Obituary: Parvathi Ravi Varma

(Published in The Hindu, 22 November 2019)

In 1963 newspapers in Kerala whipped up a sensation around a wedding that took place in Guruvayur. On the face of it, there should have been nothing special to report: the groom was an employee at a public sector concern, while the bride was finishing university. And yet at least one periodical felt the need to catalogue even the dimensions of the plantain leaves on which the feast was served, not to speak of listing the items that constituted the afternoon’s menu. For, while the newly-weds were citizens of a republic, it was their royal provenance that, ironically, generated such mass interest.

Nearly 50 years later, when I visited Parvathi Ravi Varma and her husband at their Bangalore home, the frenzy which inaugurated their marriage had become merely an amusing anecdote. But that the fuss occurred was unsurprising. Though by this time they were simply Mrs and Mr Varma who lived in a Palace Orchards bungalow, in the 1960s, she was still Rohini Tirunal Parvathi Bayi, Seventh Princess of Travancore, and he one of 223 princes of the royal house of Cochin. Their ancestors had alternated uneasily for generations between war and peace, and now for the first time Travancore and Cochin were united in matrimony.

I had gone to interview the couple for my book, The Ivory Throne. Parvathi appeared, at first glance, a traditional Malayali lady: she wore a mundum-neriyathum, and a pottu of colossal proportions. But when she spoke, it was in stylish public-school English, delivered in a voice full of texture. I might have been startled had I not known how this combination came to be: In 1949, when Parvathi was six, her mother had enrolled her in the Baldwin Girls’ School in Bangalore. Suddenly the Malayali princess was plucked from her palace and parked on a bench alongside French and Swedish schoolmates. One part stayed rooted in the culture of Kerala—the other looked to a cosmopolitan future.

Parvathi’s life could have gone a different way, were it not for her parents. Her grandmother, Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, ruled Travancore in the 1920s with such success, that even in 1949, Indian officials like VP Menon noted her enduring popularity with the masses. Had the Maharani insisted, her granddaughters would have remained cocooned in the palace, attended to by heaps of servitors and handpicked tutors. But Parvathi’s mother had other plans, and the matriarch was willing to give her ideas a chance—she left the palace for Bangalore, and hereon Parvathi would go to school like an ordinary child. 

“Of course,” she recalled, “this was easier said than done.” Soon after, when the Maharani came calling, she was horrified to see her grandchildren crossing the road to go to class. “She thought it was dangerous, and insisted we go in a car which led to all kinds of embarrassing situations.” For in those days, the road was so narrow, that “when the front of her limousine entered the Baldwin’s gate, the other end was still at home!” But the education Parvathi obtained in Bangalore developed in her a worldview that appreciated her family heritage while eschewing lingering feudal elements. It was with pride that she told me how her sons were professionals, one of them a doctor.

Parvathi and Ravi Varma made rules of their own. When the latter came to Bangalore and met his wife’s grandfather, the old man refused to take a seat in his presence—as a member of the Cochin royal family, Parvathi’s husband ranked higher. It took some time to persuade him that Ravi Varma did not care about protocol. She too could be firm in standing up for what she felt was right. When they visited the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, priests prevented Ravi Varma from ascending the Ottakkal Mandapam, reserved for persons with Travancore’s royal blood. “Parvathi simply got down and said that she would not do it either.” At the time it was rebellion before the gaze of her deity—today spouses are permitted, and the “reform” is accepted by Padmanabhaswamy.

So too they decided that she would continue studying, while Ravi Varma would pursue a career—an unusual suggestion in the 1960s for Travancore’s erstwhile royalty. The result was that the couple spent years in Kerala, in small towns and big. Once in Mannar, for example, hearing of her presence, some people came to pay their respects to Parvathi. “I didn’t know what to do,” she remembered, for Bangalore had “wiped out” ideas about acting royal. 

As Parvathi and I spoke, I could also see admiration in Ravi Varma’s eyes. Later, when his wife excused herself so she could go for her japam, the latter opened up. She was the first member of the Travancore family to acquire an MA degree, he said, adding how this was in Sanskrit. He also told of her capacity to adjust to the lifestyle his own family led. “After her convent school education, there were reservations if she could cope with our traditional ways in Cochin. But she did—she woke up in the morning, took dips in the pond, went to all the temples, and did it so naturally.” For Parvathi herself, this was nothing to write home about. As she said to me another time, “I also learned to drive and did plenty of ‘modern’ things. We should not make a fuss about small things.” 

After my 2011 interview with Parvathi, I saw her and Ravi Varma on several occasions over the next few years. I could tell that her knees were giving trouble. Then, sometime in 2017, she withdrew altogether to Calicut to stay with her son. On 18 November 2019—a day before the birth anniversary of her grandmother—an SMS arrived informing me that Parvathi was no more. I tried to visualize the last time I met her. Parvathi had got up from her father’s table to leave after tea. Ravi Varma held her hand and together they made their way to the door. But then she remembered she had forgotten something. Slowly, the frail old lady walked to her sister standing nearby. And kissing her on the cheek, Parvathi smiled, and gently said goodbye.