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Benign presence

SHREEKUMAR VARMA

Remembering Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, regent of Travancore, as a queen and a grandmother.



Progressive ruler: The queen with her daughter.

MAHATMA GANDHI wrote in his paper Young India: "My visit to Her Highness was an agreeable surprise for me. Instead of being ushered into the presence of an over decorated woman, sporting diamond pendants and necklaces, I found myself in the presence of a modest young woman who relied not upon jewels or gaudy dresses for beauty but on her own naturally well formed features and exactness of manners. Her room was as plainly furnished, as she was plainly dressed. Her severe simplicity became an object of envy."

Gandhiji was writing about the Regent Maharani of Travancore, H.H. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985). His words acquire even more significance because he had to leave without accomplishing his mission, that of opening the temples in the state to all classes of people without discrimination. The Maharani told him: "I agree this should be done. And it will be done. But, as the Regent, I cannot take such a major policy decision. That will have to wait for my nephew." True to her words, the Temple Entry Proclamation was signed during Maharaja Sri Chitra Tirunal's reign.

Childhood

She was adopted by the Travancore Royal Family in 1900. It wasn't an agreeable proposition for the five year-old. She was uprooted from the joint family in Mavelikkara, separated from her brothers and sisters. Playtime was over. Henceforth, they would see her in a different light. She spent depressing days all by herself, waiting for those rare and precious moments when her mother was brought down from Mavelikkara to see her. When she was nine, an English Governess, Dorothia Watts, was appointed to teach her English, music, drawing and needlework. At 10, she was married to Rama Varma Valia Koil Thampuran of Ananthapuram Palace.

She was a reluctant ruler. When Maharaja Sri Moolam Tirunal passed away in 1924, the mantle fell on the royal family's eldest female member. There was also talk of a Regency Council being appointed till Chitra Tirunal came of age. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi went to the family temple of Sri Padmanabhaswamy and prayed: "Please, let it be the Council!"

It was not to be.

But having taken over the reins, she proved to be a progressive and pioneering ruler. Education was given top priority, taking up 40 per cent of the budget. Expenditure on public works rose by more than Rs. 14,00,000 by the end of her reign. The outlay on minor irrigation schemes was increased, and more money allocated for agricultural and industrial loans. Village Panchayats were established. Vital road links came into being. Women were empowered. A large number of them were appointed to the State Service, and also nominated to the Legislative Council. Granddaughter of the legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma, she patronised art and music, and encouraged the first ever filmmaker of Kerala. She abolished animal sacrifice and replaced the matrilineal system of inheritance with the patrilineal one. Her rule is remembered as the golden era of Travancore. Gandhiji added in the same Young India article: "Although I knew vaguely that Travancore was called a progressive State, I did not know anything of the marvellous progress it had made."

Later, Lord Mountbatten was to admire the Maharani's quiet elegance and innate dignity. "No one who met her once could ever forget her," he said. "She stands as a shining example to womanhood as a great queen and a great woman."

She lived in Satelmond Palace in Poojapura, Trivandrum, surrounded by family members and retainers. Her daughter, Indira Varma, recalls: "The grounds were quite vast. Stray dogs managed to sneak in and wander about. After lunch, my sister and I used to give them food placed on banana leaves. One day, Mother learnt that some of the cooks were in the habit of chasing them away by pouring boiling water on them. She was a very gentle person, but cruelty was something that never failed to arouse her ire. I saw her really angry that day, her beautiful and expressive eyes flashing fire." Today, the Palace houses the Sri Chitra Research Institute, responsible for groundbreaking medical technology.

She moved to Bangalore in the 1950s. My earliest recollection of her is tinged with a faint scent of bath oils and incense, as she sat in a small room with several large windows, rarely leaving her bed. She read a lot, newspapers and books, and listened to the radio. She carefully cut out Phantom and Mandrake comic strips and kept them for her grandchildren. They enjoyed visiting her because she listened attentively to their prattle, and also distributed toffee. During festivals such as Onam and Vishu, she looked radiant, surrounded by children. Looking at her, fragile and placid, it was difficult to imagine that she had once ruled the state of Travancore. My grandfather, who was a great support during the Regency, continued to live in Kerala, but came down every year to visit her.

With family

Music and books formed the basis of our relationship. We had long discussions on literature, and when I wrote my murder mystery magnum opus at the age of 13, she listened patiently to its progress, approving and advising, and turned out to be its only reader. When I "published" my first hand-written magazine, she was its sole subscriber. She sent for me whenever she wanted to listen to music. I would open her little HMV Fiesta gramophone and together we listened to Yesudas and Jayachandran, and old drama records.

When Yesudas actually came and sang for her one day, I was fortunate to be present. I also remember occasions when an entire theatre balcony would be reserved for our family and we sat watching a mythological along with her.

The Maharani passed away in February 1985. Last November, her 110th birthday was celebrated at a public function in Thiruvananthapuram. It was noted that there wasn't a single monument in the state to remind future generations of her pioneering rule.

But the benign presence of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who was as conscientious a grandmother as she was a queen, continues to rule over her family.

Visit: www.shreevarma.com

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