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Unveiling the Canvas: The Genius of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

The story of his artistic journey is one of humble beginnings and unwavering passion. Born into a princely family as Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran in
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With artistry that brought deities to life, Raja Ravi Varma single-handedly revolutionized the way we perceive our gods and goddesses today. Themes ranging from mythology and verses to royal families and the rich tapestry of India, Varma’s paintings not only enthralled with their lifelike portrayal of the human form but also transports us to a world steeped in tradition and ancient tales. 

The story of his artistic journey is one of humble beginnings and unwavering passion. Born into a princely family as Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran in the erstwhile state of Travancore in Kerala, he displayed an early interest in painting. Varma learned the basics of drawing in Madurai Chithirakara veddhi and was later trained in watercolour by Rama Swami Naidu and in oil painting by Dutch artist Theodor Jenson. 

Inspired by both Indian classical traditions and Western academic techniques, Varma pioneered a distinctive style that seamlessly blended the best of both worlds. His vibrant colour schemes, meticulous attention to detail and delicate storytelling set him apart as a trailblazer in the realm of Indian art. His paintings, depicting Indian religious deities, various mythological narratives and everyday life, resonated deeply with audiences across varied cultural backgrounds.

 In 1873, he won the Governor’s Gold Medal for his painting ‘Nair Lady Adorning Her Hair’. By that time, he became a much-sought-after artist among the Rajahs and the Indian Europeans, who commissioned him to paint their portraits. Though his portraits brought him fame, Varma increasingly painted varied subjects. In 1894, he established the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press in Bombay to mass-produce copies of his paintings as oleographs, enabling ordinary people to afford them and making art accessible to everyone. 

With imported German machinery and German technicians he produced a wide array of copies of his paintings, primarily of Hindu gods and goddesses. Verma’s Lakshmi and Saraswati chromolithographs were revolutionary for their time. This innovation resulted in the tremendous popularity of his paintings, which became an integral part of the popular Indian culture for the time to come. 

In a career spanning four decades, Ravi Varma created close to 2,000 paintings. He also produced countless editions of oleographs, which adorn millions of Indian homes to this day. His artistic vision transcended geographical boundaries, earning him accolades on the international stage. He won an award for an exhibition of his paintings at Vienna in 1873. 

Varma’s paintings were also sent to the World’s Columbian Exposition held at Chicago in 1893, where Swami Vivekananda gave his famous speech. He was awarded two gold medals there. In 1904, Lord Curzon, on behalf of the Emperor, bestowed upon him the Kaisar-i-Hind title. 

The nature of his works was realistic and the use of light and shadow to emulate depth gave birth to a certain drama in his paintings, which led to a dialogue that influenced Indian cinema too. Dadasaheb Phalke himself took inspiration from Ravi Varma’s work and replicated scenes from his paintings creating similar compositions in his films, like his 1913 debut Raja Harishchandra, and later, Kaliya Mardan.

In 1907, a year after his death, the Modern Review magazine hailed him as “the greatest artist of modern India, a nation builder who showed the moral courage of a gifted ‘high-born’ in taking up the ‘degrading profession of painting’.” 

The 2014 Indian film, ‘Rang Rasiya’ based on Varma’s life, vividly portrays hid artistic vision highlighting the timeless relevance of his creative genius in both traditional and contemporary contexts. Today, as we reflect on his birth anniversary, we celebrate not only the man but also the legacy that endures as a beacon of cultural synthesis, inspiring generations to explore the intersection of tradition and innovation in their own artistic pursuits.

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