Raja Ravi Varma Coil Thampuran ( 29 April 1848 – 2 October 1906) was an Indian painter and artist from the princely state of Travancore (presently in southern Kerala & some parts of Tamil Nadu) who achieved recognition for his paintings depicting scenes from Indian literature and mythology including the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. He is considered among the greatest painters in the history of Indian art and his paintings are considered to be among the best examples of the fusion of Indian traditions with the techniques of European academic art . Varma’s paintings portrayed sari-clad women in graceful manner, which became an important motif of that time, reproductions being found in many homes.
Varma was patronized by Ayilyam Thirunal, the then Maharajah of Travancore and began formal training thereafter. He learned the basics of painting in Madurai. Later, he was trained in water painting by Rama Swami Naidu and in oil painting by Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson.
Varma received widespread acclaim after he won an award for an exhibition of his paintings at Vienna in 1873. Varma’s paintings were also sent to the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 and he was awarded three gold medals. He travelled throughout India in search of subjects. He often modelled Hindu Goddesses on South Indian women, whom he considered beautiful. Ravi Varma is particularly noted for his paintings depicting episodes from the story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, and Nala and Damayanti, from the Mahabharata. Ravi Varma’s representation of mythological characters has become a part of the Indian imagination of the epics. He is often criticized for being too showy and sentimental in his style but his work remains very popular in India. Many of his fabulous paintings are housed at Laxmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara.
Apparently on the advice of the then Dewan (Prime Minister) of Travancore, T. Madhava Rao, Ravi Varma started a lithographic printing press in Ghatkopar, Mumbai in 1894 and later shifted it to Malavli near Lonavala, Maharashtra in 1899. The press was managed by Varma’s brother, Raja Varma. In 1901 the press was sold to his printing technician from Germany, Mr. Schleicher and later closed down after it was gutted in an accidental fire. The oleographs produced by the press were mostly of Hindu gods and goddesses in scenes adapted mainly from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas. These oleographs were very popular and continued to be printed in thousands for many years, even after the 1906 death of Ravi Varma.
In 1904, Viceroy Lord Curzon, on behalf of the British King Emperor, bestowed upon Varma the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal. A college dedicated to fine arts was also constituted in his honour at Mavelikara, Kerala. Raja Ravi Varma High School at Kilimanoor was named after him and there are many cultural organizations throughout India bearing his name. In 2013, the crater Varma on Mercury was named in his honor. Considering his vast contribution to Indian art, the Government of Kerala has instituted an award called “Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram”, which is awarded every year to people who show excellence in the field of art and culture.
Raja Ravi Varma was born as Ravi Varma Coil Thampuran in Kilimanoor palace in the erstwhile Thiruvithankur in Kerala. His father Ezhumavil Neelakanthan Bhattatiripad was an accomplished scholar, who hailed from the Ernakulam district in Kerala. His mother Umayamba Thamburatty was a poet and writer whose work Parvati Swayamvaram was published by Varma after her death. He had 3 siblings namely Goda Varma (born 1854), Raja Varma (born 1860) and Mangala Bayi, who was also a painter. As per the Marumakkathayam tradition, the name of the maternal uncle (Raja Raja Varma) was prefixed to his name and later he was referred to as Raja Ravi Varma.
Varma was married to Pururuttathi Nal Bhageerathi Thamburatty of the royal house of Mavelikkara and they had two sons and three daughters. Their elder son, Kerala Varma, born in 1876 went missing in 1912 and was never heard of again. Their second son Rama Varma (born 1879), an artist who studied at the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, married to Gowri Kunjamma, sister of Dewan PGN Unnithan. Varma’s eldest daughter, Ayilyam Nal Mahaprabha, appears in two of his prominent paintings and was mother of Maharani Pooradam thirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the Regent of Travancore. Their second daughter, Thiruvadira Nal Kochukunji was the mother of Amma Maharani Moolam Thirunal Sethu Parvathi Bayi and the grandmother of Maharajah Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. Their third daughter, born in 1882, was Ayilyam Nal Cheria Kochamma.
His descendants comprise the Mavelikara Royal house while two of his grand daughters, including the said Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi, were adopted to the Travancore Royal Family, the cousin family of the Mavelikara House, to which lineage the present Travancore Maharajah (Titular), Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, belonged. Well known among his descendants are writers Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, Shreekumar Varma, artist Rukmini Varma and classical musician Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma among others.