The Life of Raja Ravi Varma: years 1848-1885

Commemorating 150 years of the artist's career, this is the first part of a biography written by the great-great grand daughter of the artist, Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi.

By The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi

Rama's archery training (Circa 1898) by Ravi Varma Press and Raja Ravi VarmaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Kshatriya blood traditionally achieved territorial conquest through the might of arms – but Ravi Varma, the Painter-Prince’s conquest was of a vastly different dimension – it was of the human heart and aesthetic perception though the might of his brush.

Portrait Study by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of DAG- New Delhi, Mumbai, New York.

Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran, later to be famous as ‘Raja Ravi Varma,’ hailed from Kilimanoor Palace in rural Kilimanoor, falling in the domain of the erstwhile State of Travancore in South India. On many fronts this aristocracy had distinguished itself in the local historical orbit, but with Ravi Varma, Kilimanoor gained for itself national and international exposure. Kilimanoor is a little town holding hands with rural enchantment and is located 40 kilometers north of the capital city of Thiruvanthapuram.

Like many of its geographical counterparts, Kilimanoor also possessed its own aristocracy, comprising Kshatriyas of the Koil Thampuran sub-caste who descended from the Tattari Kovilakam of Bejpore (near Kozhikode). This large family of ancient blood line had much to be proud of, as among its children, were scholars, artists and outstanding warriors, fearless and dedicated, who fought and, in certain instances, died fighting for the Travancore royalty. The inscription at the base of the peepal tree reads that it was planted in 1728 to commemorate the founding of the fief of Kilimanoor covering approximately 17 square miles, by a grateful Marthanda Varma, Maharaja of Travancore.

The close matrimonial ties between the Travancore royal family and the house of Kilimanoor spans centuries and continues to this day. It may be mentioned that the horse is the emblem of the Kilimanoor palace and the vehicle on which the family deity Sree Dharma Sasta rides.

Photograph of Raja Ravi Varma (Circa 1904) by UnknownThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

It is no surprise then, that into this illustrious tradition such a ‘gem of purest ray serene’ was born. This boy’s birth was on the 29th of April, 1848 (Malayalam month Medon) under the asterism Pooruruttathi. The seniors bestowed on him the name “Ravi Varma”. In this case the choice of ‘Ravi’ which equates with the sun, though unintentional, was to prove prophetic.

Bharani Nal Raja Raja Varma by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

Rohini Thirunal Amma Thampuran (1792-1849) appears as the first recorded artist of the Kilimanoor Palace. Her elder sister’s son Bharani Thirunal Raja Raji Varma Koil Thampuran was keenly interested in drawing.

He had the additional advantage of royal patronage and with passing summers became a good artist largely favoring the Tanjore School. On him rested the distinction of initiating Ravi Varma into the rainbow world of lines and colours.

Raja Raja Varma, the artist, detected signs of a possible genius in Ravi Varma. In accordance with aristocratic tradition, Ravi Varma was educated at the Palace, but his uncle added picture-making too, with special thrust on drawing, to his curriculum. Acknowledging and appreciating the blossoming youthful talent in his nephew, Raja Raja Varma tutored him to the best of his ability. This was somewhat restricted in nature as painting was only a hobby for Raja Raja Varma, who did not expect more from his nephew, as it was unthinkable for a member of the aristocracy to take to a profession. However, his early training contributed much to making Ravi Varma to a fine draughtsman.

Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma (1892) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Ravi Varma was thirteen when he made his maiden entry into the Travancore royal court which was located within the Fort area and neighbored the far-famed Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple to which the Travancore dynasty was ever bound. As the hub of scholarship and artistic activity, this Court was already in the limelight, especially from the Swathi age.

It was Swathi Thirunal’s nephew, Ayilyam Thirunal who sat on the throne at that time, and he too, was an enlightened patron of fine arts. He was much pleased with this young talent and directed that the lad live in the city to study and copy the pictures in the Palace, observe the painters at work and perhaps even try his hand at oils, depending on his progress. So Ravi Varma started to stay in a building belonging to the Kilimanoor family within the confines of the Fort.

A Study of a Temple Sculpture by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of DAG- New Delhi, Mumbai, New York.

The young boy wandered through a wonder-world, gazing at and absorbing the products of artists in the Palace and on the walls of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple and closely observing their execution.

The European paintings, especially reproductions of Italian masters, with their three-dimensional quality and impression of depth, treatment of composition, muted play of light and shade, were all indeed a novel experience to him. They stood in striking contrast to the murals he was familiar with, and opened up other green pastures and vistas, new to his deeply artistic soul.

All the moral support he got during that bleak period was the occasional advice of Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal, to the effect that perseverance was the best Guru (preceptor).

One day, driven by despair, he approached the Palace artist Ramaswamy Naidoo to teach him, even if in compromise, but drew a blank there. Naidoo was more under the patronage of Prince Vishaghom Thirunal Rama Varma, the younger brother of the King. The relationship between the two royal brothers was not too cordial. That reason apart, the senior artist had real cause to fear that one day this gifted boy would become his rival.

The Self Portrait Sketch of Raja Ravi Varma by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

Naidoo’s refusal added fuel to the fire of Ravi Varma’s trauma, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise. His belief in God and destiny became all the more unwavering and this side of his character kept stern troth with him all through his colourful life.

Naidoo’s apprentice, Arumughom Pillai, was moved by the helplessness of the boy, and he also appreciated his determination to somehow gain entry into the veiled areas of refined art. He offered to initiate the young man into the intricacies of oils and new techniques but had to exercise extreme caution for fear of what could happen, if found out.

As such, the lessons were in secrecy at Ravi Varma’s residence at night.

Pooruruttathi Thirunal Mahaprabha Amma Thampuran by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

In the year 1866, at the young age of eighteen, Ravi Varma married Pooruruttathi Thirunal Mahaprabha Thampuratty of Mavelikkara Palace in Central Travancore. Like Kilimanoor, Mavelikkara too stood tall on the pedestal of Kerala’s culture, especially literature. This branch was closely related to the ruling House of Travancore by adoption, as time and again, young girls had been adopted from that Palace by Travancore.

Ravi Varma’s domestic life was more or less smooth, except that his long, frequent absences from his wife’s Palace were naturally not welcomed by her. Even soon after his marriage, he was back in Thiruvanthapuram (Trivandrum) to resume his tireless attempts to acquire more proficiency in his chosen field.

Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran (1880) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

A significant event in his life was when he was gifted with a box of oil colours for the first time by Kerala Varma Koil Thampuran (of Ananthapuram Palace, Haripad), the famous Malayalam litterateur, who was the consort to the Rani Lakshmi Bayi. Rani Lakshmi Bayi was Ravi Varma’s sister-in-law, who was adopted into the Travancore dynasty.

A Sketch of a Young Math Student by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of DAG- New Delhi, Mumbai, New York.

An evaluation of Sri E.M.J. Venniyoor, a competent and accepted art critic, is being presented here:

“The struggle at self-instruction lasted nine years. By the simple expedient of trial and error Ravi Varma learnt the technique of mixing colours. He could evoke a likeness without effort, could compose and construct with a sense of balance, and, for the first time in the annals of Indian Art, mastered and introduced the principle of perspective. What really sustained him during these years was his will to break through and excel and an abiding faith in divine grace.”

But “to be or not to be” was the question which haunted him – whether he should break the precedent of the State’s nobility and make a career of art, or whether it should simply be a pastime that he enjoyed.

The Kizakke Palat Krishna Menon Family (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

It was not easy either for a commercial artist to be favored by fortune and to gain social equality. Yet, backed by royal encouragement, he decided to venture forth. Prior to that, for forty one days he stayed at the famed Sree Mookambika Temple in Kollur, in Karnataka, seeking the blessings of the Goddess of learning and arts. The Goddess was quick in the dispensation of Her favours.

On his return trip, his first paid commission sought him out. It was a family portrait of Kizakke Palat Krishnan Menon, Sub-Judge of the Calicut Court. The year was 1870.

The Maharaja of Travancore welcoming the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1881) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Saffronart, Mumbai

Ravi Varma remained as a trusted courtier of Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal, till his demise on 30th May, 1880. The King, a highly cultured person himself, had played a large part in shaping the artist and his career, as also in opening the portals of high repute for him.

However, with the passing away of this Maharaja, patronage of the royal court came to a halt, as the successive Maharaja, Vishaghom Thirunal’s relationship with his brothers protégée, unfortunately, were not very amicable. The new ruler was himself a patron of arts and could put to use a dynamic pen. Though the climate had changed, during the initial years of his regime, fairly cordial contact was kept with the artist.

Sita Bhumi Pravesh (1880) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Royal Gaekwad Collection, Lukshmi Vilas Palace, Baroda

The King suggested that Ravi Varma paint ‘Sita Bhumi Pravesh’ (Sita’s returns to the bosom of mother earth), and another painting was ready for national recognition. It finally reached the Baroda palace through the effort of Sri T. Madhav Rao, Ex-Dewan of Travancore, who had then appointed as Regent of Baroda. It created a sensation there, due to dual merit – the theme, along with all that it implied and the exemplary execution of the work; and it delighted its new owner, the Maharaja of Baroda.

By then, owing to the turn of circumstances which created some displeasure at the Court of Tranvancore, Ravi Varma left, not to set foot there again during the short but eventful rulership of Vishaghom Thirunal.

Sir Thanjavur Madhava Row (1881) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Royal Gaekwad Collection, Lukshmi Vilas Palace, Baroda

Ravi Varma hoped that portraying the themes from the ancient texts and classics would be an answer to the artistic apathy and religious void that existed all over India, and also a replacement for the crude and at times even distorted products, available then. He believed that this was a national need.

Sir T. Madhav Rao, his long term well wisher, wrote to him that he should consider to oleograph select pictures to meet the growing demand for his works. Still, a decade had to pass by, before he could make this suggestion materialize.

Dancing Girl by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

Ravi Varma sketched a whole panorama, motifs from the Puranas and the classics, ordinary men and women from divergent backdrops, a singing gypsy, a barber at work, a Tamil lady giving alms, a Muslim at prayer, and a musician with sitar, street dancers, a camel driver, animals, birds and landscapes.

His love for life, in its multitudinous forms and beauty he saw unfolding everywhere, stand reflected in his countless sketches. He would cherish these impressions within his sensitive heart, till such time that he felt they were ready to be transmitted on a medium.

Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma (1891) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Sree Vishaghom Thirunal expired in 1885 after a brief but noteworthy reign and Sree Moolam Thirunal who succeeded him, reinstated at the court as the Palace artist.

Credits: Story

The biography is in three segments. This is the first segment.

You may continue reading the second segment of the biography at:

Part 2

The third segment is

Part 3


This biography is written by Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, the great-great grand daughter of Raja Ravi Varma. Distinguishing her is that she is the author of 12 books including The Dawn (1994), Kerala Temple Architecture: Some Notable Features (1997), Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple (1998), Thulsi Garland (1998), The Mighty Indian Experience (2002), Glimpses of Kerala Culture (2011), Rudrakshamala (2014) and An Amateur's Attempt at Poetry (2018).

Image Rights Reserved by the respective contributors.

Compiled by The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation, Bengaluru.

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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