The story of Lalitamba Bayi and Kerala Varma is no ordinary love story. It tells of many political machinations and the slow unravelling of the matrilineal court in Travancore
Manu S Pillai | 17 Feb, 2016
One evening in the autumn of 1937, a princess of Travancore entered the library at Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum where her parents were ensconced sorting wedding proposals for her. “There’s no need to look anymore,” she declared casually. She’d just returned from a procession, escorted around Trivandrum Fort in an ornate palanquin, heralded by pipers, drummers, and the liveried guards. All of them looked sufficiently solemn and Lalitamba Bayi was meant to play her part and act appropriately poised. But this mutinous princess popped her head out and waved at her pious, somewhat startled subjects. And there— in the crowd on a certain inner street, she saw him. Without a hint of reservation she at once decided she would marry this man, and no amount of frenzied parleying with her apoplectic father, her bewildered mother, or even the formidable British Resident could convince her otherwise.
Enquiries were made — after the princess threatened to take off from the roof—and the mystery man was identified. He proved to be of suitable family; from the clan of Ravi Varma, the painter, who was Lalitamba’s great-grandfather. Besides, at the end of the day it was perfectly reasonable for the princesses of Travancore to select husbands of their liking. Lalitamba’s mother, the Senior Maharani, had glanced from an upstairs balcony at two boys presented to her and that’s how Lalitamba’s father, a country grandee, entered the picture. Her aunt, the Junior Maharani, was offered a somewhat more ample selection of five candidates from which she took her pick. So the princess hadn’t, strictly speaking, broken any rules. The boy in question was summoned to the palace for an interview and the father of the bride sat him down. “Tell me about your reading habits,” he suggested, smiling sweetly. The nervous boy commenced his rattling when suddenly his prospective father-in-law growled: “Who was the author of Ivanhoe?”“I hadn’t a clue,” the bridegroom-elect would recount years later, “and said the first thing that came to my head: Rip Van Winkle!”
The father of the princess was not pleased, but he had no say. The Senior Maharani confirmed the wedding and the boy failed his college examinations in all the jubilation that followed. The palace doctors subjected him to a most thorough inspection to ensure everything was in order, while the grand dame at court, an enormous Anglo-Indian spinster called Miss Watts, arrived in her equally imposing yellow car to give him lessons in etiquette. Finally, on the eve of the wedding, when the boy returned from a tour of high-end garment stores in Madras, he was introduced to the family priest to discuss matters of a more delicate nature. Awkwardly the wizened Brahmin tutored his ward in what was and wasn’t appropriate when making love to a princess of Travancore. The hapless man absorbed it quietly, while back in the palace the girl giggled through her mother’s pithy remarks. The wedding took place in 1938, and overnight, Mr Kerala Varma, ex-BSc student at the Maharajah’s College, was exalted as MR Ry Sri Kerala Varma Koil Tampuran Avargal, Consort to Her Highness the Second Princess of Travancore. But it wasn’t too heady an elevation. After all, consorts could never be princes.
In matrilineal Travancore—to put it simplistically—the king’s wife was not his queen; it was his sister who was the queen and her children who succeeded him to the throne. The Maharajah could flaunt a wordy string of a dozen embellished titles, but his son was always Mr So-and-So, living at the grace and favour of his royal father. “I have seen standing unnoticed in a shop,” one traveller noted, “the son of [a] highly distinguished late Maharajah.” The Maharajah’s wife was never addressed as anything other than a ‘consort’ and according to the mandates of tradition, was not a member of the royal household. ‘She has neither official nor social position at court,’ it was observed, ‘and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose wife she is.’
A 1912 feature in London’s The Lady explained the position succinctly:
Whenever a stranger goes to Travancore, one of the largest and most picturesque native States, situated in south-western India, they always tell him not to address her as ‘Your Highness’. They think this word is too dignified to apply to her. No doubt she is the Ruler’s spouse; but that does not make her the Maharani or even the Rani. She is only Ammachi, just the mother of His Highness’ children, and they believe that word is good enough to express her relationship to the man who is autocrat of more than 2,950,000 people, inhabiting [over] seven thousand square miles of territory, yielding an annual revenue of about £700,000.
In fact, the Maharajah could not, during the day, even touch his wife and children who were considered below caste, let alone dine with them. As late as the 1940s, as a member of the family recalls, “They couldn’t come anywhere near us when a meal was being eaten, and if by accident they did, then the whole meal had to be sent back… Dinner was always a bit more relaxed because that was after sunset when everything is more relaxed.” The demands of caste and ritual purity evidently went up and down with the sun, allowing the Maharajahs a sufficient window to invite their consorts to the royal bedchamber and to transact personal business without having retainers shove court customs down their princely throats.
But if this was the predicament of women who married Maharajahs of Travancore, men who were favoured by the sister-Maharanis fared only a little better. Like female consorts, these men also received courtesy titles, but had no status at court. With the queens they might produce heirs to the throne, but when they died, their bodies were sent back to their natal families, and their royal wives and children did not attend the funeral. As late as the 1920s, the sole entitlement of the husbands of princesses was ‘a monthly allowance from the durbar of Rs 200 per mensem with meals from the palace and the use of a brougham and a pair of horses.’ By the 1940s they were a little better off with Rs 300 per month. At grand banquets in the palace, the Maharanis and their offspring were served four varieties of dessert; the consorts were permitted two.
Similarly, husbands of the Maharanis were not allowed to share the same bedroom as their highborn spouses—when Lalitamba and her young consort did in 1938, it was considered massively inventive. In the old days, the consort could call on his wife only on previously rostered dates and times, and if she wished to entertain him. He was not permitted to sit in his wife’s presence, and always had to address her as ‘Your Highness’. If the couple had to travel, the consort followed in a less stately carriage—and if some bureaucratic oversight and dreadful breach of protocol caused him to end up in the same coach as his royal partner, it was essential he park himself opposite and not next to her.
In the 1910s, patricians at court were outraged when Lalitamba’s mother, the Senior Maharani, amended the custom as she ‘modernised’ things. ‘It is a matter of common knowledge,’ the Resident reported to the Viceroy in Delhi, that the then Maharajah ‘much disapproved of the [Maharani] allowing [Lalitamba’s father] to sit in her presence and to drive in the same carriage.’
Clearly, it didn’t take too much to manufacture a scandal in princely Travancore.
The idea behind much of this antiquated court culture was to preserve a halo around the matrilineal dynasty and to ensure that no husband or wife married to its members forgot their place in the order of things. It was also in the interests of dynastic preservation that outside individuals should not gain undue influence over the king or queen. In practice, however, things did not always pan out in ways desired by the twelve-volume ‘Palace Manual’. The Maharajah who ruled from 1885 till 1924, for instance, first married the adopted daughter of his uncle, the previous ruler. She died in childbirth, and he brought up their son to become his ADC—which was as close to royalty as the boy could get. During the intervening years, the Maharajah remained unwed, till about fifteen years down the line he made his acquaintance with a woman called Kartyayani. Swiftly she was adopted into one of the noble houses in the capital, with aristocracy conferred upon her. She picked up ‘a few polite English phrases’ and acquired ‘an excess of adipose tissue’, which was apparently ‘a sign of prosperity’. ‘The ruler’s wife, no doubt,’ a magazine sneered, ‘is lucky as few women are, and she has therefore every incentive to be as fat as Nature may let her grow.’
But while the Maharajah’s wife inflated in bodily proportions, so too did corruption at court. The matter was that when the ruler met the lady, she was already a married woman. Her husband, a palace menial, relinquished her to the Maharajah and in return, the grateful monarch appointed him his chamberlain. With the passage of years, it was reported that the Maharajah lapsed into a ‘dreamy stupor’ around his new keeper (‘the former husband of the Maharajah’s present wife’) who controlled orders emanating from the palace and was recorded as a collector of tremendous sums in bribes. ‘The state of the Court here,’ a bishop summarised, ‘is very bad. Unworthy favourites rule and we hear of great scandals.’ In neighbouring Cochin State, the Rajah who reigned in the 1920s grew ill and disoriented with age (given to laughing wildly during formal durbars and causing a monumental tremble to play upon the Resident’s decidedly stiff upper lip). His consort, ‘whose ruling passion is the acquisition of wealth for her already wealthy family’, usurped the functioning of the palace and the government, provoking an uprising from the rightful princes of Cochin born in the matrilineal line.
If Maharajahs could, thus, be influenced by their wives and the latter’s partisans, the consorts of the Maharanis also possessed significant influence over the royal ladies. In public they might not sit with them, but how much leeway they had depended on the character of the princesses. While the Junior Maharani in Travancore, for instance, was recorded as perfectly capable of keeping her husband ‘in his proper place’, the Senior Maharani was devoted to the ideal of the ‘good’, patriarchal wife who thought walking a step behind her husband was a matter of high honour. The allowance of a superior position than was due to Lalitamba’s father drew objections from the Junior Maharani. Outsiders warned that the Senior Maharani’s consort had to remain ‘ever conscious of the line of demarcation between his privileges as royal partner and his duties as loyal citizen.’ And if one of those duties entailed bowing to the Junior Maharani, it wasn’t becoming of him to refuse to do this even if he were married to the Senior.
What began, then, as a trivial battle about protocol soon assumed historic proportions that would affect the lives of millions of Travancoreans—the Senior’s husband would not bow, and the Junior resented his audacity. ‘Nothing will,’ bemoaned the Resident, ‘terminate the feud between the Junior Maharani and [the Senior’s consort] but the death of one of them.’ It didn’t help that it was the Junior Maharani who produced the next Maharajah, but that during the latter’s minority, the state was entrusted to the Senior as Regent. She proved to be a remarkably capable ruler, but her husband, though ‘not venal’ did harbour a ‘passion to play King’—a treasonous gamble for a mere consort. He spent mornings ‘giving audiences to subordinate officials seeking to avoid unwelcome transfers or to obtain undeserved promotions’ and soon there was a rebellion in the local papers, which rallied around the Junior Maharani and her son.
Power politics, the machinations of factions at court, and ceaseless disagreements on etiquette drove the wedge deeper between the Maharanis and the palace smouldered with episodes of black magic, stories of assassination attempts, and a great deal of mutual suspicion. As ruler, the Senior Maharani championed the rights of the minorities, Dalits and the disempowered, while the dominant high-caste Hindus reinforced the position of the Junior Maharani. Petitions were filed with the Viceroy in Delhi claiming that the consort had ‘usurped the reins of power’. ‘He controls admissions to the royal presence,’ one of them stated, and ‘It is suspected that Her Highness is allowed access only to such channels of information and organs of public opinion as he deems fit that she should have…What passes behind the scenes is no longer a mystery and it is suspected… that sanctions and orders emanating from the palace have not always been personally approved of by the Maharani herself.’ What happened in Cochin—a consort arrogating powers—was alleged to be transpiring in Travancore, also to calamitous dynastic and public detriment.
The hawk-eyed Resident investigated the matter clandestinely and discovered that the consort of the Senior Maharani did not, in fact, possess as much influence as he was rumoured to have—he was merely a scapegoat to destabilise the Regency. The Senior Maharani did walk a step behind him insofar as appearances went, but when it came to matters of policy, she drew a line and installed him firmly behind it. When in turn the Junior Maharani’s son came to power, ‘unkind rumour’ suggested that she was so paranoid about a future wife commandeering her son, that she formulated with her minister an ‘unholy pact’ to ensure he wouldn’t marry. Officially the line was that the new Maharajah disliked the matrilineal system that offered no status to his consort and her issue, and chose to remain a bachelor. His secretary and associates privately, however, informed the Resident that this decision had more to do with his mother who was ‘obsessed by the idea that she must maintain control over His Highness’.
What mattered in an old, seasoned dynasty was power and the perpetuation of power. And if consorts got in the way, consorts could be kept away.
It was into this world that Princess Lalitamba swept young Kerala Varma in 1938. Since he no longer needed to fret about a career, this newest entrant in the family decided to focus on art and music instead. Eschewing court intrigue, he obtained the tutelage of durbar artists and maestros, and spent his time painting, playing the veena, or at sport. The battle between the Maharanis and the older consorts continued to play out, but it was a battle of desperation in an already sinking world. By the end of World War II, it became clear that the princely states would inevitably confront dissolution. The Junior Maharani and her son made a misguided attempt in 1947 to keep Travancore independent, even sending an envoy to Jinnah. But it was an ill-fated venture. An assassination attempt caused their faithful minister to pack his bags and leave, and the young Maharajah cabled the Viceroy his accession to India.
The ever-rebellious Lalitamba, on the other hand, decided to move with the times. In 1949, she and Kerala Varma did the unthinkable—they left the regal palace and settled in Bangalore to consciously become ‘ordinary’. She transformed, overnight, into Mrs Lalitha Varma, and her husband set himself up as an industrialist. Their children’s nannies and tutors were dismissed and they were enrolled in public schools with their titles dropped. From entertaining Viceroys and Residents, the couple began to deal with businessmen at the Bangalore Club and with Presidents and Governors at official receptions. And as the years passed, their palaces in what was old Travancore disappeared too—some were sold, many were acquired by assorted Communist governments, and some simply crumbled into dust.
Tucked away on Richmond Road in today’s Bengaluru, Lalitha and Kerala Varma’s home survives as one of the city’s last colonial bungalows. Obscured from traffic on the street by a series of erratic constructions, this is a place of nostalgic darkness. Ancient chandeliers that once hung in great halls creak from the vaulted ceilings. Verandahs with intricately patterned Italian tiles open into rooms with more ‘modern’ mosaic floors. Antique furniture is scattered in heaps around the house, and portraits of glorious ancestors look down wistfully from the walls. A handsome grandfather clock stands imperiously in a corner, while books in the study gather dust in cabinets that have not been opened in years.
Lalitha died in 2008, content with her great transformation— from a princess who had no conception in 1949 of what on earth a ‘rooh-pee’ was, she had, over the decades, taken to driving her own car, cooking in her own kitchen, and, when required, sweeping her own floor. With her death, her husband has lost interest in most things. After all, his life was wedded too closely to the story of this woman who had picked him off the streets of Trivandrum in 1937. He was only 20 then, and now, nearing 100, Kerala Varma alone survives from those times gone by, as the last of the warring consorts of the House of Travancore, now relegated to the pages of history.