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Raja Ravi Varma

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Raja Ravi Varma, the gifted artist from Kerala, (1848-1906) occupies an indomitable position on the canvas of Indian painting. Born and brought up in the aristocratic family in Kerala, his training was initiated by his uncle Raja Raja Varma. Raja Varma approached the royalty and arranged for his further learning. The ruler Ayilyam Thirunal took personal interest in nurturing Ravi Varma’s talent.Thirunal was convinced that the circumstances in the palace at Thiruvananthapuram would be ideal to help him learn the nuances of oil painting.

He exposed him to the work of Italian painters, and brought him books to polish his talent. One such book was Edward Moor F. R. S. book ‘Hindu Pantheon’, which traced the progress of religious pictures that correspond with Indian temple idols. While his reference to the European art books provided him with an insight of the anatomy of the human body amongst several other things.

This training for Ravi Varma continued for nine years. Ravi Varma very well knew that though he had learnt a lot under the patronage of Thirunal he had a long way to go before he could achieve excellence in oil painting. By and large, Ravi Varma used paints prepared from leaves, flowers, bark and soil. When he painted portraits of young couple, Attingal Mootha Thampuran and his wife Sethulakshmi Bai he used a mixture of olive oil and several other things.

There was a company in Madras who had oil paints for sale, Varma got them and handled the paints through trial and error.

There was one artist at Travancore—Ramaswamy Naicker of Madura, who knew the art of oil painting however he refused to help Varma seeing a potential rival in him. Naciker’s student Arumugham Pillai also knew the technique of oil paint and would often help Ravi Varma during the nights secretly.

A European painter Theodore Jenson visited Thirunal in 1868 and sought his patronage. He knew the art of oil painting but he refused to teach Ravi Varma for the same reason as of Naicker’s. Jenson painted the portraits of Thirunal and his wife, which were far away from the finesse, and the magnificence of portraits executed by Varma later.

Overwhelmed with the precision and perfection of the portraits, the ruler presented the highest honor ‘Veerasringhala’ to Ravi Varma.

Ravi Varma also won praises for painting the portrait of Duke of Buckingham and the sub judge of the Kozhikkode court. Another feather was sewn in his cap in 1873 when he received the first prize for his painting ‘Nair woman with jasmine flowers in her hair’ in the International Art Show organized by the Governor of Madras. The same painting was sent in the art competition at Vienna in 1887 and it received the most distinguished award. This award catapulted the fame of Varma far and wide.

After coming from Madras, Varma painted ‘Heights and Depths’ showing a Tamil woman from the royal family flinging a silver coin at a beggar woman.

The painting ‘The Gypsies of South India’ featuring a wandering fortuneteller sitting with a baby on her lap singing her miseries to the god, painted in the same period is notable.

In 1874, he again won the prize for his work in Madras Art Competition. He drew ‘Tamil woman tuning her instrument’.

By 1876, he had painted several versions of Shakuntala and one particular painting sent for the Madras competition, which impressed the Duke of Buckingham so much that it was chosen as the frontispiece for Sir Monier Williams translation of Abhijnana Shakuntalam.

Ravi Varma spent a lot of time in painting portraits. He placed emphasis on man and the events in the world of man and found heavenly beauty crystallized in the form of a woman. While, he was busy painting, anyone was free to enter the studio and converse with him. He would also incorporate the genuine suggestions in the painting. He introduced several new perspectives in Indian painting based on the new science-- European drawing, construction, composition and the use of a new medium-oil. His forte was the use of bright colors in his portraits and landscapes. He adopted oil to Indian light though his technique and form was European, the soul was Indian.

Ravi Varma’s paintings are credited for making the rest of India acquainted with the culture and life style of the Tamilians.

In 1881, Ravi Varma was invited in the state of Baroda as a special guest for the coronation ceremony, which helped in fostering strong connection between him and the ruler. Later, on his visit again to the state he made the portraits of the entire family of king Gaekwad. The Baroda palace today has 80 of Ravi Varma’s paintings.

There was a huge demand for the Varma’s oil paintings. Madhava Rao of Baroda suggested him to select and send some painting to Baroda, so that they could be oleo graphed, which helped in spreading his name and fame further.

Ravi Varma also entered a strong relationship with the Raja of Mysore and painted the portraits of Raja and his family.

Gaekwad of Baroda commissioned Varma to paint 14 mythological figures from the Ramayana and Mahabharata for which he took a trip of all the significant places (mentioned in the epics) in Northern India. The paintings like ‘Nala Damayanti'; ‘Shantanu and Matsyagandha'; ‘Shantanu and Ganga', ‘Radha and Madhava'; ‘Kamsa Maya'; ‘Shrikrishna and Devaki'; 'Arjuna and Subhadra'; ‘Draupadi Vastraharan'; ‘Harischasndra and Taramati'; ‘Vishwamitra and Menaka'; ‘Seetaswayamvaram'; ‘Young Bharat and a Lion club'; ‘The Birth of Sri Krishna' and ‘Keechaka and Sairanthri' were the consequence of this tour.

For the project Varma received Rs. 50,000, which he used to set up a lithograph press at Mumbai with the help of two German experts Schleicher and Girchard. The pictures that came out of the press reached in different parts of the world. The press also had oleographs like---‘The Birth of Shakuntala'; ‘Lakshmi', ‘Saraswati', ‘Shukha and Rambha'; ‘Arjun and Rambha'; ‘Madalasa and Rudwaja'; ‘Parvati and Larameshwara in the disguise of Junglefolk'; ‘Radha and Krishna'; Yashoda and Krishna'; ‘Shivaji'; ‘Menaka and Shakuntala'; ‘Tilottama'; ‘Urvashi'; ‘Rambha'; ‘Vasantasena'; ‘Malati'; Ahalya'; ‘Draupadi and Sudakshana'; ‘Dattatreya'; ‘Savitri and Satyavan'; ‘Tara'; ‘Seeta and the Golden Deer'; ‘Krishna-kreeda'; ‘Mahashweta'; ‘Kadambari'; ‘Seeta and Ravana'; ‘Indra'; ‘Kumuda Sundari'; 'Tara Devi';' Rama Vanvas'; ‘Shakuntala writing her letter'; etc.

His health had started deteriorating by 1901 however he continued to take some projects like painting the portraits of Rajput warriors Maharana Pratap Singh based on miniature and his three heir apparent based on their photographs for the Mewar Maharana Fateh Singh. Varma also painted the portrait of Maharana Fateh Singh within three days after watching him at the palace for three hours.

On the invitation of Raja Deendayal, Ravi Varma went to Hyderabad to see the rich collection of painting at Nizam's palace, which housed Persian, Mughal, Rajput, Bijapur, Maharashtrian and other kinds of paintings. He painted several notable paintings like ‘The Retired Solider', and ‘Hyderabad Husain Sagar Lake' at Hyderabad. In 1903, during his stay in Madras he painted the portrait of the Madras Governor, Havelock, which he presented to the Memorial Committee.

His lithograph press was also doing well though with hiccups in between. The not so positive development was the circulation of several fake prints in the market. Only a trained eye could discern a true Ravi Varma painting. Disturbed by this, Varma requested changes to Gopal Krishna Gokhale in the copyright law, which were later, incorporated.

Ravi Varma also painted portraits based on faded photographs, and painted duplicates. His last work before he was confined to bed includes the portrait of Governor Lord Amphill and the painting of the kheda operation.

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