Raja Ravi Varma – Commemorating 150 Years of His Professional Career

By The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Ganesh V Shivaswamy

Raja Ravi Varma's professional career commenced in 1870 when he was first commissioned to paint the family portrait of Kizakke Palat Krishna Menon. With this painting would commence a career which would alter the aesthetics of the people of the Indian sub-continent and beyond. This exhibit commemorates 150 years of this professional artistic career with 15 important paintings.

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

Raja Raja Varma born under the asterism of Bharani was Raja Ravi Varma's maternal uncle. In a matrilineal society to which Ravi Varma belonged, the maternal uncle played an exceedingly important role in the upbringing of a child. In this case, the role of Raja Raja Varma was pivotal for he identified and encouraged the talent of the young artist during his childhood. The artist's career owes a lot to the impetus offered by this man.

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

In 1870 Raja Ravi Varma left his home town for the first time on a pilgrimage to Mookambika in present day Karnataka. After spending a few days in contemplation and meditation, he made his way back home. On his return journey, as if blessed by the Goddess herself, he received his first professional commission to paint the family portrait of Kizakke Palat Krishna Menon. With this painting would commence the artist's illustrious career.

A Tamil Lady Playing the Swarbat by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

In 1874, Ravi Varma painted the 'Tamil Lady Playing the Swarbat.' This is a later version of the same painting by the artist. The 1874 painting was exhibited at the Madras Fine Art Exhibition in 1874 and was gifted to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) during his tour of India in 1875.

'The Tamil Lady Playing the Swarbat' is the earliest recorded painting which has a later version by the artist. It is this demand for copies which would eventually lead to the establishment of a Press in his name.

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

The visit of the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos to Travancore in 1881 would prove momentous in the career of the young artist. It is said that a diplomatic faux-pas involving Makaraja Vishakam Thirunal, the Duke and the artist left Ravi Varma being declared persona non-grata in the new Maharaja's court. Ostracized, Ravi Varma commenced his travels to the North bringing him his greatest North-Indian patron, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III.

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

Commissioned by Maharaja Vishakam Thirunal, Sita Bhumi Pravesh depicts the last presence of the primordial Sita in the great epic Ramayana. Taken by Dewan Madhava Row to the Baroda court, this was the first painting by the artist to reach North India and was a precursor of the entry of the artist into Baroda.

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

A mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser and Ravi Varma found one in Dewan Madhava Row. He recommended Ravi Varma to the British administration, introduced him to his greatest North Indian patron, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III and also advised him to expand his vision by having his works oleographed to serve the country. Ravi Varma reached out to the Dewan when matters got unpleasant during Maharaja Vishakam Thirunal's reign in Travancore.

There Comes Papa (1893) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Representing India at the Chicago Exposition of 1893 were two prominent Indians: Swami Vivekananda and Raja Ravi Varma. Ravi Varma sent ten paintings of Indian women of which 'There Comes Papa' is one. Modelling for this painting was his own daughter, the stunningly beautiful Mahaprabha. For a person who was not allowed to travel over the 'dark-waters' his paintings brightened the Indian presence at the Exposition.

Birth of Shakuntala (Circa 1890) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Raja S.V. Adithya Lakshma Rao, Jatprole.

With rejection is resolve born - this painting was the exemplar for the first chromolithograph printed at the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithograph Press, Bombay. Commencing on July 12, 1894, the Ravi Varma Press took on a life of its' own, resolute in altering the social, religious and aesthetis notions of the common man. Achieving this in ample measure, it also went on to immortalize the name of Ravi Varma in the collective memory of Indians.

Draupadi at the Court of Virat (1897) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

Unhappy that he was restrained from travelling abroad to see the great museums of Europe, Ravi Varma was intent on further democratizing art through the establishment of museums. He wrote to Dewan Shungrasoobryer suggesting a picture gallery be established in Trivandrum. The correspondence commenced with a letter dated 31 August 1895 and a year later 'Draupadi at the Court of Virat' was the first painting commissioned by the Maharaja Moolam Thirunal for the picture gallery.

Shakuntala's Impending Calamity (1901) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of the Government Museum, Chennai

The Government Museum, Chennai owes it's collection of Ravi Varma paintings to the correspondence between Edgar Thurston and C. Raja Raja Varma. The Diary of the latter (Ravi Varma's brother) is replete with instances of gifts to the museum and acquisitions by Thurston for the Madras Fine Art Society which later became the present museum. 'Shakuntala's Impending Calamity' was one of the prominent paintings acquired during Thurston's tenure.

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

Udaipur was another prominent patron from the North and the commission from this court best encapsulates Indian art in a state of transition. Initially commissioned to simply copy and enlarge portraits of the former Maharajas from traditional paintings, the transition to realism took place quickly in the later paintings. This painting of Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar is one of the paintings by Ravi Varma in the realistic style.

Portrait of the Nizam of Hyderabad: Mir Mehboob Ali Khan: Asaf Jah VI (1902) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Osianama Research Centre, Archive, Library & Sanctuary, India.

One cannot be loved and liked all the time for that is an impossible average to maintain throughout one's life. The Nizam of Hyderabad's attitude towards the artist contributed to balancing the enthusiasm for he never offered the artist an audience despite a long wait at Hyderabad by the brothers. Ravi Varma painted this large portrait of the Nizam in anticipation of receiving a commission which eventually never arrived.

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

Mysore was a unique patron for two succeeding Maharajas happily commissioned the artist. The artist would receive his first commission from Maharaja Chamaraja Wadiyar X and there after by Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV. It was considered a privilege to attend the Dasara Durbar of the Maharaja and this unique watercolor sketch by the artist appears to have been sketched on location. Seated on the ancient gaddi (throne) is the young Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV of Mysore.

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

The Khedda Operations of Mysore is a unique maneuver to bring elephants from the forest into an enclosure. This operation would usually be conducted prior to the Dasara celebrations at Mysore and the elephants used for ceremonial purposes. An operation which has been consigned to history (rightfully so), this is a rare glimpse of the elephant enclosure by Ravi Varma. This is one of Ravi Varma's last paintings executed in 1906 before his demise.

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

Turning his back to the viewer and engrossed in painting, this is the only self portrait of the artist. A career which would appreciated and criticized in equal measure, this self portrait teaches us to be unmindful of how one is viewed and to rather focus on the work entrusted.

A lesson to be learnt by all of us is to trun our back to unkind criticism and continue with what the road ahead.

Credits: Story

Rights of the images are from the various sources mentioned.

Rights to the narrative is reserved by the author of this exhibit.

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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