A woman on a swing

Reimagining Divinity: Depictions in Raja Ravi Varma's Art

Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) stands as one of the most influential figures in the history of Indian art. He was renowned for his revolutionary approach, amidst the backdrop of British colonial rule in India. This article endeavours to elucidate the life, works, and lasting legacy of Raja Ravi Varma, examining his contributions to the evolution of Indian art during the colonial period.

A woman looking elsewhere with her friends in the background
Raja Ravi Varma, 1898, Shakuntala and her friends, Wikicommons

Raja Ravi Varma: Introduction

Raja Ravi Varma was born in Kilimanoor, a princely state in present-day Kerala, India, in 1848. Born into a family with a rich artistic lineage, Varma demonstrated an early aptitude for painting. He received formal training in art under renowned Indian and European artists, which laid the foundation for his distinctive style that merged Indian tradition with European academic realism (Sivakumar, 2014). As an artist, Raja Ravi Varma revolutionized India's depiction of deities, transitioning from supernatural representations to a more humanistic style characterized by meticulous attention to detail, encompassing fabrics, hairstyles, jewellery, and even the minutiae of artefacts and furnishings. Employing textures, lighting, and shadows, he masterfully crafted mood in his compositions.

Early Influences and Training

Woman reclining painting
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
Woman lying down
Reclining Nair Lady, 1902, Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Raja Ravi Varma's paintings were shaped by a diverse range of influences, including the traditional Indian art forms prevalent in his region and the academic realism propagated by European artists. His exposure to the works of European masters during a visit to the court of Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal of Travancore broadened his artistic horizons and inspired him to experiment with new techniques and styles such as working with chiaroscuro.

The British colonial presence in India introduced Varma to Western artistic trends and materials, influencing his artistic choices and subject matter. For instance, his portraits of Indian royalty often reflected British ideals of beauty and refinement.

Image of a woman with her one hand raised, semi-nude.
The painting of Tilottama, a celestial nymph from Hindu mythology. (Auctioned at Sotheby's, New York, 2018). Wikimedia Commons

Dissemination of Art through Prints

A pivotal moment in Raja Ravi Varma's career occurred in 1894, marked by his establishment of a lithographic printing press in Lonavala. Equipped with state-of-the-art German machinery and methodologies, this press specialized in producing oleographs, which replicated the appearance of oil paintings, featuring depictions of deities, and mythological scenes from texts such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Puranas. Additionally, the press undertook the printing of diverse items including matchbox labels, picture postcards, textile labels, and advertisements. The press was eventually shut after it caught fire mysteriously.

One of Varma's most significant contributions was the popularisation of art through the mass production of prints. His lithographic prints became immensely popular, adorning the walls of homes and public spaces. He made art accessible to a broader audience across India. Varma's prints became ubiquitous in Indian households. His idealised portrayals of Indian deities, mythological figures, and historical heroes served to foster a sense of pride and cultural continuity among Indians amidst the onslaught of colonialism, challenging the dominant narrative of cultural inferiority propagated by the British. These depictions were also called ‘calendar art’. However, at the same time, it also changed the Indian perception of its deities. The Gods and Goddesses were now depicted to have Western attributes, unlike their former depictions. While he sought to celebrate indigenous traditions, his emphasis on idealised beauty and realism often perpetuated certain stereotypes and hierarchies, particularly concerning gender and caste.

A woman on a swing
Temptress, Mohini on a Swing, Oleograph, Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Patronage and Recognition

Varma's artistic prowess earned him patronage from royalty and nobility across India. His iconic paintings such as "Shakuntala," "Damayanti," and "Hamsa Damayanti" garnered accolades and awards at national and international exhibitions, cementing his reputation as a preeminent artist of his era.

Influence & Criticism of Raja Ravi Varma's Paintings

Goddess Saraswati
Goddess Saraswati, 1896, Wikicommons

Raja Ravi Varma's legacy extends far beyond his lifetime, influencing generations of Indian artists and shaping the trajectory of Indian art. His innovative approach to blending tradition with modernity, coupled with the subtle incorporation of colonial influences, laid the groundwork for the Bengal School of Art and the broader Indian Renaissance movement. Varma's legacy continues to inspire contemporary artists and scholars, serving as a testament to his enduring impact on the cultural landscape of India.

One notable criticism revolves around Varma's idealization and romanticization of Indian subjects, particularly women. Scholars such as Partha Mitter, in his book "Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922," argue that Varma's representations of women were often tailored to suit colonial and upper-class tastes, perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing Victorian notions of femininity. Mitter suggests that Varma's portrayal of women as passive, docile figures served to reinforce patriarchal norms rather than challenge them.

Another line of criticism targets Varma's commercialization of art. While his innovative use of lithography and mass production techniques made his art accessible to a wider audience, some scholars argue that this commercial success compromised the integrity of his artistic vision. According to art historian Rupika Chawla, in her essay "Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India," Varma's focus on marketability led to a dilution of his artistic authenticity, as he prioritized pleasing his patrons over pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.

Furthermore, Varma's impact on the perception of Indian culture has been a subject of debate. Some scholars argue that his romanticized depictions of Indian mythology and historical events contributed to a homogenized and sanitized understanding of Indian identity, erasing the diversity and complexity of Indian cultural heritage. Art critic Geeta Kapur, in her essay "Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Modern Life," suggests that Varma's emphasis on nostalgia and exoticism perpetuated a simplified and distorted view of Indian tradition, catering primarily to colonial and elite tastes.

Despite these criticisms, Raja Ravi Varma's legacy remains significant in the history of Indian art, and his contributions to popularizing Indian aesthetics both nationally and internationally cannot be overlooked. However, scholarly critiques offer valuable insights into the complexities of Varma's work and its broader socio-cultural implications, encouraging a more nuanced understanding of his artistic legacy.


Mitter, Partha. "Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922."

Chawla, Rupika. "Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India."

Kapur, Geeta. "Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Modern Life."

Goddess Laxmi
Goddess Lakshmi, 1896, Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation


 Raja Ravi Varma occupies a seminal position in Indian art history, introducing a transformative shift in artistic expression during the colonial period and democratising art. One can view Raja Ravi Varma's paintings and other works such as those in silver, at Raja Ravi Varma Foundation in Bangalore.

Back to blog