Remembering Mangala Bayi: the first woman artist of the 19th century to work in her own studio

In celebration of Women's History Month, we are highlighting Indian women artists who have shaped the art world with their creative practice. We begin with Mangala Bayi Thampuratti, the first woman artist to have worked in her own studio in the nineteenth century and the only sister of the eminent painter Raja Ravi Varma. Despite societal restraints, Mangala Bayi made a name for herself in the history of Indian art.

Mangala Bayi Thampuratti

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Born into the Kilimanoor royal family in the former princely state of Travancore and the only sister of the celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma; Mangala Bayi Thampuratti was a gifted yet inconspicuous artist held back by rigid societal norms. 

I was taught to paint mostly by my uncle (Raja Raja Varma). I approached my brother only to clear my doubts. Even that became impossible after my marriage, for as goes the custom among us, it was not thought proper for a married woman to go near her brothers.

Mangala Bayi Thampuratti, Portrait of Ravi Varma, c.1900s, Oil on Canvas

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Mangala Bayi's oeuvre comprised domestic, social, and devotional themes alongside portraits of women and children. Her oil painting Alms Giving makes a striking social statement about caste and status in society. It reveals a sharp contrast between the girl with long braids, clad in luxuriant white garments, and the semi-draped figure of the poverty-stricken old woman. 

Mangala Bayi Thampuratti, Alms Giving, c.1900s, Oil on Canvas

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While Mangala Bayi practiced art as an amateur painter, it was impermissible for noblewomen of the upper class to take up a profession. So, her dream of becoming a professional painter was never to be. However, in her nearly 90 years of existence, she continued to paint consistently and create exemplary works within her limitations. 

Mangala Bayi Thampuratti, Mahatma Gandhi, c.1940s, Oil on Canvas

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The portrait of Mahatma Gandhi above reiterates the fact that she continued to paint till the very end. Mangala Bayi was 84 years old when she made this full-length oil portrait of Mahatma Gandhi which is today displayed at the Government Women’s College, Trivandrum. Mangala Bayi was an artist who relentlessly pursued her passion for painting despite all odds and made a name for herself in artistic discourse. 


[1] Mangala Bayi (as told to Balakrishna Nair for his biography on Raja Ravi Varma). Pandey Sughandaa. 2020. Mangala Bayi: A True Matriarch Among The Women Artists Of Travancore. Feminism in India

[2] 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. 

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