The birth of one of India’s most celebrated painters — Raja Ravi Verma

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Woman Holding a Fruit by Raja Ravi Varma

April 29, On This Day

One of India’s first modern artists

Raja Ravi Varma in 1890s

Considered among the greatest and most prolific painters in the history of Indian art, Raja Ravi Varma was born today, 173 years ago — April 29, 1848. He died at the age of 58 in October 1906, till which time he is believed to have made at least 7,000 paintings.

Raja Ravi Varma is sometimes regarded as the first modern Indian artist due to his ability to reconcile Western aesthetics with Indian iconography.

Raja Ravi Varma on a 1971 stamp of India

He was notable for making affordable lithographs of his paintings available to the public, enhancing his reach and influence as a painter and public figure, as well as involving more people with fine arts and defining their artistic tastes. He started a lithographic printing press in Mumbai in 1894 and shifted it to Malavli near Lonavala in 1899. The oleographs produced here were mostly of Hindu gods and goddesses in scenes adapted mainly from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas. His religious depictions of Hindu deities received widespread acclaim. These paintings all continued to be printed in thousands for many years, even after his death, due to their popularity. The press was sold to German printing technician from Fritz Schleicher, and ran successfully till 1972, when a devastating fire destroyed the factory. Many of Raja Ravi Varma’s original lithographic prints were lost in the blaze.

Anecdote: When Raja Ravi Varma sold his printing press, he reportedly gave some proceeds to a cherished employee — Dadasaheb Phalke, widely known years later and today as the father of Indian Cinema!

Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma
The Maharashtrian Lady by Raja Ravi Varma
Woman Holding a Fruit by Raja Ravi Varma
Tilottama, chromolithograph, 1896 by Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma was born into an aristocratic family in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (now Kerala) that for over 200 years produced consorts for the princesses of the matrilineal Travancore royal family. Years later, the title Raja was conferred on him as a personal title by the Viceroy and Governor-General of India. In 1866, at the age of 18, Varma was married to 12-year-old Bhageerthi Bayi of the royal house of Mavelikkara. According to the matrilineal Marumakkathayam system, the succession to the throne could only progress through females in their communities.

There comes Papa (1893), depicting Raja Ravi Varma’s daughter Mahaprabha with one of her sons

He is also often criticized for being too showy and sentimental in his style, but his work remains very popular in India, and many of his fabulous paintings are housed at Laxmi Vilas in Gujarat. Today, Raja Ravi Varma is the topic of films, books, photo shoots, chapters in school textbooks and even an 8-kg saree with 11 of his paintings, which was entered into the Guinness World Records as the most expensive saree in the world (Rs 40 lakh) in January 2008, made by Chennai Silks director Sivalingam.

A record-making Rs 4- lakh saree featuring Raja Ravi Varma’s artwork