The Life of Raja Ravi Varma: years 1885-1894

Commemorating 150 years of the artist's career, this is the second 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

H.H. The Gaekwar of Baroda (1877) by Bourne & ShepherdThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda for whom Ravi Varma painted several paintings in 1881 during the Maharaja's investiture, approached Ravi Varma in 1889 with an impressive order for fourteen Puranic pictures for his new Palace under construction.

The pictures chosen from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, had to be such as to depict the drama of those sublime texts, generate in the minds of the viewers the idea of truth, goodness and beauty and enable the world to appreciate the magnificence of the Indian heritage.

Radha Bilas (Circa 1930) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma Press Malavli LonavalaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

The fourteen Baroda paintings were structured from the word-pictures or original scripts of Vyasa, Valmiki and Kalidasa.

To quote Venniyoor:
The subjects were so chosen as to evoke the great emotions, noble as well as base, which man is heir to: the power of love as in ‘Radha and Madhav’ and ‘Arjuna and Subhdra’...

Shantanoo and Matsyagandha (Circa 1910) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma Press Karla LonavalaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

...lust and Infatuation as in ‘Viswamithra and Menaka’ and ‘Shanthanoo and Ganga'...

Photograph of the painting 'Draupadi Vastraharan' by Unknown and Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

...nemesis which evil invites as in ‘Kamsa Maya’, divine grace which turns to naught man’s wickedness as in ‘The Disrobing of Draupadi’...

Photograph of the painting 'Harischandra and Taramati' by Unknown and Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Dr Prashant Tapadia

....steadfastness in truth for which ‘Harischandra and Taramati’ is the noblest example...

Keechaka Sairendri (Circa 1910) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma Press, Karla LonavalaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

....The beauty of chastity as against the ugliness of lechery as in ‘Keechaka and Sairandhri’.

Photograph of the painting 'Birth of Krishna' by Unknown and Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Dr Prashant Tapadia

The other pictures are charming idylls, hymns as it were to the warmth in the union of hearts as in ‘Sita Swayamvaram’ and to the splendors of motherhood and childhood as in the ‘Birth of Krishna’ and ‘Devaki and Krishna’.

The year was 1889. Ravi Varma painted these pictures in Kilimanoor, aided by his brother Raja Raaja Varma and his sister Mangala Bai Thampuratty. These remarkable canvases were first exhibited in the Trivandrum Museum with royal approval and then in Baroda, and in Bombay after procuring the Baroda Maharaja’s permission, before they finally reached and rarified orbit of the Durbar Hall in Baroda.

Captive Balloon and Ferris Wheel, World Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1892–1893) by Charles Dudley ArnoldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Representing India, Ravi Varma entered ten of his paintings at the World’s Columbian Exhibition at Chicago in 1893, under the banner of the World’s Columbian Commission set up by the Government of the United States of America. It was one of the grandest of the mammoth international expositions of the 19th century.

The Begum's Bath by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Osianama Research Centre, Archive, Library & Sanctuary, India.

Ravi Varma decided upon his subjects with care remaining in the world of mortals and opting for women as the main figures, so that he could transmit with greater ease across the nautical miles the diversity of India in dress, customs and even tenor of life: ‘The Malabar Beauty’, ‘Here comes Papa’, ‘Begum at the Bath’, ‘Expectation’, ‘Decking the Bride’, ‘Sisterly Remembrance’, ‘The Gypsies of South India’, ‘At the Well’, ‘The Disappointing News’ and ‘The Bombay Singer'.

The Gypsies of South India (Poverty) (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

While each was a masterpiece in itself and true to one or other facet of life, ‘The Gypsies of South India’ featuring a nomadic South Indian tribe is perhaps the most exceptional or unusual, as the background portrayed with such sensitivity was far removed from the aristocratic area of his experience. The mood of the day and the mood of the destiny of the Gypsies seen there co-relate, while life, raw and unvarnished are depicted. Ravi Varma was awarded two medals along with a diploma each for his work.

Bombay V.T. (now Mumbai CST)Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Ravi Varma greatly desired that the common people should view his art, consequently to get educated and inspired by such visual feasts on themes touching the very foundation of ancient Indian religious heritage. That the artistic values would be inculcated and improved upon was another hope.

With Bombay as the location ideal for a press, machinery was ordered from Germany. From its very inception, the venture was fraught with problems, including difficulty in raising funds. The amount of Rs.50,000/- that Ravi Varma had received from the Maharaja of Baroda, handsome though it was, was not sufficient to answer the need.

Dadabhai Naoroji by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

The day was saved when loyal friends came to his aid by offering finances. Guided by well wishers and legal luminaries among his companions like Dadabhai Naoroji and Justice Ranade, Ravi Varma’s brother, C. Raja Raja Varma entered into partnership with a Bombay based industrialist, Goverdhandas Khatau Makhanji and established the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press.

Shakuntala Janm (1894) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press BombayThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

The first chromolithograph printed at the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press was ‘The Birth of Shakuntala’ which was launched in the year 1894. Later, in his diary of 16th June 1897, Raja Raja Varma records with relief that matters were finally settled with Goverdhandas Khatau Makhanji.

The Press was immediately shifted to Malavli near Lonavla, but was commonly known as the Lonavla Press. The proprietorship was bestowed on the ever devoted brother, since Ravi Varma himself had no head for commercial ventures. This way Ravi Varma could be more at ease, thus enabling him to concentrate more on the vocation so dear to him.

However, the romance with the press was destined to be an uneasy one, due to one reason or another. On 20th July 1901 the press finally changed hands when Raja Raja Varma sold it to Fritz Schleicher, the German technician.

Lakshmi (1930s) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma PressThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

While the unimaginable popularity of the oleographs reaped reward in itself, Ravi Varma had to face the scathing remarks of detractors who accused him of cheapening art by polluting its purity by his concept of "Art for all" or "Bazar art", as they scornfully labelled it.

But nothing could dam the flood of reproductions that poured into the market and thenceforth to move to every Hindu household and place of business in India and overseas. Goddess Lakshmi, Saraswati and Coronation of Sree Rama continue with unabated popularity.

Credits: Story

The biography is in three segments. While this is the second segment, you may read the first segment at

Part 1

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

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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