Raja Ravi Varma: The Master's Legacy Lives On

Tracing the artistic lineage of Raja Ravi Varma through works done by his brother C. Raja Raja Varma, his great, great granddaughter Rukmini Varma, an established artist and author, down to her son Jaygopal Varma, who practices portraiture like his legendary forefather.

Raja Ravi Varma's art, his eye for detail, spanning subjects and characterisation spawned a rich legacy, bringing to the fore a lot of contemporary artists of his era who followed his style to the hilt. His younger brother C. Raja Raja Varma was an equally talented artist who remained in his illustrious sibling's shadow.

Photograph of C. Raja Raja Varma (1890-05) by C Raja Raja VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

C. Raja Raja Varma

"C. Raja Raja Varma's name and art are only narrowly known within the confines of art historians dealing with modern Indian art," writes Erwin Neumayer in the introduction of his book which is a compilation of diary entries made by the younger Varma sibling. 

Raja Varma was not just Ravi Varma's youngest brother and 'Man Friday', he was also his most trusted assistant. A brilliant artist himself, largely taught by his older sibling, Raja Varma won several awards for his work; yet he chose to remain in his brother's shadow, his faithful lieutenant, often sacrificing his moment in the limelight.

As recorded by Professor Partha Mitter in the foreward for Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger's 'Raja Ravi Varma: Portrait of an Artist, The Diary of C Raja Raja Varma', "In 1895, Ravi Varma set up his studio in Bombay with his brother C. Raja Raja Varma, as a business enterprise fashioned on the practice of European Academic Artists. Raja, the younger brother by several years, became his constant companion, collaborator, and amanuensis, as they built up a lucrative practice. Contrary to the myth of Ravi Varma's lonely eminence, the diary reveals their portrait practice as a collaborative enterprise."

Mitter later adds in his Forward "While Ravi Varma concentrated on mythological pictures, Raja captured landscapes when he was not assisting his brother with portraits. The brothers undertook several paintings simultaneously, the studio resembling that of a European portraitist with three or four paintings at different stages of completion. As a portrait was delivered to a client, Raja would write to another about a further commission. Some of their time was spent on altering or making copies of their own pictures, again something that was part of a European painter's daily routine."

Bandi Balaiah Naidu (1904-05) by C Raja Raja VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

A Portrait of Bandi Balaiah Naidu

"Less known is the fact that a good deal of portrait work attributed to Ravi Varma from the period 1880 onwards is the joint work of both the Varma brothers, although a few works are signed by both the Varma brother," Erwin Neumayer.

"He carried the burden of his famous brother's artistic enterprises, and after 'serious painting', as he describes the drudgery of painting backgrounds and decorative props in his brother's portrait commissions, was in search of artistic expression in his own landscape paintings.

Baby & Princess (1877-05) by C Raja Raja VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Raja Varma searched all his life for a better technique to express subtle nuances in light and feeling. He also understood his limitations in painting figures and spoke of the completion of paintings of figurative subjects like a victory. 

C Raja Raja Varma

He did some accomplished paintings of women, which radiate the eroticism so much sought after in European paintings. One wonders if he had lived longer, to proceed on his own path, he would have become the founder of a school of open-air painting tradition. 

"C Raja Raja Varma lived too short and too close in the shadow of his overwhelmingly famous brother to create an impact on Indian society in his own name. However, he can be considered one of the most influential art personalities, working quietly on his brother's projects. His recognition as an independent artist is long overdue," - Erwin Neumayer.

Two generations after C Raja Raja Varma, the artistic legacy of Ravi Varma is being carried forward by his great, great grand daughter Rukmini Varma and her son Jaygopal Varma who continue to paint in the style of their legendary forefather even today.

Rukmini Varma (2012-05) by Rukmini VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Rukmini Varma

The great, great granddaughter of Ravi Varma, Rukmini Varma was born Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran. An accomplished and versatile artist, Rukmini Varma not only paints, but is also an author and a popular speaker.

Rukmini Varma grew up listening to inspiring stories of her great, great grandfather from her grandmother Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. Inspired by those stories and the impressions created by 'artist appupan's (grandfather in Malayalam) work' she has gone on to carve a niche for herself in the art world.

Damayanti And Hamsam (1899-04) by Raja Ravi VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Damayanti And Hamsam

"Ravi Varma was acquainted with the story from the primary source, the Mahabharata, but he was equally familiar with its adaptation into the secondary source, the Attakatha, with the performing Kathakali version as well," Rupika Chawla. 

The Attakatha is here being used to qualify the Nala-Damayanti series as painted by Ravi Varma. There are several Damayanti painting, four of which form a linear narrative that belong to diverse collections and were painted at different periods of time.

Damyanti is considered the noblest heroine painted in Indian literature and a "jewel among beauties". Kalidasa was the first poet to adopt the theme of a non-human messenger as the link between two separated lovers. 

In Damayanti and Hamsam, a painting immortalised by Ravi Varma, the woman and the bird exchange confidence. It is obvious Ravi Varma has tried to imbibe the same beauty that has been conveyed by the literary source.

Nala & Damayanti (1987-05) by Rukmini VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Nala and Damayanti

Rukmini Varma follows her great, great grandfather's style with her own portrayal of Nala and Damayanti. Painted in the late 1970s, this work is modern and less interpretative of the style in which Ravi Varma depicted the scene.

Rukmini Varma says she has 'visions' of her characters before she paints them. Hence her subjects are more structurally enhanced than the human forms painted by her forefather. "I am telling the story through different, yet familiar imagery," she explains.

Notice the similarities in composition - the human figures, a swan, a lotus plant and a pillar, so similar to those in the painting done by Ravi Varma. Yet the treatment and colouration of all these items are different and uniquely personal.

While the focus of Rukmini's work is her characters, she follows the same gesso techniques used by Ravi Varma to paint jewellery. "Thats the only way to give a 3D effect to jewellery," she explains, adding that it's kind of a 'Varma' trait.

Ravana Carryiing Off Sita Opposed By Jatayu, Raja Ravi Varma, 1906-05, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Jatayu Vadam, Rukmini Varma, 1986-05, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Rukmini Varma grew into an artist in her own right, achieving fame by the 1960s and 1970s internationally, with exhibitions in Europe and the United Kingdom. The Ravi Varma style was maintained, and the same themes were given a fresh interpretation by Rukmini Varma—a comparison of Ravi Varma Jatayu Vadham (1906) with Rukmini Varma’s Jatayu Vadham (1980s), evokes both striking similarities in style but also distinct perspectives and interpretations.

Jay Varma (2012-05) by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Jaygopal Varma

Rukmini Varma's second son carries forward the legacy of Ravi Varma. Supremely skilled, Jay (as he is referred to) has moved on from sketching with pencils and coloured pencils to oils and is also an excellent photographer, which shows in his eye for detail. 

In 1870, the very first commissioned work of art finished by the celebrated Raja Ravi Varma was a family portrait in Malabar. It was a relatively sedate affair, with a subdued palette, and only a few bursts of gold adding richness to the canvas. But it set Ravi Varma off on an altogether new path, and a hugely rewarding journey with his brush. It was the beginning of the legend of Ravi Varma.

Now, 150 years later, his descendant and the custodian of his artistic legacy, Jaygopal Varma, not just a painter of talent but also fourth in line to the title of Maharajah of Travancore, begins his own professional journey as an artist through a family portrait.

There is more than irony in this moment: Ravi Varma, mysteriously, never received a commission from the Nizam's court of Hyderabad—a situation now corrected as his lineal heir produces a portrait of a scion not only of the Bhopal and Pataudi royal houses, but also of the Paigah family who were Prime Ministers to the Nizam.

Jung Family Portrait (2020-05) by Jay VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

The Jung Family Portrait

The subjects and the portraitist represent a link between an old world of aristocracy with noble heritage, and the present world of the 21st century; a world of high culture and entrepreneurship, as exemplified by the lady, who has built from the scratch a successful business.

Different, Yet Similar

Jay’s work is a confluence of differences and similarities when juxtaposed alongside that of his illustrious ancestor. While Ravi Varma worked with a palette of a little over a dozen colours, Jay’s use of colour is far richer and a lot more vivid, producing a very unique effect.

Maintaining A Keen Balance

While Jay retains Ravi Varma’s command over drapery and the flow of fabric, a keen focus is brought to details of the attire, though bearing in mind a balance so as not to overwhelm the viewer. 

Emphasis To Detail

Nawabzada Omer Bin Jung’s 85 year old brocade Shervani is exquisitely rendered, whereas the emphasis on Begum Anjum Jung’s traditional Sari lies in its rich red flows and folds of the chiffon fabric. 

Bringing Out The Finest Details

Close attention is paid to other details: the hands of each member in the portrait are skilfully executed—in the case of the ladies, the play of jewellery against skin is emphasied, while the hand of the patriarch grasping the sword shows every vein and nail carefully painted. 

Painting Portraits in Ravi Varma style

So too the shine of the marble flooring, the folds in the son Ayaan Jung’s churidar as well as his shoes, and the embroidery on Zara Jung’s flowing skirt—there is a constant balance of detail against the overall impact of the painting. 

This portrait is in many ways a special canvas in what it communicates: the clothes, jewellery, sword, all hint at history and tradition; at a way of life, very few remnants of which survive today. But in the poses of the family members—relaxed and regal all at once, highlighted in the way the children are seated, and in the smiling parents—there is a lovely contemporary quality. It brings together family emotions and warmth with dynastic heritage and legacy.

This work is a very twenty-first century oil painting executed in the academic style of longstanding tradition. The fact that it is done by a royal twenty-first century direct descendant of a nineteenth-century master artist from Travancore, trained in the USA, combines the subjects, who are royalties of three states—Hyderabad, Bhopal and Pataudi—with the artist’s own legacy.

Father & Son, Jay Varma, 2012-05, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Portrait of A Girl, Jay Varma, 2012-05, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Pillars Within, Jay Varma, 2000-05, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Jaygopal Varma began his artistic career making pencil sketches of his friends and family. His work titled 'Pillars Within' has been done with coloured pencils only and won him an award from the Colored Pencils Society of America.

Nala and Damayanti’s story has animated Indian artists across ages. Raja Ravi Varma not only painted Damayanti receiving Nala’s swan-messenger, but also the scene where he tragically abandons his wife. Now, Ravi Varma’s great-great-great grandson revisits this theme with his own brush, this time focussing on Damayanti, who wakes up in the wilderness and finds her husband gone.

Damayanti Abandoned In The Forest (1894-05) by Raja Ravi VarmaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Damayanti Abandoned In The Forest

This painting by Ravi Varma is another iconic depiction of the Nala-Damayanti story that the artist was so well versed with. He was aware that his patrons would understand his artistic liberties since they too were equally aware, and fond of the story. 

Ravi Varma was a passionate and obsessive painter of feminine beauty. His handling of this and other paintings made of Damayanti is therefore deliberate, making it clear that the dynamics of conversation from a literary source to a visual medium follow their own logic.

In this painting Varma anticipates the next move in this drama and prolongs the suspense by painting a snake at the bottom right near her foot. After a complex series of peripeteia the nightmare ends for Nala and Damayanti and they happily return to their kingdom and children.

Damayanti By The River (2019-05) by Jay VarmaOriginal Source: https://bit.ly/3c9kja1

Damayanti By The River

The forest is visible in the background as Damayanti leans on a lakeside tree in Jay Varma’s magnificent canvas, and unlike the distressed, sari-clad damsel painted by his ancestor, here Damayanti is more earthy and stoic. 

Drawing Parallels

Jay draws not only on his legacy as a descendant of Ravi Varma in revisiting this story, but also his Malayali heritage as a member of the former royal family of Travancore: the torn cloth with which Damayanti covers herself resembles the mundu of the Malayali woman.

The Art Of Realism

Shadows, the sunlight gleaming off the back of the deer, the glimmer of the water, the hues and shades of Damayanti’s skin, even the patterns that make up the bark of the tree come together in an exquisite visual representation, where this epic heroine almost seems to breathe. 

Keeping The Legacy Alive

This painting is unique not only on account of its theme, but also due to one final detail: even the model for Damayanti is a member of the House of Travancore, who in a different age would herself have been, like the epic heroine, a royal princess.

Five generations separate Jay from his illustrious ancestor, but the talent for art has continued in the Varma clan.

Credits: Story

Research & Content: Manu S Pillai
Curation: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
References: Rupika Chawla 'Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India', Erwin Neumayer & Christine Schelberger 'Raja Ravi Varma: Portrait of an Artist, The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma'
Images: From the collection of Rukmini Varma, Jaygopal Varma and other Private Collections

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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