Raja Ravi Varma, the Pioneer of Modern Indian Art

Many of us recognise the image of Goddess Lakshmi, clad in a nonchalantly draped saree, standing amid a lotus. This portrayal of Lakshmi emerging from the lotus, was painted by realist Indian painter, Raja Ravi Varma.

Born in 1848 in the village of Kilimanoor, Kerala, Ravi Varma belonged to royal lineage. Lore has it that he was spotted drawing pictures on the walls of his house by his uncle. His uncle then brought him to the royal palace of Thiruvananthapuram where the young boy was taught how to paint. He grew to be the celebrated Raja Ravi Varma, feted as the father of modern Indian art for his ability to fuse European academic techniques with Indian sensibilities.

Upon gaining popularity, Ravi Varma was invited by the Maharaja of Travancore to demonstrate his talents north of the Periyar River, and was commissioned to paint a series of mythological paintings. 

What emerged out of those commissions were iconic pieces of art such as, Shakuntala, an oil-on-canvas painting of the half-nymph of the Mahabharata, in which she’s seen writing a love letter to her husband, Dushyanta. The image of a beautiful woman daydreaming, clad in a bright yellow sari, lying on a carpet of green grass in a forest, surrounded by her friends became what came to be known to the rest of the world as the 'traditional Indian woman.'

The images he created were a composite created out of what he saw during his travels across the country – the colour of the skin was from North India, the way the sari was draped was Maharashtrian and the jewellery was usually from south India.

Today, decades after his death, Ravi Varma is still remembered, and celebrated for his paintings of beautiful, shapely sari-clad women and for setting the visual language for India in the nineteenth century.