Page-turners from the pages of history

The past is the present for a group of creative writers and historians who are delving into the history of erstwhile Travancore to write for modern-day readers

By Saraswathy Nagarajan

Intrigues and vendetta spell death in a play set in the 17th century; colonial masters and sibling rivalry set the stage for a tale of regal conflicts and exile; a brilliant young man from the land of the Marathas and the Peshwas shapes the development of three princely states in India… the tales are many and come in the shape of novels, plays, biographies and more. What binds them together is the scene of action – erstwhile Travancore.

The kingdom of Travancore with its wealth of stories, legends, intrigues and rumours has become the muse for writers young and old, newcomers and veterans. Novels, plays and biographies in Malayalam and many movies have been set in the same background at different periods of time. However, last year, there were works in English that sought to interpret the documented history of Travancore in different ways. More are in the pipeline as creative writers are exploring the tumultuous past to write page-turners. And none is a hagiography.

On Friday, young writer Manu S. Pillai had a discussion on his book The Ivory Throne with writers Khyrunnisa A. and Jaishree Misra, both residents of the city. Next week, Urmila Rau Lal will release her book, Life and Times of Statesman, Administrator Extraordinaire Diwan Sir Thanjavur Madhava Row, on her distinguished ancestor, who had served as Dewan of the princely states of Travancore, Baroda and Indore. In October last, poet and writer Gopikrishnan Kottoor wrote a play The Nectar of the Gods – King Marthanda Varma and Devasahayam.

In the meantime, academic and playwright John Mathew is working on a play based on the life of Uthram Thirunal (1814-1860), the brother of Swati Tirunal. He has been collecting material for his play on the prince with a scientific bent of mind.

For all these time travellers it has been a fascinating journey into the past, specifically the history of Travancore; a voyage that took them into the policies of the European traders, mercenaries and missionaries who came to India for “gold, god and glory” and the conspiracies and conflicts in the courts and families of the native princes and noblemen.

In a previous interview to The Hindu, Gopikrishnan points out that he had always been enchanted by “the history surrounding the Udaygiri Fort, Marthanda Varma and Dutch commander Eustachius De Lannoy since he was taken by his father on a trip during his childhood.”

Manu, who spent more than five years on his book, explains what drew him to his book’s theme: “There was a gap there – the Regency years had become a footnote in Travancore history, which was odd because it was a time of phenomenal activity. Combine this with the very interesting personality of the Regent Maharani (a sum of some remarkable contradictions) and the fact that in the 1920s Travancore politics was in that final stage before joining the freedom struggle in the following decade, I grew fixed on this story.”

For octogenarian Urmila, it was all about completing a task that was begun by her father, Captain Ramchandar Lakshman Rau (Retd.) who was a great-grandson of the Dewan. She states in her dedication in the book: “He [my father] had several years ago initiated me into writing the biography of our ancestor Sir T. Madhava Rao. He himself had attempted to put it together including writing a description of the Maharashtrians who had migrated to the South along with our ancestor. Unfortunately, he could not complete it…. as he passed away….. I thought there would be no better tribute to my late father than to write this biography and make it see light of day.”

Gopikrishnan’s play, meanwhile, is on the execution of Devasahayam Pillai, a Nair nobleman in the service of Marthanda Varma.

All such works, fiction or non-fiction, naturally involves hours of research in archives and also meeting people who might have some information on the incidents or people involved in the work. Their works throw light on many unforgotten milestones in the history of Kerala.

Manu, for example, found several interesting material in British Archives. Says Manu: “The irony is that there is actually a lot of English material – I found letters the Ranis wrote in the 1870s in English, for instance. The British Archives are all in English, and they have versions of records that disappeared from Kerala centuries ago. For instance, the grant of Anjengo by the Attingal Rani to the English in 1694. The Malayalam record no longer exists but I found the English version in London.”

Although not all such works are instant successes, Manu’s book has gone into a second edition. Asked about the reason for the success of his book, Manu says: “I think there hasn’t been a narrative non-fiction on Travancore so far. Most books are academic works (and excellent) or texts written in the princely era like the State Manuals. Nobody had tried to marry academic rigour to a more readable literary style, and I think the commercial success of the book has to do with the fact that people are in fact very eager to learn about history – if it is told well.”

Source: The Hindu

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