Raja Ravi Varma

The introduction of the Company style in the 18th and 19th centuries by the art schools, the Indian artist created works of art that were British in style but Indian in content. The discussion about the company style makes it clear that the artists painted in an Indo-European style using Western linear perspective, shading and English watercolours. This was seen as a degeneration and threat for Indian traditional art. Here, we find the most celebrated painter of 19th century, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), who tried to re-establish Indian art through western methods
and technique.

Raja Ravi Varma hailed from the princely state of Travancore and is best known for depiction of scenes from Indian mythology and epics.

Important Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma


Ravi Varma is particularly noted for his paintings depicting episodes from the story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, and Nala and Damayanti, from the Mahabharata. In this most famous painting of his, Shakuntala pretends to remove a thorn from her foot, while actually looking for Dushyantha, while her friends call her bluff.

Hamsa Damayanti

The story of Nala & Damayanti is a very interesting story as told in Mahabharata.

Jatayu Vadham

Jatayu was the son of Aruṇa and nephew of Garuda. A demi-god in form of a vulture, he was an old friend of Dasharatha and he unsuccessfully tried to rescue Sita from Ravana when Ravana was on his way to Lanka after kidnapping Sita. It has been vividly depicted by Raja Ravi Varma.


In this famous painting, Raja Ravi Varma depicts Draupadi, the common wife of Pandavas, not happy to carry beverages to Keechaka, the army commander of Matsya, during the one year of Agyatvas (hiding). Later Bhima killed him with bare hands, when he disguised as Malini (Draupadi) and inserted himself in the bed of Keechaka.

Other Paintings:

The first picture printed at Varma’s press is said to be The Birth of Shakuntala. This was followed by an array of images of gods from the Hindu pantheon, including Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganpati, and Vishnu and his avatars such as Rama and Krishna. Other images included those of revered gurus and saints such as Adi Shankaracharya and Vaishanava Guru. There were also extensive series of oleographs representing women figures from Hindu mythology such as Draupadi, Damayanti, Menaka, Shakuntala, and Rambha.

    • Woman Holding a Fan
    • Village Belle
    • Lady Lost in Thought
    • The Orchestra
    • Arjuna and Subhadra
    • The heartbroken
    • Swarbat Player
    • Shakuntala
    • Lord Krishna as Ambassador
    • Victory of Indrajit
    • A Family of Beggars
    • A Lady Playing Swarbat
    • Lady Giving Alms at the Temple
    • Lord Rama Conquers Varuna
    • Nair Woman
    • Maharashtrian Lady
    • Romancing Couple
    • Shantanu and Matsyagandha
    • Shakuntala Composing a Love Letter to King Dushyanta
    • Girl in Sage Kanwa’s Hermitage (Rishi-Kanya)


Salient Features of Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma

  • His iconic and figural portraits of Indian women, mythological gods, royal life, literary figures and national heroes and heroines were an amalgamation of the European Realism, technique and material but were Indian in subject as well as narration.
  • While the company style is known for extensive use of the English watercolours, Raja Ravi Varma modified the European style of perspective and composition with the Indian Iconography and used oil painting. The oil painting was an inexpensive technology and coupled with Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographs, his paintings gained immense popularity due to their mass production and cheap prices. Due to mass production of his work, the poor could also afford his work.
  • Raja Ravi Varma is also known to have launched the popular painting industry in India. He was highly encouraged by his patrons and the demand for his work (and obviously earnings) was such that he was able to establish India’s first chromolithographic press in Bombay in 1891.
  • He initially learnt the painting from his uncle Raja Raja Varma. His early work seems to be in Company Style but in the due course of time, he mastered the western art of oil painting and “realistic” life study. The scene after scene he created on the canvas were those which he witnessed during the theatrical performances of Ramayana and Mahabharata during the tour of the Bombay presidency.
  • In the later years of the 19th century, his paintings were so much liked by the Indian princes and art collectors that these patrons filled their palace galleries with the works of Raja Ravi Varma.

Oleography: Oleography refers to the method of reproducing an oil painting on paper in such a manner that the exact colors and brushstrokes textures are duplicated. It is also called litho-printing (stone printing) and requires as many litho-stones as there are colors and tones in a painting. Raja Ravi Varma started his Lithographic Press in 1894 in Bombay. Until, the Raja Ravi Varma used oleography in his prints, it was used for gaudy ‘calendar art’ and commodity packaging.

Can Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings called National?

Raja Ravi Varma can be called India’s first modern artist, first Indian artist to master perspective and the use of the oil medium; probably first to use human models to illustrate Hindu gods and goddesses on a wide scale and first Indian artist to become widely famous.

  • His works were accessible to the common man because of his venture of printing and distributing the Oleographs.
  • Around the same time, Calcutta rose as a hub of political as well as cultural activities. By now, the print medium had also become the ideal channel for the wide circulation of images and ideas to the public. Apart from Calcutta, Bombay and Pune emerged as two major centres for mass print production.
  • The mass printing of the Ramayana and Mahabharata images of Raja Ravi Varma helped the art to reach every nook and corner of the country thus helped to forge a national identity in modern India. Thus, the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma created a culture that was need of the hour for a very diverse country like India. On the basis of this argument, we can call Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings as National.
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