A Flashback to Raja Ravi Varma, the Creator of Common Man’s Gods and Goddesses

Have you ever thought who originally drew the pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses that we pray every day and night? The other day when I was reading a newspaper article I came to know about Raja Ravi Varma, the first Indian artist who drew the face of Goddess Laxmi’s that we always pray. This aroused my curiosity and I really wanted to know more about this artist, who is also considered as the father of modern Indian art.

Raja Ravi Varma’s childhood

The Indian artist was born in the princely State of Travancore (now in Kerala) in April 1848 in a royal family of those times. It is said that Raja Ravi Verma was a born artist as he inherited his artistic skills from his family. He was brought up in a family which had its association with the culture, art and literature of that time. His mother Uma Amba Bai Tampuratti was a poet, his father Ezhymavil Neelakantan Bhattathiripad was a Sanskrit scholar and his uncle Raja Raja Varma was an amateur artist, who taught young Ravi his initial art lessons.

As a little boy, Ravi Verma used to draw and colour the walls of his home with pictures of characters found in everyday life. At the age of 13, Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunaal appreciated his skills and subsequently, began patronising his artistic endeavours. Thereafter he shifted to the Thiruvathankore palace premises (in Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum). Here, Ravi Varma got the opportunity to be trained by the palace artist Ramaswami Naicker, who at that time had already mastered the European style of painting, and from Theodore Jensen, a Dutch portrait painter. Ravi Verma stated playing with different painting techniques and crude colours for nine whole years and his efforts were appreciated, though they were not the best. He slowly started learning the principles of European art and spent most of his time in the palace by studying painting as an art form.

How he became Ravi Varma the Artist?

As he grew up, a question started bothering him. That was, whether art should be his career or not, because an artist or a painter during that period was not considered an important person in higher societies. But he had an inclination towards art since childhood and he did not want to give up so easily. The year was 1870. He decided to become an artist by profession for which he went on foot to Mookambika temple in South Canara district of Karnataka, to worship the goddess there and make an auspicious beginning. His first professional painting was a portrait of a family in Calicut and he received the first paid commission. Ever since then, he never looked back till his death and came up with a number of paintings.

Ravi Verma, started developing new techniques influenced by the West and also introduced new elements into Indian art and painting. He painted both portraits and landscapes. He started using canvas and oil colours. There was a perfect blend of European and Indian culture in his paintings. He had deep faith in the Divine grace, which made him draw imaginary pictures of Gods and Goddesses, including the characters of the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. He was known for his paintings of properly shaped and graceful sari-clad women. His paintings later on became so popular that keeping any of his works at homes and palaces came to be considered a matter of status symbol. He also became internationally acclaimed when he won the first prize in the Vienna Art Exhibition in 1873.

The ‘Firsts’ in Raja Ravi Varma’s Life

  • He was the first Indian artist to give a face to Indian Gods and Devis (Goddesses), while earlier these were in the form of sculptures and miniatures only.
  • His paintings made possible for untouchables, who were not allowed to enter temples, to pray in front of Gods and Goddesses’ images.
  • He was the first to design the sari through his paintings that the Indian woman wears today.
  • He drew paintings everywhere, from match boxes to posters to clothes, so that art reached everywhere. Thereby, he became the creator of the calendar pop art.
  • He started a colour printing press, which was the first in India.
  • He was the costliest Indian painter ever. Some of his paintings are priced as high as Rs 30 cr in the art world.
  • He was the first and the only person in India to have had a personal, special post office, provided to him in view  of the high volume of fan mails arriving as cartloads.
  • He was the first Indian to get the highest civilian award ‘Kaisar-E-Hind’ from the colonial Government.
  • It is also to be noted that Raja Ravi Verma is the grandfather of Indian cinema, as Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, started his career as an apprentice with Raja Ravi Varma.

The controversial artist

He was also reputed to be a controversial artist of his time, mainly because of his paintings of nude and semi-nude goddesses and women, which were considered obscene, offending the general public and hurting religious and cultural sentiments of the people. It is also rumoured that he had an affair with his muse Sugandha, in spite of being married. He drew a number of nude pictures of Sugandha, which were supposed to be kept private but became public for no known reasons. He was a rebel. He did not stop painting such nude pictures in spite of controversies as he believed in his work.

Rang Rasiya

This great artist in Indian art history breathed his last on October 2, 1906. Even today, he is recognised as the greatest artist in India art. He is indeed the father of Modern Art. After his death, he was paid deep respects and tributes from various places and people. Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, a revered name in Indian art, rightly said that time, “It is rare to come across men like him, artists like him, lovers of India like him”. Based on the legendary painter Raja Ravi Varma, noted film director Ketan Mehta has directed a Randeep Hooda, Nandana Sen-starrer film titled Rang Rasiya which is slated to be released on October 30 this week. Maybe we will get to know more about this artist from this movie.

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