The Hindu (19 February 2016)

The Lost Royals of Travancore

The launch of Manu Pillai’s book saw the author in conversation with T.M. Krishna on the royal family’s feud and more.

By Apoorva Sripathi


As my neighbour remarked, Chennai book launches always boast of the ‘crème de la crème’. It wasn’t any different at the launch of Manu Pillai’s book, The Ivory Throne, which is based on the royal family of Travancore. The author and researcher was in conversation with Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna, who complimented Manu on an “extremely intriguing and a very well-researched book that has a lot of pages”, and assured a mildly amused audience that he had indeed read it. But reading Manu’s almost 700-page book, including the extensive author’s notes, is no mean task. Neither is it for a 25-year-old debut author to write it.

Manu began researching for the book when he was 19, something Krishna found “ridiculous”. The musician was particularly interested in how the young author got interested in a subject that’s not usually written about. This was something that evolved over time for Manu — the stories he heard about the State and discovering Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s letters; the idea of her correspondence fascinated him. “She ruled only for seven years, but it affects the way Malayalis live even today. I’m actually surprised no one wrote about it,” he said.

The Ivory Throne’s story begins with Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s entry into India, and his subsequent political exploits, all for the want of spices. But the heart of the book belongs to duelling cousin sisters — senior maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and junior maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi, the granddaughters of legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. It also delves deep into Kerala’s erstwhile matrilineal society that begrudgingly gave way to Victorian ideals of patriarchy, the sociological study of the state, the Vaikom Satyagraha and Marthanda Varma’s violent revival of the Kupaka dynasty’s glory.

Krishna then nudged Manu about his views on objectivity in history, to which the latter talked about how Kerala’s history concerned itself with piety, and alluded it to the control of an important temple. “Objectivity is a fallacy in history, and you’re usually not supposed to approach it with reverence,” he said. After a short reading from the book, the musician described the rivalry between the two maharanis as a “Bollywood style of combat”.

Manu says that their feud stemmed from their great grandfather who idolised one daughter, while the mother doted on the other. This passed on to the maharanis’ generation. “A petty family feud became political, and factions were formed,” he said. The two women were feminist in their own ways: one was establishment-friendly, and the other, a new-age activist who believed in aggressive questioning of practices.

How did the royal family respond to Manu’s book, asked Krishna. The family of the junior maharani didn’t respond to his requests for an interview, fearing the author would paint her a villain. For which Manu responded that “records are often black-and-white, and only with your inputs can I drag from black to grey. She was a dynamic woman, and talking to the family would’ve lent perspective. There’s a certain gap in the book because of that”. Whereas, a lot of the senior maharani’s family learnt a lot more about her, talking to Manu. The conversation also touched upon C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, whom Krishna called the ‘Chanakya’ of the book, and someone who changed the course of the story. Manu said that Sir CP entered the drama during an interesting point — he was an established lawyer looking for fame and power, and found it in Travancore, and subsequently became the Dewan.

Towards the end, things got a little sentimental, with the discussion about the senior maharani’s departure from the royal household. When her reign comes to an end, we are told that Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was “harassed constantly”, and appealed to the British to protect her. Gradually, she left Travancore in 1956, when the State turned Communist, almost overnight. “The exit is touching. She becomes a woman who doesn’t fit in anywhere,” Manu said, and Krishna added, “It is tragic indeed”.

Source: The Hindu