Friday, September 11, 2015


Kilimanoor-the name has a magical ring no!- sounds uncannily like Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa!? That is a place a tourist in the right mind should visit when in Kerala. It’s divine connect matches that of Sabarimala or Guruvayoor. So when in Kerala a while back, we were determined to pay our respects to the ‘Prince among Painters and Painter among Princes’, Raja Ravi Varma right at his birth-place, the Kilimanoor Palace. Every famous place in Kerala is located between two famous places, given the linearity of the state. In our present case, Kilimanoor town lies off the MC/SH 1, mid-way between Kollam and Thiruvanathapuram, a stretch of 80 KM approximately.  Kilimanoor literally means “land of the  parrot and the deer”….

Reaching the place is tricky. While Sreebesh, our energetic young pilot and guide knows quite a bit about Kerala history, Kilimanoor leaves him stumped. It is not there in “Kerala guide-syllabus sirrh” he says jokingly. Maharaja Marthanda Varma however looms large over his imagination, incredibly versatile as he was. Marthanda Varma (circa 1706-1758) was the greatest King of the Travancore state, the only Rajah in the whole of India who bested a European army (Dutch). Kilimanoor was under the sway of the Nair octet, the Ettuveetil Pillamar (Pillamar= Lord, from which derives the Nair title Pillai) and when the local tribal chieftain rebelled against Travancore authority, it was annexed by Marthanda Varma, reigns of the Kingdom handed over to the matrimonially related Koli lineage. The clan is supposed to be simply Kshatriyas, no ifs and buts like other Kerala castes. As Vivekananda once said in exasperation, Kerala is a ‘mad-house of castes’!

So…there we are…come heritage town Kilimanoor, and we are led to the Palace by tentative sign-boards, and alas...the wicket gate and the massive doors are closed. The only photo-op seems to be this snap which Sreebesh clicks.
We allow for the possibility of the monument being deserted, and stakes being so high, try to force the wicket gate open, it swings inside with a rasping sound, and as we raise our camera for another picture, out storms a tall, dark, handsome man with a regal mien, expostulating that the estate is not a public place. We sheepishly explain the design behind our visit, and acknowledging our erudition, he gives us full marks, then invites us inside. He is none else than Rama Varma ‘Biju’ (the appellation serves to distinguish him from his cousin, the renowned musician from Ravi Varma’s direct lineage, Prince Rama Varma). The Palace wears white and radiates an old world beauty and charm...

Biju Rama Varma a constituent of the family, heads the Ravi Varma trust. He is a practising classical musician, and sings and composes both Caranatic and Hindustani. Swathi Thirunal, his legendary ancestor has hundreds of Hindustani compositions to his credit, we are informed. We apprise him of the musical pedigree of Missus. He is thrilled and proposes an impromptu mehfil in the hallowed hall where the Raja painted some of his most celebrated canvases. What a windfall says Missus and she suspends the artiste’s innate disinclination to perform unaccompanied and on the spur of the moment. BRV whips out his cell phone and switching on the tanpura utitlity, seeks her base note, it’s the white sixth she responds. Given the stature and seniority of Rama Varma, it is decided that Missus will lead and BRV conclude. They keep it ‘light’ and Missus renders her favourite Ram ka gun gaan kariye by the twin Bharat Ratnas Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar, set to Bhairav by Pt. Shriniwas Khale. The magic of the studio rubs off on her and she sings as if possessed. Dramatically, BRV’s assistant emerges from inside and literally performs a sashtanga before her! Leaves her flushed with gratitude really.
BRV then sings his Madhymawati, Anupama Sundara as we reported in our previous dispatch. We are dumbfounded by the rich timbre of his voice and his range, spanning three octaves. The taar saptak finale is simply grand.

This video was uploaded by BRV's sister. BRV is a well-known composer, having given score to a number of Malayalee movies, and eminent singers, including Yesudas have sung for him.

Conversation naturally veers around to the topic of the Raja’s painting. The Raja’s painting is egalitarian…of ‘utility’ to everybody, rich or poor, he says, without distinction of caste, creed or station in life. He thoroughed every scripture before he painted the Gods, and went by the basic common denominators, lest orthodoxy raise a finger. So much so that in the present day, the paintings are themselves pointers for the Faithful (chaddidharis excused, ha, ha…)! He had a way with faces, which are suffused with emotion and charm. But alas…BRV laments, in the original home of the painter, there is no Original. The Raja usually painted in his room on the first floor. Like a true blue Malayalee, he went all over the world, and many of his major works, particularly those of the Marathi ladies in nauwari sarees, were painted in Baroda, where he was invited by erstwhile Baroda regent Sir Madhavrao, earlier the Dewan of the Travancore state. The originals of Goddesses Saraswati and Laxmi, the Ram Durbar, the Shakuntala are among the hundreds preserved at the Baroda Heritage Art Gallery. Ravi Varma paintings are scattered as in a diaspora, and his originals are displayed in numerous galleries, like the Modern Art Gallery, New Delhi and the Sri Chithra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram. The Trust under the dynamic leadership of BRV arranges retrospectives and art festivals in Kilimanoor, and is engaged in the effort to acquire at least some originals for the benefit of aficionados like CVB who are prone to visiting the Palace. Paintings by the Raja are known to command prices in crores at international auctions, BRV confides. The palace was maintained by Ravi Varma with the sale proceeds of some of his paintings says BRV…
We ask for permission to shoot in the sanctum sanctorum, and BRV has a hearty laugh. Believe us-his words are- you and I are long lost brothers of a previous birth! Here is the clip:

Finally, he takes us on a guided tour of the palace (built circa 1753). We are shown the place where pujas were performed (kaavu) and only family could enter-you know- the caste requisites were more stringent in Kerala than anywhere else…We love the small mandapam with carved doors and arches for windows, which BRV says has hosted the greatest musicians of present day India.

And finally, in spite of our words of dissuation, the Prince, in all grace and modesty, accompanies us right upto Sreebesh's Honda City and we wave a warm mutual good-bye...Senior and Junior are duly updated about the day’s events with the anticipated seasoning. Senior’s tribute to YT for the industry demonstrated by us in tracking down the Painter to the Nation’s abode makes our day: “All sorts of things happen when you are around Dad!” says he…

No comments: