THE NAVARATNAS: INDIA'S NINE RENOWNED NATIONAL TREASURE ARTISTS
Steeped in the rich cultural landscape of India are the Navaratnas, or the nine artistic luminaries whose contributions transcend time and continue to resonate today. Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Jamini Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Nicholas Roerich and Sailoz Mookherjea — together, these visionary artists collectively form the pantheon of National Art Treasures, each a testament to the diverse and vibrant hues of India’s heritage.
Under India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, artworks by the ‘nine gems’ are prohibited from being exported out of the country. This law not only safeguards historic paintings but also underscores these artists’ significance as national assets. However, artworks already located outside India before 1972 are unaffected and can continue to be enjoyed by collectors worldwide.
Below is a brief introduction to the nine National Treasure Artists of India and their lasting legacies in Indian art.
Raja Ravi Varma
Often celebrated as the “father of modern Indian art” artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) is renowned for his fusion of European painting styles with a purely Indian iconography and sensibility. His soft yet colorful artworks mainly feature Hindu deities and mythological figures, rendering narratives from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Puranas. In 1894, he founded the Raja Ravi Varma Press to produce prints of his paintings and played a crucial role in making art accessible to the masses.
Acclaimed for her powerful self-portraits, artist Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) is considered a pioneer in modern Indian art and one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early twentieth century. Her canvases frequently depict the everyday life of rural Indian people, particularly women. In 2023, Amrita Sher-Gil set a new record for the highest-ever price for an Indian artwork sold at auction, at $7.45 million, further cementing her status as one of the most important South Asian artists.
Born in West Bengal, artist Jamini Roy (1887–1972) began his career painting post-impressionist landscapes and portraits but later developed a distinct aesthetic inspired by Bengali indigenous folk art. His simplified figures and animals, often painted in rich primary and earthy colors, are the focus in scenes of rural village life and Indian mythology. A prolific and extremely popular artist, Jamini is widely credited for redefining the wave of modernism in Indian art.
Author, poet and painter Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) truly reshaped Bengali literature and Indian art. He resisted rigid classical structures and instead allowed his works across mediums to speak to political and personal topics, even writing India’s national anthem and receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Extending his creative practice into painting only later in life, his artworks often focus on the human face and figure, imbued with emotion and empathy.
Cartoonist and artist Gaganendranath Tagore (1867–1938), a nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, trained in watercolor and utilized Eastern art techniques like Japanese ink painting in his work. Although he also explored Western art movements like Cubism and Futurism, he eventually focused on caricatures as his signature style to critique political and social issues of the time.
The younger brother of Gaganendranath, artist Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) dedicated his practice to developing a unique style of Indian painting based on indigenous folk art. Founder of the influential movement known as the Bengal School of Art and a teacher of Jamini Roy, Abanindranath sought to counter Western conventions by modernizing Indian art forms, taking inspiration from Mughal and Pahari miniatures, the Ajanta murals and other types of traditional Indian art.
Pupil of Abanindranath Tagore, artist Nandalal Bose (1882–1966) illustrated the manuscript of the Constitution of India and the emblems for Governments of India awards Padma Shri and Bharat Ratna. Influenced by the murals of Ajanta, his works span scenes of women, village life and Indian mythology.
Russian artist, writer, philosopher and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) moved to Himachal Pradesh in India during the 1920s. His numerous paintings of the Himalayas, which convey his deep respect for Indian culture and spirituality, ultimately solidified his place among India’s Navaratnas.
Artist Sailoz Mookherjea (1907–1960) was one of the first Indian artists to paint expressionist landscapes. Although his style was inspired heavily by Western trends, his subjects were rooted in rural India. His stunning landscapes are distinguished by dynamic, vigorous lines and evocative human forms.