The Life of Raja Ravi Varma: years 1894-1906

The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi

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

Draupadi at the Court of Virat (1897) by Raja Ravi VarmaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Ravi Varma tried his best to get an art gallery established at Thiruvanthapuram, to promote the dormant art activity in the State. The outcome was that he was given a commission to paint two pictures for the State every year, at a remuneration of Rs.3000/- each.

The Art Gallery which we see today, came much after his time during the epoch making rule of the esteemed Sree Chithra Thirunal Rama Varma, the last Maharaja to sit on the Throne of Travancore. The first painting commissioned for the Art Gallery in the year 1896 was ‘Draupadi at the Court of Virat’.

Sairandhri (1891) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Directorate of Museums and Archaeology, Government of Maharashtra; Shree Bhavani Museum and Library, Aundh, District Satara, Maharashtra.

Bala Saheb, the Prince of Audh, was another important admirer and his devotion for the artist was so deep, that he looked upon him almost as a God and kept Ravi Varma’s likeness in his prayer room. The paintings, the artist did for him now adorn the Bhavani Museum in Aundh.

Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar (1901) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Krishna Menon Museum.

The Udaipur Court showered appreciation on Ravi Varma the painter and Ravi Varma the man. A pearl necklace and ‘dresses of honour’ were given to him as parting gifts while his brother and his nephew who accompanied him received two sets of dresses of honour each. Moreover, they were paid a sum of Rs.5000/- for the portraits.

Ravi Varma presented a bust, and Raja Raja Varma a landscape he had done to the Maharana when they finally took leave of him. The brothers had made a real impact on the people there and a large crowd assembled to wish them Godspeed.

Damayanti and the Hamsa (1899) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

Entries in January 1899 from the Diary of C Raja Raja Varma from a village by name Karli, state that ‘Hamsa Damayanti’, one among Ravi Varma’s almost acclaimed works, which he was finishing for the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition took life and form there.

Raja Raja Varma mentions the pillar in that painting was by his hand. While Ravi Varma specialized in portraiture, Raja Raja Varma is seen to be partial to landscapes, at which he excelled.

Junior Rani Parvathi Bayi (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Pressure from home assumed greater force by June 1901. Many momentous events had reshaped the destiny of Travancore, their echo being felt at a personal level by the brothers too.

Not only the Junior Rani (Ravi Varma’s sister-in-law) but all her children, four princes included, had succumbed to the inevitable mandate of death.

Aswathi Thirunal Marthanda Varma’s demise in 1901, also at the prime of his youth, particularly affected the brothers for whom he had been very dear. They were closely associated with him and were his friends and companions during the long, eventful tour of North India.

Maharani Lakshmi Bayi (1883) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

The senior Rani (also Ravi Varma’s sister-in-law), whose frail health could no longer bear this chain of calamities also expired, while Ravi Varma was far away from home. It would have been the working of some extrasensory perception that motivated Sree Moolam Thirunal Maharaja to adopt two little Thampuratties (girls from the Kshatriya aristocracy), aged four and five, from the Mavelikkara Palace, as daughters of the Travancore Royal House. This twin adoption in 1900 was of personal consequence to Ravi Varma, as they both were his grand-daughters, being the children of two of his daughters.

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

1904 was an important year, for his name appeared in the New Year Honors List of 1904. The Imperial Government advanced the Kaiser-i-Hind Medal to be awarded to Ravi Varma. The weight of the award as seen in those names remains inscribed in Raja Raja Varma’s diary.

“The honor bestowed on my brother came without our seeking. We never spoke to anyone about it nor have we worked for it… This is the first time an artist is honored in India’s history. The honors so far were given to officials and rich men who donated liberally to charitable causes. This honor will never fail the progress of Art in India… When I consider that, as the first Indian artist of worldwide reputation, the Government have recognized his love and devotion for Art, I have reason for great happiness being his inseparable companion, colleague and helper….”

Maharaja and Maharani of Mysore (1930s) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma PressThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

In response to repeated invitations from Mysore to visit the royal court again, Ravi Varma went there, accompanied by the ever-faithful Raja Raja Varma.

The days spent there were luxurious in the truest sense. He was the recipient of all regard and respect extended to a highly honoured guest.

Dasara Darbar at Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore (1905) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Osianama Research Centre, Archive, Library & Sanctuary, India.

The brothers were treated to fine music during their working hours, and at night there were dance and drama performances (often directed by the young King himself who was an art enthusiast).

Of their stay in the Mysore Palace, Raja Raja Varma writes:“We paint, our souls immersed in music."

So enchanted by the music was he that Ravi Varma requited Bidaram Krishnappa and the renowned Veena artist Sheshanna, to teach him. He was consequently taught two songs and for this favour they were handsomely compensated with sovereigns and costly gifts by a grateful Ravi Varma. It is a little known fact that this great man could sing pleasingly.

Jatayu Vadh (1928) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma Press, Karla Lonavala.The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

He painted the royal family’s portraits and was further commissioned to execute a series of nine Puranic themes for a consolidated consideration of Rs.27,000/-. Ravi Varma threw himself into painting the nine Puranic pictures for the Mysore Palace, which he completed by 1905.

The nine pictures, with themes borrowed from the treasure-house of Indian religious lore, the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha and the Srimad Bhagavatha Mahapurana, portrayed great moments contained in them. They received great attention from all around.

The visual effect Ravi Varma was at times able to achieve, was almost three-dimensional with in-depth utilization of colour, as was on display in some among these splendid paintings done for Mysore. His technical genius manifests in his bigger canvas, with a number of characters and their most effective placement.

Victory of Indrajit (Circa 1910) by Ravi Varma Press Karla Lonavala and Raja Ravi VarmaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

One among this Mysore series, ‘Viratas’ Court’, is an example to the point, and boasts of no less than twenty figures, but they are accommodated without any compromise on light and space between each of them.

Khedda Operations (1906) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

On completing his mission, Ravi Varma left Mysore, only to be recalled by the Maharaja, who cherished great love and respect for the artist. He desired that Ravi Varma accompany the Prince of Wales (future King George V), who was expected in Mysore soon when he painted the Khedda Operations at Mysore.

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

By this time, a marked change had come over the artist. He became more and more introverted, and would wander over fields and hills in common with himself and bowed down with a grief that cut through his very heart. He could not come to terms with a world without Raja Raja Varma who passed away when the paintings for the Maharaja of Mysore were being painted.

Ravi Varma’s fifty seventh birthday was observed on a large-scale, both religiously and socially, befitting his position as the head of a large, prosperous aristocratic clan. At that time he announced his decision to accept Sanyasa and retire from all worldly life three years hence, when he would turn sixty years of age. (The sixtieth year’s birthday is deemed to be a turning point in life according to Hindu tradition).

In the meantime, the elder of his two grand-daughters, Rani Setu Lakshmi Bayi got married in 1906. Ravi Varma participated in the functions, and stayed on for three more months in the capital collecting more material for his creations.

On his return to Kilimanoor, Ravi Varma’s diabetes worsened and the accompanying intolerable thirst and physical exhaustion made him take to bed. To add to the sufferings, a carbuncle appeared on his left shoulder. Though there was some relief when it was opened by the Durbar physician of Travancore, it would not heal. Soon, the waves of anxiety started making themselves felt, not only in the State of Travancore but all over India as well. His faithful friends, Dr. Balachandra and Dr.P.M. Mathai were among those who rushed down from Bombay to be of service to the ailing master.

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

On the afternoon of 2nd October 1906, to the chant of Vedic incantations and age-old prayers, Ravi Varma took leave of the world of myriad colours and forms, one which he had rejoiced in and had re-created with such distinguished expertise.

Oorvashi (1896) by Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press Bombay and Raja Ravi VarmaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Subramaniam Bharathi, the renowned Tamil poet, sang beautiful lines in Ravi Varma’s honor. A few stanzas offer themselves to the reader:

And now to earthly glory
he has bade adieu
and to heaven risen
O Though, who hast so oft painted
The celestial nymphs,
Rambha, Urvasi and all the rest!

The Maharani of Travancore (1887) by Raja Ravi VarmaRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Hast thou to heaven gone
to compare thy handiwork
direct with the originals?
But ill will those damsels
Compare with your creations!

Menaka Shakuntala (1896) by Raja Ravi Varma and Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic PressThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Alas! In the grand march of Time,
if authors of deathless works
are to die one day,
life on earth should then be
an illusion for sure,
Past words,
Past describing.

Credits: Story

The biography is in three segments. This is the third and concluding segment. You may read the first segment at

Part 1

The Second segment is found at

Part 2

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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