The Colour of a People (The Ivory Throne-Part 1)

There are times when while looking at a painting one is seduced into a different time and era. I often picture my silhouette in Kolkata of the 30s : a swarm of people moving at the speed of light, sometimes even passing through my silhouette yet the silhouette is held by the spirit of the times as if the latter were a painting. Let us float into the age of romanticism and call my perchance finding of ‘The Ivory Throne, Chronicles of the House of Travancore,’ a book by Manu S. Pillai, serendipity.

There is a certain way in which we view the past; what else can explain our amazement wrapped in disbelief at the craftsmanship of Ajanta caves, the geological foresight, the elaborate use of colours, when we had pictured the centuries gone by with black and white glasses and the three dimensional faces and figurines. It must be considered by sheer common sense that because they existed before us in time does not make them deficient in scientific manoeuvres, inventions and most of all knowledge. I think all times come with their ‘bent of mind’.

Ivory Throne brings to us the most wonderful and colourful scenes of trade in Calicut from where it all trickled down to Travancore. “The city was an archetype of commercial prosperity and medieval prominence, hosting merchants from every worthy trading nation in its lively bazaars”. The Prince Manavikrama, famed as the Zamorin of Calicut was the lord of one of the greatest ports in the world. Goods, even from the Far East were shipped to Calicut first, before the Arabs transported them out to Persia and Europe. In late 1607, traveller Pyrard de Laval who finds a place in The Ivory Throne like many other travellers, wrote: “It is the busiest and full of traffic and commerce in the whole of India; it has merchants from all parts of the world, by reason of the liberty and security accorded to them here.”. What they left for us is marvel and beauty. We either have the stupefying ancient caves and temples in the subconscious world of our minds or the British architecture immediately around us and the Mughals made sure we inherited their forts,fortresses, Urdu and cuisine. Perhaps, we are still learning about history – excavating, archiving and somewhat beginning to understand it.

Bookstalkist_The Ivory Throne_2

It also brings me to the most fascinating, intelligible, not to mention novel and devoured system of all times, the caste system. While I was at Ellora, the guide told me how one generation of sculptors took over the work of the previous and continued from there. It is worth wondering how the life of not just a commissioned sculptor was devoted to Ellora but his children’s too. It can be said they were exploited in cold blood for generations and it can only be imagined how through their art they realized their highest potential. The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, starts on a vivid note, where you can use your senses of smell and sight to get a slice of the vibrancy of the melting pot that Trivandrum and 1860s were in Kerala. The first chapter says, ‘The Painter Prince’ and through him one can picture how art and in that, painting, must have emanated from and danced in the royal houses of South India. “In the palace, 14 year old Ravi Varma wandered the halls and corridors, studied the artists’ paint, observed their paintings, saw colourful processions and poured over albums of European art, which the Maharajah had collected.”

Raja Ravi Varma as the painter prince, in spite of his aristocratic caste and fellow caste-men who looked at art as a profession of low born artisans, realized his forte in painting and scaled his maximum potential through it when he took oil on canvas into the homes of millions of Indians through a popular lithograph press, despite grave financial losses, and gave dignity to the profession of painting.  We are reminded by the book that “unlike Indian artists before Ravi Varma, whose identities are largely lost to posterity, he signed his name on his work with pride and confidence, imbuing the entire craft with those qualities.” What a contrast of caste in the lives of artists – the sculptors of Ellora and Raja Ravi Varma, both born with it, the common source of inspiration being royalty in their lives! Well, if not Ravi Varma then it would have been somebody else; art has a knack of finding its way in every era.

What if, as we go backward in time, biases and notions keep waning such that people from then, see things for what they are and hence thrives variety? The Ivory Throne boasts, “in the early years of the Common Era, this narrow seaboard (Kerala) was a renowned cosmopolitan centre, where men of every country and race were welcomed with open arms.” And what if, in the thriving variety lies ingenuity, inventiveness, riches of artfulness, treasure of aesthetics, expressions reflective of variegated roots? Traditions arose from these which were always, always to enhance and further a more subconscious underlying human effort of higher pursuits by taking care of convenience, security and other basic needs. A traveler quoted in the book records: “that there is no distinction either in their habits, or in their hair, or in anything else, betwixt the Christians of this diocese and the heathen’ Hindus and as late as the closing years of the 16th century there was tolerance of intermarriage between the communities.”. Traditions and rituals which languish as platitudes, caricatured parades mired in maudlin, the basis of most has been morphed into fearfulness.

Manu Pillai is also an ambulator, you realize when he balances on overtones and undertones of what we know as religion. The Ivory throne in its chronicling spectates with a straight face, the fall more than the rise of castes during Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s reign: Brahmins thrashing about to retain their unequivocal clout and Nairs on the verge of becoming an antiquated community. The rise of the Travancore Christians as an entrepreneurial class and failure of Brahmins and Nairs to rise to the occasion reflects the classic epidemic of aristocracy- basking in glory for too long.

People of Travancore have two weaknesses in a marked degree, namely communalism and the worship of power. To them community is everything and the State very little...” This observation by The Ivory Throne, is unfair to the Travancoreans, for it seems to be the foundation of the people of India for some time now. How are we, today , any different than we were many yesterdays back? Martanda Varma, who is written about as a raging villain-hero in the book, devised the state of Travancore in the 18th century by ridding of Zamorins, crushing petty princes and defanging the Nairs, found it rather difficult to gain acceptance by the people of Travancore who “consistently rebelled, refusing to capitulate, constantly questioning Martanda Varma’s legitimacy over their ancestral lands.” So, like any of the various leaders today including our very own Prime Minister, and of course The Vatican, the Maharajah discovered the power of faith.

Pillai loves to elaborate on the most quirky stories –

On the morning of January 1749 Martanda Varma performed a visually stunning ceremony loaded with religious meaning, at the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum. “Travancore as it existed on that date now belonged not to Martanda Varma but to Sri Padmanabhaswamy. The Maharajah ostensibly assumed the humble title of Sri Padmanabha dasa or the servant of the lord.

We are lucky to have different centres of religious, spiritual, political, and social power – our cynicism saving us from giving it all to one.

The Ivory Throne, of course is the story of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, her family and the royal house of Travancore but Manu S. Pillai has really told the story of a state that once was and more importantly how it became what it is today- like any other state.

Like in any other place, there was a time in Kerala when things were as they ought to be. It becomes clear in the writing of the author: “The princes were never above the laws laid down by the [people]”. What a sight it must have been when leaders, “on their part never aspired to rise extraordinarily beyond the average citizen.” Wow! It brings us vis-a-vis a narcissist concept of ‘prasastis’(offered by the Ivory Throne) which used the art of literature in Southern India and India where the theme of the writings was “construction of a superhuman royal image of the kings based on origin myths, dynastic traditions, genealogies, to legitimize their rights as hereditary rulers”. Kerala then seems to me as somebody who consciously chose to become an island which remained unperturbed as is evident from the total absence of these childish ambitions in Kerala literature; the first such instance being when God became Martanda Varma.

The most interesting aspect of this book is how every character which is more or less based on a real person goes on to develop their own personalities according to their special placement in the scheme of things. The only thing which distinctly differs perhaps is their caste. There is a graph like feel for each which not only sees them rise and scale their natural ascent.

Manu Pillai chooses another vivid tale, this time mocking Martanda Varma, who went through a constructed (in gold) cow’s mouth and came out from her tail to mark his and the family’s rebirth into a Brahmin caste. Such was the clout of Brahmin samaj that they made sure the incarnation of god himself must be converted into a Brahmin so that he would go on to recruit and import Tamil Brahmins to work closely with the royal family. The book catches Brahmin community in the act- “It had come to be accepted that the king must have Brahmins to receive his largesse’, for without them he could not make the transformation from blood spilling warrior to divinely mandated king.” The Brahmins, who digressed on to a conniving and somewhat ruthless class, found ludicrously novel ways to uphold their position in the society- the official advisors to the Maharajah which didn’t necessarily make them well-wishers. One must credit the Brahmins historically for how they pawned THE COW in their scheme of things such that today we see its divine intervention in every political manoeuvre! Brahmins come to light, as an instrumental class.

Manu Pillai, probably without much realization of his own, has a dexterity of introducing new people and of letting them go. One may not even notice his hand in it. The come and go is played quite casually never appearing obtrusive, from the freshly brewing British officer on the exotic Indian soil to the homegrown dewan, all blend into the narrative as eager participants who take a bow when the show is over.

It is funny how renditions of a civilization and in that norms, become a way of life. So, if it has come to be that the bond between a husband and wife is merely an arrangement for off springs. then that is how we receive our relationships. If today, the same relationship once referred to as sambandham is the most celebrated, with all sorts of renditions smeared on it from the liberal sounding soul mates to a much sold sacred bond, it is bound to wither under its own weight, which it is. Something as parochial as a society in this universe of thousands of galaxies can cocoon us from our natural propensities, then the human spirit stands tamed by the society; for it is the human spirit that spawned Kerala and its many cultures.

A truly special quality that Manu resonates through The Ivory Throne, which also adds to the intrigue of the book, is how the most individualistic society of India is unlayered, right in front of the reader.

This is the first of a series of articles inspired from Manu Pillai’s The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore.