The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes & Patrons

Ravi Varma captured the political and social universe in Travancore through his art, enshrining in his portraits and canvases the men, women and ideas that marked the dawn of a whole new age. 

Nagercoil Ammachi (1868) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Nagercoil Ammachi

It was in 1862 that the Maharajah of Travancore, Ayilyam Tirunal, married Kalyani. She had been adopted into the Nagercoil Ammaveedu, which provided consorts to royal men and hence came to be known as Nagercoil Ammachi. Ravi Varma is believed to have painted more than one portrait of the Maharaja's wife, and one canvas, which is usually described as featuring the Junior Rani Parvathi Bayi or Travancore, most likely depicts Kalyani.

Kalyani was a woman of spirit. When she married Ayilyam Tirunal she was already 23. It seems likely that she was married before, not particularly surprising given other instances in that period.

That she was a striking woman is clear from surviving photographs, and the pictures indicate that she was probably the first Malayali woman to wear the modern sari (the traditional dress being mundu).

When she passed away in 1909, Ravi Varma’s granddaughter Sethu Lakshmi Bayi wrote: “The day before yesterday at 2 o’clock Nagercoil Ammachi died. I do not know definitely what the cause was.”

Diwan Sir Thanjavur Madhava Row (1880) by UnknownOriginal Source: Private Collection

Sir T. Madhava Rao

A brilliant statesman and administrator, Madhava Rao was the singular reason for Ravi Varma's early success and popularity. Sir T. Madhava Rao was awarded two titles by the British - the title of 'Rajah' and under the Knight Commander of the Order of the Star in India, he was also awarded the title of 'Sir'.

As Dewan Peishkar of Travancore, Madhava Rao wrote a letter to his friend where he says: "His Highness when jesting told me my salary of Rs 600 is regulated at the rate of one hundred per child."

Ayilyam Tirunal never got along well with his Dewan. British records state "differences had unfortunately arisen” and the Maharajah was “unalterable” in his position that the minister "must go."

After a brief stint in Indore, Madhava Rao took over as Dewan of Baroda and was chiefly instrumental in forging a strong bond between Ravi Varma and the ruler Sayajirao III.

Mahaprabha (1870) by Mukundan TampiOriginal Source: Private Collection


Ravi Varma's oldest daughter stepped into the role of family matriarch after her mother Kochupanki's death. Mahaprabha has been described as “a high-spirited and dignified lady of remarkable personality."

Imperious and beautiful, Ravi Varma often asked her to model for him — his celebrated painting 'There Comes Papa' (1892) features Mahaprabha with her son.

Mahaprabha's daughter, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who was adopted into the royal family was described as aristocratic in feature and complexion, genes that she inherited from her mother.

Mahaprabha passed away at the young age of 46, but she had stamped her authority over the family and in turn, her daughter would go on to be the last Maharani of Travancore.

Senior Rani Lakshmi Bayi (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Senior Rani Lakshmi Bayi

Adopted into the royal family of Travancore, she was Ravi Varma's sister-in-law.

Life for Lakshmi Bayi after her adoption into the royal family in 1857 was full of promise, despite the suddenness of her elevation from life in Mavelikkara into the seat of Senior Rani.

The Senior Rani was known for her beauty and was married to Kerala Varma, who took the title Valiya Koil Tampuran after the wedding.

Where the norm in Kerala was a simple white mundu around the waist, with the torso left bare, the Senior Rani adopted the blouse worn with the methukettu.

Lakshmi Bayi eventually grew into a woman of spirit. She acquired an education in the usual Sanskrit and Malayalam texts, as also in music, becoming an excellent player of the veena.

Junior Rani Parvathi Bayi (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Travancore Royal Family, Kaudiar Palace, Thiruvananthapuram

Junior Rani Parvathi Bayi

Mother of three princes of Travancore, Parvathi Bayi's sons all tragically died young.

Her sister Lakshmi Bayi controlled the Sripadam — the establishment of female members of the ruling house — and incomes of all younger women, including the Junior Rani, were disbursed at her discretion.

The Junior Rani is wearing the heavily embroidered red shawl, which is a mark of the Travancore royal family.

When the Junior Rani died of cancer in 1891, leaving behind three sons, and with the Senior Rani being childless, the absence of a princess meant another adoption had to be resorted to.

Her Highness Janaki Subamma Bai Sahib of Pudukkottai (1879) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

H.H. Janaki Subbamma Bai Sahib, Rani of Pudukkottai

Described by the British as a “thoroughly dangerous and intriguing woman", Janaki Subbamma was the second wife of the reigning Rajah, Ramachandra Tondaiman of Pudukkottai.

Janaki Subbamma didn't have sons and so the ruler adopted his grandson Martanda Bhairava Tondaiman as his heir. When the Maharajah died in 1886, the young boy was just 11.

Since the boy was very young, a Regency was necessitated. Seshiah Sastri became Dewan-Regent, but he was also placed in direct line of fire of the demanding and capable queen, Janaki Subbamma.

Janaki and Sastri never got along, and in 1888, two years into Sastri’s regency, she had her daughter send the British a telegram claiming he was trying to murder her.

The Rani considered Sastri an outsider and a British stooge, whose aim was to turn her son into a Western lackey. The result of all this was that the young Tondaiman grew into a complicated man.

Maharaja Sayajirao III At His Investiture (1882) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, Vadodara

Maharaja Sayajirao III At His Investiture

When the British deposed Malharrao for "gross misrule" in 1875, Maharani Jamnabai of Baroda adopted Gopalrao at the age of 12. The young Gopalrao's name was changed to Sayajirao and would go on to become a 'model ruler' in later years.

Transformed overnight from a farmhand by Jamnabai, he also earned high praise from Queen Victoria, who titled him "Our Favoured Son of the British Empire."

According to a British representative, Sayajirao "became a prince by a freak of fortune that could not be paralleled in the most extravagant prayers of oriental romance."

Ravi Varma became not only among the earliest painters to be patronized by the new Maharajah of Baroda, but also a witness to the investiture of a man who would guide the destinies of millions.

The Maharajah asked Ravi Varma to produce for his durbar hall, 14 canvases depicting scenes from the Indian epics, for which the artist was paid the extraordinary sum of Rs. 50,000 in 1891.

These 14 paintings were first exhibited in Trivandrum and then again shown to the public in Bombay and Baroda, before they went to hang in the palace, where they reside to this date.

His Highness Chamarajendra Wadiyar X (1885) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Collection of Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, The Palace, Mysuru

H.H. Sri Chamarajendra Wadiyar X 

After Krishnaraja Wadiyar passed away in 1868, his grandson, Chamarajendra Wadiyar X (1863-94) became the Maharajah of Mysore. 

The British remained in charge till 1881, carefully tutoring and training him to act as the ideal Indian prince of Western conception.

In 1875, when the Prince of Wales came to India, Chamarajendra went to Bombay to pay his respects, also meeting there (on a railway platform) another young Indian ruler, Sayajirao III.

It was the first time the Mysore Maharajah travelled by railway — and in doing so he was flouting orthodox belief that the king should not leave his land or cross the Kaveri.

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi Wedding Portrait (1910) by N N NampiyarOriginal Source: Private Collection

Wedding Portrait of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi 

Ravi Varma's granddaughters Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi were adopted into the royal family in 1901.

When Sethu Lakshmi Bayi chose a husband from another family, Ravi Varma had furious nephews sending him letters alleging that he had not lobbied hard enough for candidates from their own clan.

In the 1920s, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi would also rule as Maharajah, and while colonial officials addressed her as regent, they acknowledged that she had “succeeded” to power — in keeping with local custom.

In 1906, Ravi Varma presented his granddaughter a length of pink brocade silk given to him by the Maharajah of Mysore. It was from this that the wedding dress of the Travancore Maharani was tailored.

Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Nizam of Hyderabad (1902) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Mahboob Ali Khan Asaf Jah IV, Nizam of Hyderabad

Ravi Varma and C. Raja Raja Varma arrived In Hyderabad, at the invitation of the celebrated photographer, Raja Deen Dayal, hoping to win a commission from the Nizam, Mahboob Ali Khan (1866-1911).

What they encountered, however, was a disinterested ruler; long waits alongside other supplicants, only to be casually rebuffed; and even suspicion that Deen Dayal was not much of a friend.

After a month, the brothers commenced a portrait of the Nizam, working with the help of a photograph, hoping it would impress the latter. In the end, however, the ruler had no desire for the work.

Raja Raja Varma notes in his diary: "I have been disappointed with Hyderabad and its people. Hypocrisy and un-punctuality and failures to keep promises are the sins of the people high as well as low."

Rai Pannalal Mehta (1901) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Rai Pannalal Mehta

Ravi Varma and his brother painted portraits of Rai Pannalal Mehta (1843 - 1919), a retired minister of the state of Udaipur, whose ancestors had also served in that capacity.

Pannalal Mehta's son Fatehlal Mehta was instrumental in introducing Ravi Varma at the court of Maharana Fateh Singh (1849-1930) in the first place.

Pannalal Mehta become a senior official in the government in 1869, but long before he was actually granted the title by Fateh Singh’s predecessor in 1878, he was Udaipur’s de facto minister.

Pannalal Mehta was dismissed from service in 1894 on account of his alleged closeness to the British establishment, but his years of service protected him from too much royal disfavour.

Credits: Story

Collection: The paintings in this exhibit now hang in palace collections namely Maharaja Fatesingh Museum, Vadodara; Collection of Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, The Palace, Mysore and important private collections.

Research and content: from The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes & Patrons by Manu S. Pillai.

Exhibit and references Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Click here to read more about Raja Ravi Varma.

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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