April 29 is the birth anniversary of the famed Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), remembered for giving Indians their western, classical representations of Hindu gods and goddesses. Through his printing press, Varma’s humanised depiction of Hindu pantheon travelled beyond the surfaces of costly canvases, and into the prayer and living rooms of working-class homes.
A prolific artist, Varma is believed to have made around 7,000 paintings before his death at the age of 58. His most famous works include Damayanti Talking to a Swan, Shakuntala Looking for Dushyanta, Nair Lady Adorning Her Hair, and Shantanu and Matsyagandha.
Raja Ravi Varma
Varma was born into aristocracy at Kilimanoor in the erstwhile Travancore state of present-day Kerala, and was closely related to its royal family. At an early age, Varma showed a keen interest in drawing, and would draw on the walls of Kilimanoor palace, where he lived. His uncle, Raja Raja Varma, noticed the younger Varma’s talent, and gave the latter initial lessons in painting.
At the age of 14, Varma was patronised by Ayilyam Thirunal, the then ruler of Travancore, and went on to receive training in watercolours from Ramaswamy Naidu, the royal painter. Later, Varma studied oil painting with the British painter Theodore Jensen. Apart from Travancore, Varma also worked for other wealthy patrons such as the Gaekwad of Baroda.
Varma worked on both portrait and landscape paintings, and is considered among the first Indian artists to use oil paints. Apart from painting Hindu mythological figures, Varma also made portraits of many Indians as well as Europeans.
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Varma is also known for having mastered the reproduction of his work on the lithographic press– through which his paintings spread far and wide. He continues to be regarded as the most important representative of the Europeanised school of painting in India. His 1873 painting, Nair Lady Adorning Her Hair, won Varma prestigious awards including Governor’s Gold Medal when it was presented in the Madras Presidency, and Certificate of Merit at an exhibition in Vienna.
In 1904, the British colonial government awarded Varma with the Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal. In 2013, a crater on the planet Mercury was named in his honour.