Kerala & Guercino: Raja Ravi Varma & the Italian Master

Raja Ravi Varma is unquestionably the most celebrated academic artist of colonial India. But above all, he was the first modern artist in the subcontinent and indeed created the image of the modern artist in India

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

This exhibit is adapted from the lecture ‘Kerala & Guercino’ by Prof. Partha Mitter presented for Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.

Portrait of RRV (1910) by Rama VarmaOriginal Source: Kerala Museum, Kochi

Raja Ravi Varma

The artist's life is an object lesson in how he systematically, and in stages, constructed his self-image as a fashionable painter. However, his professional image was created not solely by him, but at later stages with the partnership of his younger brother Raja Raja Varma.

Raja Ravi Varma (2018-03-10) by Rukmini VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Ravi Varma was, of course, in the mould of a fashionable and thoroughly professional Victorian artist. 

Let us examine how he achieves this in stages against the background of the High Noon of Empire.

Raja Ravi Varma (2018-03-10) by Rukmini VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

First let’s try and place Ravi Varma in the context of his time, which helps explain his meteoric rise. We will single out certain events in his life to explain how, in stages, he created his ideal beauty. 

Portrait of RRV (1910) by Rama VarmaOriginal Source: Kerala Museum, Kochi

Professor Partha Mitter has called him one of India's first ‘gentlemen artists’.  What does he mean?

Related to the Travancore royal family, he already enjoyed a high status, as did another aristocrat, Abanindranath Tagore

Portrait of RRV, Rama Varma, 1910, Original Source: Kerala Museum, Kochi
Abanindranath Tagore painting while smoking Hooka, Gaganendranath Tagore, From the collection of: Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
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Portraits of Raja Ravi Varma from Travancore and Abanindranath Tagore from Calcutta

C. Raja Raja Varma (1895) by UnknownOriginal Source: Private Collection

Varma, like Tagore, belonged to a new class of artists who claimed a higher independent status by asserting their individualism. In this sense, he and his brother C. Raja Raja Varma were similar in status to many artists of the period.  

Traditional court artists like Ramaswamy Naidu held a low artisan status in the courts and were entirely dependent on the Maharajas. Unlike them, Varma turned to Indian cities for patronage. His move to Bombay, away from the domination of the Travancore court, was crucial in this. Bombay, like Madras and Calcutta, held annual art exhibitions that helped the brothers propel their careers forward.

Tara Bai Old (1880) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara

The Old and the New

This painting of Princess Tarabai is done in Raja Ravi Varma's old style, reminiscent of Tanjore style paintings. 

The highlight of the painting is the subject's prominent jewellery and a static expression. Like Tanjore, the painting doesn't reflect emotion.

Maharani Chimnabai II (1889) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara, India

In this painting of Maharani Chimna Bai, his work had undergone total transformation. 

Notice the careful modelling of the face, capturing the shy beauty of a young bride, the glow of soft and graceful form, complemented by the textures of her brocade sari and velvet background.

What a world of difference!

This change in Ravi Varma's style and technique of painting led ultimately to one of the finest academic portraits of Victorian India being created.

Maharashtrian Lady (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

Portraits in Victorian Style

In time, Varma rose to be the most important, if not the only Indian fashionable portrait painter, prized as much by the Raj as by Indian aristocracy.

The Gamekeeper's Daughter (1880-12) by Valentine Cameron PrinsepRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

The Gamekeeper's Daughter by Valentine Cameron Princep

Princep, a British artist born in Calcutta, painted during the same period as Raja Ravi Varma, and was a popular court painter in India.

Prinsep was not only a popular artist but also well connected owing to his father Henry Thoby Prinsep's service in the British Raj.

Varma ended the monopoly of these visiting European painters like Prinsep and Theodore Jensen with his superior artistic skills.

So how did Ravi Varma achieve his phenomenal success? He didn’t leave it entirely to fate. The young Varma very quickly found out that the most successful profession was portraiture. First, he decided to tap into his family connections.

British governors and native rulers had social links with the Travancore family, and the British had enrolled Ravi Varma in the exclusive club of Freemasons. He started painting the provincial governors and Maharajas, notably the Gaekwad of Baroda.

Maharaja Sayajirao III At His Investiture, Raja Ravi Varma, 1882, Original Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara
Portrait of Sayajirao Gaekwad III, Maharaja of Baroda (r. 1875-1939) (1863-1939), H. & B. Narain, c. 1900, From the collection of: Royal Ontario Museum
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A comparison between two portraits of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, one painted by Raja Ravi Varma and the other by H. & B. Narain.

Following on from his success with the portraits of the Baroda family, he moved to Bombay where he set up a highly professional studio. Realising the amount of work, he invited his younger brother C. Raja Raja Varma to join him as a partner. Astute entrepreneurs, they organised their studio with business-like efficiency. Engaging agents to secure commissions, they travelled the length and breadth of the country in fulfilling portrait commissions.

Ravi Varma's Studio in Kilimanoor (2018-09-30) by Jay VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Kilimanoor and Ravi Varma's Studio

A view of the Kilimanoor palace and Ravi Varma's studio

The entrance to Ravi Varma's studio where he spent most of his time from dawn to dusk.

Ravi Varma's Room in Kilimanoor (2018-09-30) by Jay VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

An inside view of Ravi Varma's studio, which has now been renovated.

C. Raja Raja Varma (1895) by UnknownOriginal Source: Private Collection

His younger brother Raja Varma’s diary, the very first Indian artist to keep a diary, relates the fascinating story of their travels throughout India in fulfilment of commissions, and the difficulties faced by them. 

Raja Ravi Varma In His Studio (1901) by UnknownRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

After spending his full day painting in the studio, Ravi Varma would 'unwind' by listening to epics and stories from mythology.

By the end of the 19th century, Ravi Varma had built up a lucrative profession as a fashionable portrait painter, visiting Baroda, Ahmedabad, Udaipur and Hyderabad, and other regions as well, including the colonial cities of Bombay and Madras.

Arjuna Subhadra (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

The Lasting Frame

Ravi Varma’s lasting fame rests on his history painting, adapting Victorian salon art to bring to life ancient Indian epics and the Puranas, and literary classics such as Kalidasa. They combined melodrama with moral lessons.

He engaged a traditional reciter to go through the classics to find appropriate stories. Among these stories, he chose themes that stirred emotions and demanded reactions from the viewer. 

The appeal of his heroines lay in the fact that they were not iconographic types but palpable, flesh-and-blood human beings who expressed real human emotions. In this respect, traditional iconography wasn’t much use.

To give a few examples of his portrayal of heroines: Varma grew up with Tanjore paintings, which were displayed in the courts he visited. They are sacred icons devoid of emotion. If we examine art in other parts of India, the situation was the same. Take this wonderful painting from western India, illustrating the love story of Laur Chanda.

"Laur and Chanda in the Forest", Folio from a Chandayana (or Laur Chanda) "Laur and Chanda in the Forest", Folio from a Chandayana (or Laur Chanda) (ca. 1525–50) by Maulana Da'udThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Painted scenes from Mohammad Jaisi's Laur Chanda

This painting, from a manuscript made in the mid-sixteenth century, melds elements of Persian painting, particularly from Shiraz, with the Chaurapanchasika style of northern India.

Chanda in her palace from a Laur-Chanda manuscript (ca. 1540)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Laur and Chanda

Chanda in her palace from a Laur-Chanda manuscript. The artist illustrates Mohammad Jaisi’s literary text.

Chanda’s growing feeling of love is represented through the scene of spring with flowers and animals. The heroine, however, doesn’t betray any emotion. This is where Ravi Varma was different.

To show deep emotion, sentiment, not to speak of visual beauty, Varma needed a different aesthetic and a different heroine. 

This new aesthetic that Ravi Varma created through his works is what Professor Partha Mitter has referred to as the blend of Kerala and Guercino.

Shakuntala And Her Companion (1880) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Travancore Royal Family, Kaudiar Palace, Thiruvananthapuram

Kerala & Guercino

Remember his treatment of the shy young beauty in the painting of Princess Chimna Bai? He now rolls out a series of heroines, ideal beauties of full rounded faces, straight features large dreamy eyes and in general an expressive face.  

Sita in Ashoka Grove (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

You cannot mistake his ideal women for those of other contemporary artists. Ravi Varma was also affected by the dominant standards of beauty; we show by contrast what was regarded as the opposite of beautiful – aboriginal women.

The Persian Sibyl (1647/1648) by GuercinoMusei Capitolini

The new canon of beauty — a mixture of Kerala and Guercino — created by him was greeted by the Indian nationalists as endorsing their own literary ‘inventions’ of the past.
(This is a painting of a woman by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri or Guercino)

The Madonna and Child with an Escaped Goldfinch (early 1630s) by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called GuercinoNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Themes such as this, of 'Madonna and Child', were also borrowed by Varma from the Italian artist.

Keechaka and Sairandhri (1891) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fatehsingh Museum, Vadodara

Keechaka and Sairandhri

Ravi Varma's fervent wish was that the public should see his works and appreciate them. 

The Bombay Art Society gave exposure to the brothers, as this painting of Keechaka and Sairindhri exemplifies. 

Varma wanted more and wished to set up a public museum where his works could be displayed.

However, this wish remained fulfilled because of complex circumstances.

Sairandhri (1894-12) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Mechanical reproductions of paintings were a major device imported from the West that helped spread images through the length and breadth of India. The two brothers set up their press in Lonavla near Bombay, with the assistance of two Germans, Fritz Schleicher and Paul Gerhardt.


There was, however, another area, a modern device, that offered him a great chance to make his works reach the widest audiences.

Shakuntala Janm (Birth of Shakuntala) (circa 1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Shakuntala Janm

The tonal quality of Ravi Varma was more complex and nuanced, the colours richer as they emulated original oil colours of his paintings

Above all, his women were soft and voluptuous with flirtatious expressions, real human beings.

The prints were affordable even to the ordinary Indians, and all Indians, irrespective of their social and economic background, were thrilled with them.

Shri Shankara (1800-01-01/1890-12-31) by Chitrashala Steam Press, PoonaOriginal Source: Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante

Sri Shankara

There was a distinct and qualitative difference between the prints done at the Ravi Varma Presses and the others in the country.

Prints from the Ravi Varma Press became hugely popular and spread to all parts of the country.

Padmini (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation


The women that Ravi Varma depicted were beautiful and were instantly relatable.

Ravi Varma's works were admired throughout India and outside the country too. What Ravi Varma sought to convey was that beauty wasn't far to seek.

Vishwamitra Menaka (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Vishwamitra and Menaka

Ravi Varma's grasp and understanding of mythological tales and scriptures was his greatest advantage.

Ravi Varma's heroines were alluring and beautiful. The play of emotions on Vishwamitra and Menaka's visage is starkly different here.

Mohini or The Temptress (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Mohini or The Temptress

The hugely popular Mohini on a swing has been recreated many times over after Ravi Varma's creation.

The ethereal beauty with the most common place of element -- the swing, in a forest setting, was a masterstroke.

According to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore: "When Ravi Varma’s age arrived in Bengal, his oleographs quickly replaced the European prints that used to hang in our walls." 

"I would to add that it was his conception of feminine grace and charm that has continued to dominate popular arts in India". 

Credits: Story

Concept & Text: Professor Partha Mitter
Research: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
Images: Prof. Partha Mitter from his book Art & Nationalism In Colonial India

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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