and Goddesses of Hindu beliefs. He also depicted many popular mythological creatures and characters of Indian mythology. This made him a very popular name in India. And with time, even the colonizers started appreciating his work. Some even took his paintings back to Great Britain.
Art takes courage to remain true. Many of Ravi Varma’s works were controversial and ahead of their time in India. But he never once shied from representing unfiltered truth in his works. More than the skills of oil painting, his courage inspired future painters. In the coming years, artists from all over the field were courageous enough to reflect on such sensitive topics.
Beauty lies in the beholder’s eye. Hence art appreciation is always very personal. So whenever an artist is able to captivate the masses, he unquestionably is beyond great. And Raja Ravi Varma managed to do so in a populous and diverse country like India. This just goes on to show the power of art and artists to bring different people together. Art has a language of its own.