Rupika Chawla, art curator and author, in her book Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, writes: “He underwent a process of conscious selection of themes, genre and medium in the paintings he wished to make – the grand historical paintings of gods and heroes, and portraits of the rich and powerful. He allowed Western influences to prevail when and where it suited him, and from which he knew he could derive the maximum advantage.”
As an artist he changed India’s vision of gods and goddesses from supernatural imagery to a human style, with an attention to minute details, from fabrics, hair styles and jewellery to artefacts and furniture. His style used textures, light and shadows to help evoke the mood. It is famously said in India that in his paintings you can almost hear the rustle of silk sarees.
His favourite subjects were women in traditional attire, reclining on a bed or lost in thought. “His speciality was realism in its peak – each costume and piece of jewellery looks the same [as the] original. The pearls, diamonds, the temple jewellery, all were of that era. The furniture, building interiors, utensils, all were available at the time he did his paintings,” says Kochi-based artist, Bindhi Rajagopal.
Ravi Varma was born in Kilimanoor, Kerala, 25 miles from the capital city of Trivandrum, in April 1848, into a family of poets and scholars with royal connections. Kilimanoor was famous for producing consorts for the princesses of the matrilineal royal family of Travancore.
The mother of Jay Varma, Rukmini Varma, tells BBC Culture, “I have heard stories from my grandmother and mother of the artist drawing and scribbling on the walls with charcoal as a young child, and a servant sitting beside him with a bucket of water and cloth to mop it at regular intervals, and he would [then] continue to draw again.