Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Iconic Indian Artist Of Last Century

Indian art is popular for its cultural particularity. In an age when the nation was a victim of colonization, this Indian artist found not weakness but power in acculturation. Raja Ravi Varma is well-known for his one-of-a-kind oil paintings based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics. Raja Ravi Varma achieved a magnificent synthesis of Indian traditions and Europan academic art techniques. 

Raja Ravi Varma in 1890s, via Wikipedia

He gained the patronage of HH Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal of Travancore, a relative, at an early age and began formal study shortly after. Raja Ravi Varma earned worldwide fame after winning a prize for a painting show in Vienna in 1873. In quest of themes, he traveled throughout India. He frequently based Hindu Goddesses on South Indian ladies he admired.

Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Iconic Indian Artist Of Last Century
Disappointed, by Raja Ravi Varma, via Google Arts and Culture

People, particularly ladies, were his favorite subject. Ravi Varma was a cut above other painters when it came to portraits, figures, and depictions of complex scenarios from Hindu mythology, as well as his understanding of proportion, perspective, representation of skin tones, and the exquisite folds and texture of clothes. The ornaments were painted faithful to the metals, the hands and feet were correctly formed, the expressions were captured precisely, and the colors and composition were presented with uncommon finesse.

Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Iconic Indian Artist Of Last Century
Draupadi(from the Hindu mythological text, Mahabharata) at the Court Of Virat, by Raja Ravi Varma, via Google Arts and Culture

He possessed the vision and skill to create lifelike, human-like representations of the deities on paint. Ravi Varma was also the first significant Indian painter to utilize oil as a medium and to use live models in several of his paintings. Another deviation from the usual is his style; several of his works are eerily similar to those of the Grand Masters of Italy or Holland. And the quality is on par with the finest!

Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Iconic Indian Artist Of Last Century
The Coquette, by Raja Ravi Varma, via Google Arts and Culture

He revolutionized the Indian Arts forever. Painting during Varma’s period was primarily traditional, according to scriptural standards. They were either two-dimensional or linear in nature. Varma’s paintings were realistic, adding a third dimension. The real sari was still emerging at the period, and Varma’s most famous painting, Lakshmi, which now hangs in the Lakshmi Villa Palace of Baroda, offered the first sight of the modern-day sari. Lakshmi, without a doubt, became one of the most popular prints ever made in India.

Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Iconic Indian Artist Of Last Century
Lakshmi, by Raja Ravi Varma, via Google Arts and Culture

Varma established India’s visual language in the nineteenth century. From matchbox labels to tin candy boxes, religious and political posters, mythical series, the advent of lithography and its widespread distribution had transformed into anti-Imperialist propaganda weapons. The most intriguing way that the capabilities of mass lithography were utilized in pre-independence India was through the fusion of the holy and the political. Away from the glare of colonial repression, religious symbols and legendary events that were a major element of popular iconography sent subtle calls to destroy the British Raj.

Which of Varma’s works do you think represents the amalgamation of British and Indian culture most perfectly? Share with us in the comments below.

As Varma shaped India’s art history, Monet shaped that of France. Learn about the most iconic French artist of the last century – Claude Monet.

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