Book review: A riveting read on palace intrigue and social change

  • Divya Dubey, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 07, 2016 14:01 IST
The Senior and Junior Ranis in their teens, on the eve of their great rivalry to produce the heir to the Ivory Throne. (The Ivory Throne)

Manu S Pillai’s The Ivory Throne begins with 20 pages of diligently researched history of Kerala that forms the introduction to the book. A neat chart showing the family tree of the House of Travancore follows. At the end are 131 pages of the author’s exhaustive notes and bibliography. In between are high quality coloured inserts showcasing photographs of the major characters in Pillai’s grand narrative. Even a cursory glance makes one forget that it is a debut work by a writer in his mid-twenties.

Apart from being a chronicle of Kerala’s history, the book brings forward several appealing episodes, social norms and even anecdotes from the times. One realizes that the scheming vamps and villains in today’s soap operas do have precedents in real-life historical events. The introduction says of Martanda Varma: ‘He set an eerie example for instance, by slaughtering his own cousins in cold blood when they refused to fall in line with him.’ Not every Kerala ruler followed in his footsteps though discontent, dissent, political intrigue, deceit and duplicity – and even scheming with the help of black magic, does remain a constant across the five generations covered in the book.

The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travencore
By Manu S Pillai (Rs 699; PP 694)

At the centre is the story of Sethu Laxmi Bayi, the senior maharani and regent of Travancore (1924-1932), granddaughter of the renowned artist Raja Ravi Varma and her rival, her cousin Sethu Parvathi Bayi, the junior maharani. The reader is told that in pre-colonial times Kerala had a matrilineal society, where a family ‘did not take after the patriarchal model of man, wife and their children’, but instead consisted ‘of man, sister, and her children’. The Rani was not the Maharajah’s wife, but his sister or niece or great-niece. However, it is also mentioned that as early as 1747, during Martanda Varma’s time, when Attingal was merged with Travancore, the Ranis had already been reduced to ‘gloried impotency’ and the male members of the dynasty were gaining dominance.

When she was five, Sethu laxmi Bayi was ‘propelled into the seat of the Senior Rani of Travancore, becoming the youngest person to occupy that exalted station in all its history.’ At 10 years of age Sethu Laxmi Bayi chose Rama Varma, younger brother of the more popular Rajaraja Varma, as her consort – a choice that the majority in the palace viewed as a ‘grave nuptial error’. However, in later years the Rani confessed that she had been overwhelmed by Rajaraja Varma when she first saw him, that she was ‘positively intimidated by his exceptional appearance’.

In an interview with The Hindu, Pillai mentions that he undertook research on the maharani’s personal history because he found she had been singled out from among the long line of monarchs that royalists had always adored. Pillai’s curiosity about her led him to seek answers that ended up in this 700-page volume. The author’s preoccupation with Sethu Laxmi Bayi’s life, personality and philosophy is quite evident in his portrayal. Equally clear is his partiality towards her vis-à-vis her rival and cousin, Sethu Parvathi Bayi, whom he has shown unequivocally as a rather dark character from the beginning.

The rivalry and ill will between the sisters Mahaprabha and Kochukunji carried forward to the two adopted daughters, Sethu Laxmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi. Eventually, it culminated in such intense hatred that Kochukunji ‘was discovered performing black magic against her niece’. As a result, in the late 1920s, she was removed from the palace. Even though Pillai’s sympathies are clearly with Sethu Laxmi Bayi when he tells the story, his voice and tone remain neutral.

In 1924, Sethu Laxmi Bayi was battling for power against the Dewan she had inherited from her uncle, over the Vaikom satyagraha. In June 1925, after Gandhi’s visit, Sethu Laxmi Bayi passed orders conceding enough to the satyagrahis, while retaining enough to please the orthodoxy that still supported her. Her tenure was filled with reforms and transitions. According to Pillai, ‘patience, moderation and balance’ were believed to be the ‘hallmark’ of her policy. Several changes occurred: English education was introduced, Christians – earlier barred from the Land Revenue Department – moved into the plantation business with moderate success; state jobs were thrown open to non-Brahmins; Nairs gained prominence.

Pillai also makes an interesting observation about traditional Kerala society, which did not frown upon women having open sexual relations. The author informs us that Christian missionaries with their ‘prudish’ Victorian ideas and the need to ‘civilize’ India imposed their morality upon Kerala and clamped down on the freedom of women there.

One of the most controversial edicts of the Maharani’s tenure was the Newspaper Regulation. The press was ‘causing a good amount of restlessness in the corridors of royal power and of the absolute monarchy that headed it.’ Like every generation, they too had to fight for freedom of expression. Pillai admits that despite her compassionate attitude, it is controversial whether the maharani sided with the government or the press.

The good part was that by 1928, women were being appointed as clerks, typists, secretaries etc, and by 1931 the government had 412 women on its payroll in its administrative machinery. Major lifestyle changes in Sethu Laxmi Bayi’s family, especially later generations, also reflect these transformations in society. In fact, some from the royal line relinquished their titles to spend their lives as ordinary civilians living ordinary lives, adopting British mannerisms and practices that had become routine by then.

The evolution in society, politics and history in Kerala over three centuries, until almost the time of Partition, has been painstakingly captured. The chapters spliced together thematically rater than chronologically can sometimes be a little confusing for the reader, especially so since the royal family stuck to the same names generation after generation, and which the author has made an effort to distinguish for the reader in his own way. That apart the book is an awesome achievement.

Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal and the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle.

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