The Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma

29 April 1848, the Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma was born in Kilimanoor in Kerala.

“Who knows if these very pictures, now painted for maharajas, will not find their way to the museums one day." (Raja Ravi Varma)

Raja Ravi Varma’s imagination of King Shantanu 
courting the fisherman’s adopted daughter Satyavati, 
a complex story told in the Devi Bhagavata Purana (1890)

It was a sad fact that by mid-19th century most of the schools of Indian painting across the sub-continent were virtually dead, sometimes already for centuries. Only Tanjore and Mysore artists in the southwest fared better, usually with depicting religious motives of Hindu gods, goddesses and saints that served as devotional icons in unique styles that had developed at the Maratha court of Thanjavur during the 1600s, incorporating influences of Deccani, Vijayanagar, Maratha and European styles, in a strict iconographic formalism however, later accommodating to the taste of the new colonial rulers insofar as accounts of the local landscape, animals and festivals were painted in the Tanjore style, as decorations and souvenirs. Most contemporary European art historians cast a cold eye on Indian art, especially according to the prevalent chauvinism after the failed Indian Rebellion or First War of Independence of 1857 and declared Indian art in toto for dead – to be revived and newly shaped and structured with European values by establishing art schools, in Calcutta and Madras as early as 1854, Bombay followed in 1858 and Lahore, headed by Rudyard Kipling’s father John Lockwood Kipling in 1878. Modern Indian painting was about to evolve and find its own expressions.

Raja Ravi Varma: "Woman holding a Fruit" (around 1890)

It was a Tanjore artist who taught young Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran the traditional style in Madurai Chithirakara veddhi, Artist's street, in Travancore in the state of Kerala. And then the European influence captured the young man and he took lessons in oil painting and the common Academic style from a local Anglo-Dutch painter, the otherwise unknown Mr Theodor Jenson – who would have been completely forgotten, if his young student from Kerala would not have come up with the idea to blend both styles and move traditional Tanjore towards Academic art and relocate Hindu gods and goddesses from the heavens to earthly landscapes, quite a shock for traditional believers. European audiences appreciated Ravi’s approach and at the age of 25, he won his first award at Vienna, and with the growing interest of Europe and, to a certain extent, the Americas, in Indian spiritualism, a series of further distinctions followed, such as three gold medals bestowed upon him in Chicago in 1893. Ten years later, he changed his name into Raja Ravi Varma, while his imaginations already had become an integral part of depicting stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. And while he is almost completely forgotten in the West, he remains a popular and influential artist in India who helped Indian art on its way into the 20th century.

More about Satyavati on:

and Raja Ravi Varma on: