The Renaissance Man of Travancore (22 September 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 22 2018)

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In September 1914, an unplanned encounter with a dog led to the death of a Sanskrit scholar. The man was in a car on the outskirts of a town in Kerala called Kayamkulam when the canine jumped on the road. As the driver tried to avoid running over the animal, the car skid, turning turtle as it fell into a ditch. For some time, the 69-year-old languished by the roadside, till finally a palanquin arrived, carrying him off for medical attention. It was all in vain, though, and two days later the man was dead. “O! Land of Kerala, thy light has gone!” lamented the poet Kumaran Asan: “Thou art engulfed in darkness!”

The dead man’s name was Kerala Varma, and before he was snatched by tragedy, he had led a life as colourful as it was rewarding. The world knew him in many ways. To some he was consort to the senior rani of Travancore, a position that brought little power but much prestige. To others it was his academic achievements that shone: he was a fellow of Madras University, a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and chairman of a committee that revolutionized primary education in princely Travancore. In the 1890s, Kerala Varma had even received from the British empress a shiny decoration, partly, one suspects, as a reward for his eulogy to her, the Sanskrit poem Victoria Charitra Sangraha.

Kerala Varma might have lived and died in obscurity had it not been for marriage. Born in 1845 into a line that supplied consorts to the matrilineal Travancore royal family, his selection as partner to the senior rani was largely on account of the influence of a dying uncle (who in turn was married to a previous holder of that title). While as late as the 1910s, a consort was only entitled to ₹200 per month “with meals from the palace and the use of a brougham”, the talented Kerala Varma utilized his newfound position for a creative evolution. He acquired the best Sanskrit masters, and learnt to play the veena, sarangi, and fiddle. He established a cricket club in Thiruvananthapuram, besides learning to ride and shoot. Most importantly, in a time when consorts were expendable, he won the devotion of his royal wife, quickly becoming comptroller of all her affairs.

But while he was popular in the early years, presenting poems and staging Kathakali dramas, by the 1870s, overconfidence turned his head somewhat. He developed something of a temper—years later, when a newspaper published a less-than-glowing review of one of his compositions, he was vindictive enough to terminate its circulation in Travancore. In the mid-1870s, however, what nearly dug a proverbial grave for the 30-year-old Kerala Varma was a misguided attempt to partake in court intrigue. In the events that followed, this “Symbol of Renaissance in Malayalam Literature” (for he was gifted not only in Sanskrit), ended up in prison, losing his title, and very nearly forfeiting even his initial claim to fame—his royal wife.

The sanitized version of the event presents Kerala Varma as a wronged hero, suffering the wrath of a vengeful monarch. The reigning maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal was a wicked man, for standing up to whom our poet-scholar was punished. The facts, however, are a little more complex, for while the ruler had flaws by the dozen, the consort was not blameless either. In 1875, after failing to persuade the British resident at court to potentially protect him against the maharajah, with whom he had fallen out, Kerala Varma wrote a letter to the chief minister, signed Peter III. “In the other day’s Privy Council,” it warned, “there was a hint of trying to dispose of you by other means than asking you to resign…take care of your cook & men about you.”

The suggestion that the maharajah was trying to poison his minister was scandalous, and while Kerala Varma denied charges, handwriting experts confirmed the opposite. As his wife wept and screamed—even chasing the police carriage down the capital’s streets—he was divested of his rank, becoming “Kerala Varmah, State Prisoner”. Conditions in jail were horrifying. In an 1877 plea to the ruler, he was desperate enough to promise to vanish into the “snowy regions of the Himalayas” if released, referring to himself constantly as a “Slave”. He also confessed to a catalogue of “treasonous acts”: He had authored the infamous letter, of course, but was also guilty of “an inclination to Christianity”, the “vice of drinking”, a craving for “stronger narcotics”, and, interestingly, “corresponding unnecessarily to some newspapers”.

The maharajah was unmoved, and a miserable Kerala Varma sent him an appeal in Sanskrit poetry, which too was cast aside. But the severity of his sentence was reduced—from prison, he was moved to house arrest. Here the man, who was once the toast of Kerala society, spent his days teaching children alphabet and verse, till finally in 1880 news arrived: the maharajah was dead. Immediately he was released and reunited with his wife, who, in turn, had resisted every order to discard Kerala Varma and take another consort. When she died in 1901, her husband’s distress was profound. “My angel, my life, my darling, my all and all, my pride, my idol, my sweetheart—alas! and what not,” Kerala Varma sorrowfully wrote in English, “expired quietly at 8PM.”

The complicated events of the 1870s were quietly expunged now, however, and Kerala Varma eschewed politics. He focused on literature, winning encomiums, and became guardian to his wife’s heirs. His concerns were domestic, and though he could be peevish (as when he objected vehemently to his brother-in-law, the painter Ravi Varma, being styled “Raja”), he reinstated himself in the eyes of society as a venerable elder. By the time of that fateful encounter with the dog, the man who once liked bhang and schemed against a monarch, was forgotten, and what went down in the obituaries was the other, pious Kerala Varma: poet, scholar, and the patrician venerated to this day as the Kalidas of Kerala.

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