1. Raja Raja Varma was a renowned Indian painter born in Kilimanoor, Trivandrum, on March 29, 1863. He was the youngest brother of another famous painter, Raja Ravi Varma, and belonged to the royal family of Travancore. Varma’s family had a long tradition of artists and musicians, and he inherited his artistic talents from them. Let us explore the life and legacy of this important Indian artist, tracing his career from his early beginnings to his lasting impact on the Indian art world.

Overview of The Artist

  1. Raja Raja Varma was a prominent Indian painter who left an indelible mark on the Indian art world. Born in 1860, Rajaraja grew up in an artistic setting. His mother, Umamba, was not only an Ayurvedic physician but also a poet; his father, Neelakantan Bhattathiri, was a Sanskrit scholar; and his maternal uncle was a skilled ivory carver and painter in south Indian styles. The family was affluent, owning thousands of acres of land, and had ties to the Travancore royal family through marriage. Raja Raja was brought up in this aristocratic milieu. Still, from his youth, Ravi Varma, who had been painting at the durbar in Thiruvananthapuram, urged Raja Raja to break free from inherited comforts. Raja Raja was sent to the state’s capital for an English education, where he studied alongside royal princes. He received his initial artistic training from his older brother, the renowned painter Raja Ravi Varma. He established his unique style that blended European realism with Indian traditionalism.
Life of an Art: C. Raja Raja Varma - Sheet1
C. Raja Raja Varma_©Weile & Klein

Despite his relatively short career, C. Raja Raja Varma made significant contributions to the Indian art world, particularly in plein-air painting and adapting traditional Indian styles. Raja Raja Varma was 12 years junior to his more famous sibling. No tales of yakshas or prophecies of greatness exist around him: His place has largely been in the background as a dutiful follower of Ravi Varma. However, they were exposed to the same influences early in life. Inspired by the natural beauty of the Kerala region in southern India, where he lived and worked, his paintings often featured lush green forests, rolling hills, and shimmering waterfalls. They were notable for their use of light and colour. His paintings are highly valued and sought after and continue influencing contemporary Indian artists today.

In addition to his landscapes, C. Raja Raja Varma created many works depicting scenes from Indian mythology and history, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These paintings were characterised by their intricate detail and vibrant colours, showcasing Varma’s unique blend of Indian and European artistic styles.

Career- Philosophy, Style of work

Raja Raja Varma started his artistic career as a student at the Madras School of Arts, where he was trained in oil painting, watercolour, and portrait painting. Later, he went to Europe to study art, where he was exposed to the works of great masters such as Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Titian. He was known for his ability to capture the essence of Indian mythology and culture in his paintings.

Life of an Art: C. Raja Raja Varma - Sheet2
Mysore Khedda Camp of Maharaja of Mysore._©cyberkerala

He believed that art should be accessible to all and reflect the beauty and diversity of Indian life and culture. He was mainly known for his ability to capture the beauty and essence of his subjects. His paintings often depicted Indian women and children in everyday settings, such as playing musical instruments or performing household tasks. He used vibrant colours and keen attention to detail to bring these scenes to life. Varma’s painting style was unique, and he is considered the pioneer of the plein-air painting movement in India. 

He accompanied Ravi Varma on his “tour of discovery” of India between 1888–’89; they visited royal courts and recorded – in vivid detail – their winding travels in search of patronage. He played a vital role in creating many of Raja Ravi Varma’s masterpieces, and his contributions to Indian art cannot be understated.

One of C. Raja Raja Varma’s most significant contributions to Ravi Varma’s artwork was painting the backdrops and landscapes for his Puranic paintings. A notable example of this collaboration is the Baroda commission of 1881. They also established a modern studio in Bombay where they created some of the most exquisite portraits of notable European and Indian figures, such as Dadabhai Naroji and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

In 1894, Raja Ravi Varma and C. Raja Raja Varma collaborated to establish the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press. The press was used to oleograph paintings of epic and Puranic tales, which made religious symbols accessible to the poorer and middle-class Indians in their homes. According to Oxford historian Parthha Mitter, the Varma brothers were among the “foremost painters of 19th-century India.”

Life of an Art: C. Raja Raja Varma - Sheet3
Baby And Princess._©The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

The Varma brothers followed the traditional workshop tradition of masters and apprentices and worked with other artists as a unit. Thus, Ravi Varma’s achievement as a painter of Indian traditions was not solely an individual one but also a collective accomplishment of the Varma brothers and their team of artists.

Life of an Art: C. Raja Raja Varma - Sheet4
Nair Lady with Mirror_©Government Museum, Chennai

“This formula for success was seen by him and his fellow painters less as an exclusive product of individual talent than as a skill and craft that could be acquired and honed to perfection and passed on to subsequent generations,” Guha-Thakurta says.”

Recognition after death

  1. Raja Raja Varma’s contributions to Indian art have significantly impacted the world’s history and perspective of viewing art. His unique style has inspired generations of artists, and his paintings are now housed in museums and galleries worldwide. In recognition of his contributions to Indian art, Varma was awarded the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honours, in 1957.
‘Vasantika’ meaning Spring_©cyberkerala

The value of C. Raja Raja Varma’s paintings varies depending on their rarity, condition, and historical significance. However, his contributions to Indian art cannot be measured financially. His legacy inspires and influences artists worldwide, and his paintings serve as a window into India’s rich cultural heritage. The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma is also a valuable historical document that provides insights into India’s cultural and social milieu in the late 19th century.

The Varma brothers impacted Indian art by straddling the divide between traditional court painting and the emerging modern art scene. At an auction in 2021 by Saffronart in Mumbai, while a Ravi Varma fetched over ₹20 crores for the first time, a Rajaraja canvas also entered the big league, selling for an unprecedented ₹3 crores. Recognition, on his own merits, is coming his way, even if it is late in the day.


  • Baby and princess – C Raja Raja Varma – Google Arts & Culture (no date) Google. Google. Available at: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/baby-and-princess-c-raja-raja-varma/wgF0lF6IPQyVEQ?hl=en (Accessed: March 20, 2023). 
  • Saha Sutra (no date) Sahapedia. Available at: https://www.sahapedia.org/saha-sutra (Accessed: March 20, 2023). 
  • Simran Agarwal, S. (2020) A family affair: Few know about the artistic prowess of Raja Ravi Varma’s siblings, Scroll. in. Scroll. in. Available at: https://scroll.in/article/969025/a-family-affair-few-know-about-the-artistic-prowess-of-raja-ravi-varmas-siblings (Accessed: March 24, 2023). 
  • CyberKerala.com (no date) Cyber Kerala – Kathakali, Raja Ravi Varma oil paintings, Bharatanatyam, mohiniyattam, arts, Koodiyattam, handicrafts, greeting cards, Mudiyettu, theeyattu, Kalamezhuthu, Sabarimala, Guruvayoor, fashion, gold. Available at: http://www.cyberkerala.com/index.html (Accessed: March 24, 2023).  
  • (no date) The Hindu: Literary review / book review: Portrait of an artist. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20071014012759/http://www.hinduonnet.com/lr/2005/07/03/stories/2005070300300500.htm (Accessed: March 24, 2023). 
  • The lesser-known Raja: Ravi Varma’s partner in art (2022) Mintlounge. Available at: https://lifestyle.livemint.com/news/opinion/the-lesser-known-raja-ravi-varma-s-partner-in-art-111651166334348.html (Accessed: March 25, 2023). 

Isha Ralhan is a 5th-year undergrad student pursuing a bachelor's degree in architecture. She likes learning about new things and traveling to new places. She enjoys photography as a hobby, reading books in her free time, and adores cats.