Why Travancore’s Sethu Parvathi Bayi is the OG feminist icon you have never heard about

(Published in Vogue India, September 27 2021)

In 1932, the Daily Herald in Britain carried a photograph of two women exiting an aircraft. ‘Their First Flight’ the caption announced, as it showed the junior maharani of Travancore with her daughter. Meanwhile, another newspaper recorded, with wonder, that the ladies were travelling without male relatives—an unusual proceeding for Indian princesses. But to anyone who knew the maharani, this would not have been surprising: she was always an unorthodox figure. Cries of doom from court Brahmins about crossing the kala pani and going abroad had not stopped her, for instance, nor would she tolerate white men dispensing unsolicited advice. Indeed, on her next visit to Europe, when a Vatican official tried to tutor her on how much makeup was appropriate during an audience with the Pope, she asked him to mind his own business.

Sethu Parvathi Bayi (1896-1983) was a granddaughter of Raja Ravi Varma, the painter. Barely four, she was adopted with her cousin—Sethu Lakshmi Bayi—into the matrilineal royal house of Travancore. Succession here passed through the female line, which meant a ruler was not succeeded by his own son, but by a sister’s son: in 1900, the family had men and an aged rani, but no young girls to continue the line. Not long after adoption, Sethu Parvathi Bayi was styled junior maharani, while her cousin held the more important title of senior. They were only a year apart in age, but court protocol dictated that the elder be the principal female figure at court, leaving Sethu Parvathi Bayi in her proverbial shadow. Fate would perhaps have been kinder on both if the roles had been reversed: the senior maharani hated the limelight; the junior, who loved it, chafed in second place.

But what she lacked in official position, Sethu Parvathi Bayi made up for with personality. She was an expert musician, a polyglot who spoke French and Sanskrit, and when told that her usual sports were out of the question during pregnancy, picked up golf. In her thirties, she would bring Margaret Sanger to the orthodox temple town of Thiruvananthapuram, having the birth-control crusader address a gathering of red-faced men. On another occasion, she invited Europeans to watch a religious procession, surprising them by serving whiskey despite the day’s ceremonial sanctity. She cooked and stitched for her children, just as she wore khaki shorts and went on jungle safaris. Her conversational skills were legendary: a diplomat noted with awe her capacity to move from discussing furniture to elephants, and when a nephew became a doctor, she was perfectly comfortable asking if he knew the historical logic behind circumcision.

Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s life was not, however, a fairy tale. Through pure, ruthless determination she often got what she wanted, but at great cost. Her marriage, for instance, was a disaster. At age 10, she was presented with five suitors, of whom she picked the oldest. It was an unfortunate choice because the couple was incompatible. She was gregarious, had a social life, and wanted to see the world; he was ultra-conservative with, in the words of an official, the personality of a ‘worm’. Inevitably, they separated, but not before he caused grave damage to the maharani’s reputation by complaining of her ‘undue familiarity’ with a palace musician. She, in turn, tried to prove that he was mentally infirm. In a time when women were held to stringent standards of virtue, ugly gossip around her personal life tarnished Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s standing.

All along her relations with her cousin had declined. Having produced the heir to the throne, the junior maharani expected a higher status; but till the boy grew up, power was ironically vested in the son-less senior maharani, causing resentment. In the years that she waited in the wings, Sethu Parvathi Bayi embarked on a series of political misadventures. She lobbied the Raj for a share of power, and when that failed, launched dubious schemes to topple the senior maharani’s regency. Why in 1929, the junior maharani’s palace also hosted a ‘black magic’ ritual. Alarmed, the British physically separated her from her son in the name of ‘administrative training’. It was embarrassing, but Sethu Parvathi Bayi was undefeated: though the distancing was meant to release the boy from her thraldom, she had letters smuggled to him in a close associate’s turban.

In the end, mother and son were reunited through a funny twist. The British in India tended to see the influence of maharanis on their male relations as illicit; women, they argued, had no business in politics. So, it is ironic that while the entire colonial establishment was hostile to her, Sethu Parvathi Bayi succeeded in reversing their policy through another woman—the viceroy’s wife. Lord Willingdon and his lady were earlier posted in Madras, where a charismatic lawyer, Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer, became a close friend (or, if some contemporaries’ allegations are to be believed, Lady Willingdon’s ‘inamorato’). The junior maharani—herself suspected by the British to be more than just friends with Sir CP—used his link to the Willingdons, and hiking up to Shimla, persuaded the viceroy that she had been wronged. Many of the charges against her had substance, but even so, she managed to get her past sins forgiven: her son was installed in power, and the reign of the senior maharani came to an end.

In Indian history, it is not typical to find women owning their political roles. Sethu Parvathi Bayi resented the restrictions of gender; she hated the ill-will an unsympathetic husband could cause; and she despised the unfair moral expectations placed on her sex. Fighting battles on all these counts did not make her life easy, but she was a valiant, even cunning, lady. Although she played a direct game when needed, she did not hesitate to deploy Machiavellian methods either. The British described her as a ‘villain’, but to Sethu Parvathi Bayi, this was all part of doing battle: she was a queen, and no matter what the rules said, one way or another, she would wield power.