The Times of India (20 March 2016)

Royals made Garden City their Home

By Sandhya Soman

Every evening, a stately old man in a spotless white veshti would go past young Marianne’s house off Richmond Road. One day, she couldn’t contain her curiosity and called out to ask his name. He paused in his perambulation to reply: “Kerala Varma.” The girl ran back to her father who told her that their neighbours, the Varmas, in the sprawling bungalow with its gardens and retinue of servants, were royalty.

That was in the 1970s. Thirty years later, Marianne and her mother walked up to the gracious old bungalow on Richmond Road for the first time, to see if they could buy a few of the antiques on sale there. “There was French porcelain, Venetian glass, and a lot of Chinese Ming vases. And fabulous chandeliers! We stood there with our mouths open. Of course, we couldn’t afford any of it and politely walked out,” laughs Marianne De Nazareth, adjunct faculty at St Joseph’s College, who still lives next door.

Recently, she discovered the history of her neighbours — the last queen of Kerala’s Travancore kingdom and her immediate family. The politics, the palace intrigues, and the dramatic rise and fall of the charismatic regent queen Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi detailed in Manu Pillai’s book ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of The House of Travancore’ made her head spin. “I couldn’t believe these were the same Varmas! It was an ‘oh my god’ moment,” says Marianne.

Rukmini Varma, granddaughter of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, is slowly getting used to similar reactions from those who read the book. “I lead a reclusive life. But a few close friends called up as nobody knew this was the background of our family,” says Rukmini, amused by attention but refusing to elaborate.

The surprise is mainly because Bengaluru society is used to the affable and highly sociable Varmas, especially princess Lalitamba Bayi Tampuran and her husband Kerala Varma, who left behind the palaces and protocol in Thiruvananthapuram and relocated to the city in 1949. “It was a sensational thing to do. They were the first in the family to move out,” says Rukmini. Nobody in Thiruvananthapuram knew such a plan was afoot. “Father was apprehensive and there were four of us, all small children. But mother was brave,” recalls Rukmini, who was a wide-eyed nine-year-old when she came to the city and is now in her 70s.

There were several reasons why Lalitamba Bayi, known in Bengaluru as Lalitha Varma, left her hometown, the capital of the kingdom which her mother ruled between 1924 and 1931 on behalf of her minor nephew Sri Chithira Thirunal. “She probably wanted to get away from the court intrigues,” says Manu, who tracked down this branch of the Travancore royals. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s troubled relationship with her cousin, who was also the mother of the minor king, led to conspiracies, court cases, smear campaigns in the media, and apparently use of black magic and assassination bids.

Lalitha was also never comfortable with the pomp and pageantry associated with her station. “She was a bit of a rebel, and wanted to be just another Mrs Varma,” says Manu. In her matrilineal family, husbands of princesses are consorts with no equal status. “They walk behind at (formal) processions, and have to follow their wives in another vehicle while travelling. Mother hated it and wanted an ordinary life where she could send her children to school,” says Rukmini. Moreover, there were many restrictions. “There was no freedom of thought or expression. It was really a gilded cage,” says Rukmini.

In comparison, Bengaluru was a slice of heaven with its agreeable weather and cosmopolitan denizens. “In the 1950s, it was a welcoming place and had a large number of foreigners,” says Pillai. They and the rest of the elite gathered at posh clubs to socialize.

Though Lalitha and Kerala Varma didn’t know anybody here, the family’s background helped open doors, including that of the Bangalore Club. No 7, a 200-year-old British-era house on Richmond Road, was procured from the family of former Mysore Diwan Sir Mirza Ismail. “Streets were clean, and there were beautiful flowering trees. It was like a paradise,” recalls Rukmini.

Though she came with a host of servants, Lalitha took it upon herself to learn household work and befriend people. “I remember her optimistic presence. She wore her hair short, had dogs with Russian names, and loved Russian literature,” says Prateeti Punja Ballal about her family friends. While the children happily took to their school life at Baldwins next door, the elder Varmas attended plays and performances, and threw parties. “Once I went shopping with mother down Commercial Street, and it looked as if every single person who was there knew her,” says Rukmini.

Soon, her other sisters also moved out. A few years later, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and husband Rama Varma also left behind their increasingly alienated existence in Thiruvananthapuram and set up house next to their daughter. “They adapted well and there were no hurdles to my parents’ way of life,” says Rukmini. Unlike her daughter, the former queen led a quiet life, reading and tending to her rose garden. “She loved gardens and would walk around in the morning with a pink silk umbrella, inspecting each rose,” smiles Rukmini.

Initially, the grandparents were horrified to see the children cross the road to go to school. Those fears soon vanished, and the children went on to pursue various vocations. By the time royalty was well and truly abolished in India, the pensions stopped, and the land ceiling act imposed in the 1970s, the family had moved on. “They never talked about the problems they had though we knew life wasn’t easy earlier,” says Prateeti.

The elders didn’t prevent two of the great-grandchildren from marrying outside the community, or stop them from pursuing careers in medicine, sports and science. Rukmini, an accomplished dancer-painter, has exhibited her works in India and abroad. Her sister Uma had her own boutique in the city. There are engineers, writers, artists and doctors in the family, with Dr R Marthanda Varma being the founder-director of Nimhans.

Rukmini’s son Jay Varma, who is pursuing advanced art studies in the US, remembers the queen as a “grand old lady” who was mostly confined to her room. “She was warm and knew most things under the sun. As a child I knew that she was someone special as everybody listened to her, and deferred to her,” says Jay. Towards the end of her life, she distributed most of her possessions, he says.

After her death in 1985, a portion of her house was turned into a housing society. “It is ironic that the builder chose to call it Regency Place,” says Manu.

To the younger generation, the royal tag is a strange one. “I used to think it was a bad thing,” says Jay, who was relentlessly teased as ‘prince’ in school. A visit to Thiruvananthapuram is bewildering because of the ceremonial deference that his Kerala cousins, the descendants of the last king, take for granted.

Jay, who considers himself a typical Bengalurean and at one point was partner in a pub and a magazine, sees no point in holding on to the past. The 54-year-old shrugs off the fact that he had to sell his penthouse at Regency Place.

He is proud of his ancestors such as the composer-king Swathi Thirunal, the famous Attingal queens and the illustrious Raja Ravi Varma. But past is past. “My great-grandmother came out out of the palace and became a progressive person. For all practical purposes, royalty is irrelevant,” he says.

Home remains Bengaluru for the family, which is all set to have a reunion at No 7 during Kerala Varma’s upcoming 100th birthday celebrations. “The family is going to come from wherever they are all over the world,” says Rukmini.

Source: The Times of India