Mangala Bai, an accomplished artist

The Kochu Chothi Tirunal Amma Tampuran of Travancore (1866-1953)

When we dwell on Kerala painters, we tend to focus on Ravi Varma, and indeed he was accomplished and over time, very popular. However, others around him tend to get mentioned only in passing, like Raja Varma, his brother, and traveling companion. Raja Varma was also very good at his work and often completed his brother’s work or collaborated with him on his paintings. And there were a few others like Kunjan Warrier, who helped out at his studio in Travancore. Behind the two brothers, mostly hidden and rarely mentioned is his younger sister, Mangala Bai. There have been some mentions of her in recent news reports, a more detailed outline of her life was provided by Travancore’s chronicler Sharat Sundar Rajeev and a fine study of her life and work can be found in Dr. LP Daniel's thesis. For the benefit of a wider audience, I can summarize those, adding a little bit more.

Ravi Varma’s contemporary siblings were his brother C. Goda Varma (1854-1904, a musician), his brother C. Raja Raja Varma or Raja Varma (1860-1905) the painter and his sister Mangala Bai Thampuratti (1866-1953), also a painter. It is also very important to note here, that Mangala was potentially the first Indian woman artist. A major input to this article is a short introduction to the painter, by a yesteryear Travancore historian named R Kulathu Iyer. Since it is published in a very old newspaper (Madras Mail dated 8th August 1907), which is difficult to access, I will post it verbatim, quoting Iyer, the then King Rama Varma Valia Koil Thampuran’s private secretary. The article also provides several bits of information otherwise not easily available.


A Travancore Lady Artist, by R Kulathu Iyer

Very few people in India have not heard of the great Indian artist, the late Raja Ravi Varma whose death was such a great loss to the country and especially to Travancore. His brother, Mr. C. Raja Raja Varma, another capable artist, died a few years before him, but it is satisfactory to see that his sister, Mangala Bai, is in no way inferior to Ravi Varma as an artist, and it is hoped that she will maintain the high reputation once established by her family. Mangala Bai, who was born on the 6th March 1866, in her ancestral house of Kilimanoor, is generally known outside the family circle as “Kochu Chothi Tirunal Amma Tampuran." Her mother, Makayiram Tirunal Amma Tampuran, was a talented and highly accomplished lady, who was endowed with musical and artistic tastes and was the author of several Sanskrit and Malayalam works. About this lady the late Mr. C Raja Raja Varma, the artist says in his diary.

My mother was born under the star Makayiram in the month of Medam 1007 M.E. She was the youngest of my grandmother's eleven children. She had a very fair complexion. She was rather below medium height and was very delicately formed. She was endowed with musical and artistic tastes, though she had no opportunity of cultivating them. She had an extremely kind and tender heart and could never see any suffering in others. I had seen her crying when she listened to tales and accounts of human suffering and misery. She was attacked with a sort of eye disease from which she suffered long, but she took advantage of the illness to learn Ophthalmology or the science of treating eye diseases from the various physicians who treated her and notably from a Thirumulpad of Naikunnam. She knew also to treat ordinary ailments of children. She appears to have given certain medicines to Her Highness the late Senior Ranee, C. I. The Ranee had cherished a great regard for the lady as some of the letters from the former to the latter testify. She had such self-sacrificing heart that she treated poor women and children gratis giving them medicines and clothing. She composed in Malayalam verse a Thullal called Parvathiswayambaram and several stray versus. Parvathiswayambaram has been published by my second brother Goda Varma at his expense. She was a great devotee of Siva and Parvathi, and when the disease (consumption) laid its icy hand on her about the latter part of her life, she devoted most of her time to prayers and worship. A melancholy circumstance connected with her death was that she had not her eldest son by her side when she died in the month of Makaram 1062. When her last illness took a serious turn, we all gathered round her bed, but a day or two previous to her death, urgent business compelled my elder brother Ravi Varma to go to Trevendrum. From the next day she began to sink, and she began to ask until she became unconscious, if he had returned. When we saw that she had not many hours to live, a man was sent post haste to Trevendrum to give him information of his condition and he arrived to his deep sorrow an hour or two after her death. Her obsequial ceremonies were celebrated by my brother Ravi Varma. When the year of mourning passed, he and myself took a pilgrimage to Benares with an urn containing her ashes which we duly consigned to the holy Ganges. So let her soul rest in peace. We regretted very much that we neither painted her portrait nor even photographed her while she lived. Her portrait was painted from….. memory and it is a fairly accurate likeness.

The father of Mangala Bai was Neelakanta Bhattathiri, of Ezhamavu Illam, a respectable Nampoory family in the Kunnathunad Taluq of North Travancore. He was well versed in the Vedas and a specialist in the diseases of children. Mr. C. Raja Raja Varma writes of him as follows in his Diary: -

My father's name was Ezhumavil Neelakantan Bhattathiri. He was 72 years of age at the time of his death in 1073. He was well versed in the Vedas and took a real interest in the artistic careers of his sons. He belonged to a rich family, but was reduced to very straitened circumstances through the extravagance of his brother's son, who was managing his household. His house and property were attached by creditors, and to aggravate his distress his brother's daughter though much advanced in years, remained unmarried for want of means. It was my brother Ravi Varma who gave the dowry for the girl's marriage, redeemed the house and a portion of the property, and saved the family from ruin. Our father used to express his gratitude with tears of joy. The bust of my father was painted in 1072 when he was stricken down with paralysis, which proved fatal a few months later. He died at Kilimanoor our ancestral house. While laid up he was carefully nursed and attended upon by our sister (Mangala Bai) as we were all sway from home.

Thus, both the mother and father of Mangala Bai were well educated and of liberal views. Mangala Bai, was the youngest of the seven children of her mother. Three of her sisters died in infancy. Her three brothers were Raja Ravi Varma (the late artist), Goda Varma, the father of Mr. Ravi Varma Raja, M. A., B.L, Deputy Collector in the British Service, Mr. C. Raja Raja Varma, another great artist (portions of whose diary I have extracted above). It was from their mother that Mangala Bai and her brothers inherited the taste for music and fine arts. When Mangala Bai was five years old she was placed under Govinda Pillay Asan, the family preceptor, who was a clever astrologer and who had a fair knowledge of Sanskrit and Malayalam, which languages Mangala Bai studied under him for a few years. She was also given lessons in music by the family music teacher, Subramania Bhagavathar, and continued her musical studies until a few years ago under the tuition of the late Mr. Raghupathy Bhagavathar, one of the musicians attached to the palace of H. H. the Maharajah of Travancore. She has a rich, sweet voice and sings several of the songs composed by the late Swathi Thirunal Maharajah, Thyagaraja Krithi, etc. On several occasions she has been called to the Court of Their Highnesses the late Senior and Junior Ranees at Trevandrun to sing, and has been presented with rich awards. H. H. Lakshmi Bai, C.L., the late Maharanee, who was a great authority on music, was often known to have remarked that she was particularly pleased with the sweet voice of her " dear Mangala."

Mangala Bai has not studied English, as that language was not generally taught formerly to the female members of the Koil Tampuran family. In her eighth year her uncle, Mr. Raja Raja Varma, the then artist Koil Tampuran, took her as one of his students in his drawing class, where she soon exhibited her inherent taste for the subject. One day one of Raja Raja Varma's students, who was in the advanced class, was executing a miniature painting on ivory, of Vishnu Maya playing with a ball. In the evening, while he was examining his students' works, Raja Raja Varma finding a mistake in the loose cloth about the divine image, called all his students and asked them to point out the flaw. After having examined the picture, they unanimously declared that there was none, but Mangala Bai soon discovered the mistake. This greatly pleased her uncle and thereafter he personally looked after her training. These lessons continued till after her marriage to Damodaran Nampoory, where they had to be stopped, owing to the custom prevalent among them that females would not mingle with other men after a certain age. Her brothers (Raja Ravi Varma and C. Raja Raja Varma) too, had no opportunity of giving her any instructions in the painting of figures, except when they happened to visit Kilimanoor (the family house).

After the death of her uncle, Mr. Raja Raja Varma in 1883, Mr. Ravi Varma occasionally helped Mangala Bai with canvas, colour, etc. and she worked alone with her brother’s paintings as models. Though an amateur painter, her works are appreciated by many. Mr. Ravi Varma was often heard to remark that had his sister been a man, or had she had the opportunity of studying painting systematically, she would have become one the first artists of the day in India. She has painted pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses and also some portraits at the request of several of the leading gentleman of Malabar. The recent bereavements-the unexpected deaths of her three brothers, which happened within three years-have been the greatest blow to her. She is left all alone out of the seven, and is at present occupied in painting portraits of her brothers. Her painting of Raja Ravi Varma is to be exhibited in the next Fine Arts Exhibition at Madras, and it is hoped that it will be the precursor of others to come.

Mangala Bai is the mother of two sons and one daughter who are also gifted with artistic and musical tastes. The two brothers, who are named after their uncles Ravi Varma and Raja Raja Varma are now studying the art of painting under their mother. Her eldest son Ravi Varma has painted two pictures and presented them to the H.H the Maharajah of Travancore, who was very much pleased with them. Mangala Bai is a great supporter of female education. Several schoolgirls have received help from her hands and she tries as far as possible to ameliorate the position of the helpless poor. She is by nature of a mild and gentle disposition and very kindhearted. All will wish her long life and still greater success than she has hitherto achieved.



A little explanation for those interested – Thampuran, Thampuratty, Bai…For a long time, the terms Tampuratty was used for the high born (Thampuran for male) or women from prominent feudal families.  Bai was used typically for women in the Travancore royal family. Ammachi is the ruler’s spouse.

Now we can get to other accounts which are difficult to verify, but parts of published books and papers. It is a pity that we do not have access to her reminiscences, broadcast on AIR Trivandrum & Kozhikode on Nov 21st, 1951, when Mangalabai, aged 85 years among many other things, regaled the listeners with memories of her brother Ravi Varma, and mentioned that for her, art is the noblest asylum from the hue and cry of a life in distress. The introduction mentions that she was a painter of no mean talents and that her many paintings preserve a characteristic cheer and vitality. However, printed works mention just two of her paintings, a portrait of her illustrious brother Ravi Varma, and another one called Charity. Where are all the paintings that she did of her subjects in Malabar? I assume they have all been lost or forgotten or part of private family collections, yet to be curated.

It is believed that most of the inputs used by Balakrishnan Nair, the first biographer of Ravi Varma were obtained by him from Mangalabai according to Gayatri Sinha (Women artistes in India – Practice and patronage) and she also attributes the popular portrait of Ravi Varma sitting, holding a cane in his hand, to Mangalabai and not Raja Raja Varma, her brother. She too considers Mangalabai the first Indian woman artist of the 19th century, who worked within an atelier or a studio. Most people believe that she was an assistant in his studio, helping Ravi Varma complete his contracts or lending an inspector’s eye to his works in progress. That the brothers took her advice is quite clear and after the younger brother passed away, Ravi Varma was quite sick and had unsteady hands, so it is safe to assume that Kunjan Warrier and Mangalabai completed some of those fabulous paintings which we see at the Mysore Palace.

Deepanjana Pal too feels that Mangalabai, then in her twenties (Ravi in his 40’s and Raja in his late 20’s), helped the brothers often at the Kilimanoor studio, and assures us that the 1904 portrait of Ravi Varma, after he got his Kaiser I Hind medal, was done by her and that she was much more in demand than her nephew. She believes that the outlines were provided by Ravi Varma, and then Raja Varma and Mangala would fill in the surroundings and props. The painting work of the subject and the faces would always be carried out by Ravi Varma. She also tells us that Ravi would ask her and Raja Varma for their opinion in case he felt a bit unsure of anything.

Tapati Guha Thakurta opines, drawing from Balakrishna Nair’s biography of Ravi Varma, that she was part of the team which worked on the Baroda commission as well. She says - Ravi Varma’s sister, Mangalabai Thampuratty, in the family tradition of her uncle and brothers, was also an amateur oil painter who must have worked purely under the informal guidance of the family artists, and whose paintings never really moved out of the confines of the household. Her posthumous portrait of Ravi Varma from a photograph (titled ’Ravi Varma: my lamented brother’) and her painting of a woman giving alms to a beggar (titled ’Charity’) are about the only known specimens of her work. Her eldest son, K.R. Ravi Varma, was the other member of the Ravi Varma family to acquire a full and formal art education at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay, and he returned home to found and head a similar smaller institution in Trivandrum: the Travancore School of Art (sometime between 1910 and 1913).

Priyanka Prachi adds - Anjali Purohit, an artist based in Mumbai, explains “Men are seen as professional from the moment they start working as artists. Women have to prove their credentials because they’re seen to have other competing priorities – children, the family” (Roy). This mindset leads to an unconscious bias that reflects in disparity in pricing of their works with respect to male artists. Mangala Bai Thampuratty (1866-1954) was the first woman artist of 19th century India to own a studio. She showed great expertise in representing realities in her canvases, which mostly revolved around domestic and devotional themes. Mangala Bai was an undeniably skilled artist with a remarkable dexterity which she executed in her oil paintings, but also in her realistic approach to subject matter which were often personal and autobiographical in nature. It was a taboo for noblewomen of the upper class to take up painting as a vocation, and so Mangala Bai explored all the possibilities of her potential but within the limits that were agreeable to society.

Lakshmi Priya Daniel worked on the subject of women artists in South India for her doctorate thesis and her work based on interviews of the artist’s family provides great insight into Mangala Bai’s work. She says - Though not a prolific painter, Mangala Bai on the other hand was undeniably skilled, as her works indicate such as the portrait of Ravi Varma. This matronly figure at the threshold of modern Indian art hardly finds more than a mention in most books, but her works show remarkable dexterity not only in the way she handled the medium of oil but also the technique, the realistic approach and the subject matter she chose to depict which was often personal and autobiographical. Mangala Bai, in all probability, lacked the opportunity to explore all the possibilities of her potential, but within her limitations produced commendable works which show her continued allegiance to Ravi Varma’s style of realism, combined with the same interest in portraiture, mythology and epic. Though Mangala Bai’s work had hardly been recognized in her time, she is today acknowledged as an artist in her own right. That she continued to paint till the very end is evident from the fact that one of the last paintings that Mangala Bai did was when she was eighty-four years old—a full-length oil portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.

Balakrishnan Nair’s book quotes Mangala as saying that Ravi Varma always accepted criticism and that she was taught painting by her uncle Raja Varma. She adds - I approached my brother only to clear doubts, and even that was impossible after my marriage, for as was the custom among us, it was not thought proper for a married woman to go near her brothers, however, one day, when I was returning after my bath, he asked me for my opinion of Tripurasundari, a painting in process. I mentioned that if the face were tilted to one side, the picture would be better and he magnanimously conceded that it was so. Daniel quotes an anecdote which goes that, while Ravi Varma was painting, he went away for a short duration, and on his return tried to swat away a mosquito sitting on his painting, only to find that it was painted - mischievously introduced by his sister Mangala Bai.

She continued her routines all through her 90 years working on the easel and teaching her nieces Bhavani Thampuratty, Bhagirathi Thampuratty, Rukmini Varma and Uma Varma among others (according to her great-granddaughter Mangala). Her oft-mentioned works are portraits of Ravi Varma, Rama Sita Parinayam, Parvati's Wedding, Alms Giving, Mookambika, Ayyappan at Kilimanoor, Krishna and Lions etc. Mangalabai had two sons, KR Varma who became a famous artist, and K Raja Raja Varma who was an engineer.


Madras Mail – 8th August 1907
Signatures of the collective self: a study of select contemporary South Indian women artists - Lakshmi Priya Daniel, PhD Thesis
Priya Daniel, Lakshmi (2016). Signatures of a Collective Self: A Study of Select Contemporary Women Artists from South India. Journal of International Women's Studies, 18(1), 52-72.
Local/Global – Women artists in the 19th century – (Gayatri Sinha – Woman artists – practice & Patronage)
Westernisation and Tradition in South Indian Painting in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) - Tapati Guha Thakurta
Priyanka, Prachi (2021). Quest for Selfhood: Women Artists in the South Asian Visual Arts. Journal of International Women's Studies, 22(3), 60-70.
The Painter - Deepanjana Pal
The Indian listener: vol. xvi. no. 47. (18th November 1951) page 4
Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India– Rupika Chawla

Picture – Many thanks, provided by Sharat Sundar Rajeev