Sharat Sunder Rajeev, a conservation architect and history buff, sketches how he traced the works of the artist who painted the oils that narrate the story of Marthanda Varma in Padmanabhapuram Palace

It was a story that Sharat Sunder Rajeev had heard often: a story about a famous artist whose brush with royalty could not save him from penury and pain. Portraits of kings and queens bear his signature yet his most famous works do not carry the name of the artist. Intrigued by the story and the artist, Sharat, a conservation architect and history buff, traversed several trails to see if he could trace the painter and his works.

“The artist, C. Neelakanda Pillai, was reportedly the last Durbar artist of erstwhile Travancore and he is said to have painted the portraits of members of the royal family. He had painted the oils based on the life of Marthanda Varma at the gallery in Padmanabhapuram Palace,” says Sharat, during one of his short visits to the city.

The artist, who was the chief disciple of K.R. Ravi Varma, Ravi Varma’s nephew, belonged to the ‘Kilimanoor clan’, a group of artists who were inspired by Ravi Varma. Neelakanda Pillai had a studio in Aymanam in Kottayam when he was appointed as Durbar artist and assigned to paint events from history instead of stories from mythology. “The story goes that Amma Maharani, Sethu Lekshmi Bayi, wanted the paintings to give a new image to Marthanda Varma that was different from the prevailing ones. At her behest, he is said to have drawn 10 oils narrating the story of the warrior king who was the architect of erstwhile Travancore and the capital city. But, then he was directed not to sign his name on the paintings,” says Sharat.

The young architect searched museums and visited the homes of several artists and senior citizens to see if they knew anything about the man and his family who lived in Thavattu Roadside Bungalow, a stately house in Palakkulangara, till it was acquired by the government for a housing colony. Finally he traced one of the daughters, Saraswathi, to Chennai and that was when he struck gold.

“She was living all alone and her daughter had migrated to the United States. Imagine my surprise when she gave me several preliminary sketches of the paintings that also had the signature of the artist! It was such a treasure trove,” he recalls, delightedly showing off the sketches, all aesthetically mounted and framed.

Only eight sketches exist. Each shows a major event in the life of Marthanda Varma. It also depcits the meticulousness of the artist, who visited many of the places that feature in the tales about the King. While being pursued by his enemies, the King is said to have hidden inside the hollow of a jackfruit tree – the Ammachiplavu – in Neyyattinkara. Thus one of the sketches shows the tree, the next one shows the king inside the hollow. The oil painting has the complete picture. Another sketch shows the surrender of De Lannoy, who was defeated by the army of Travancore. Yet another sketch portrays the Thrippadidanam, when the victorious King dedicated his kingdom to Lord Padmanabha and promised to rule in his name.

“One has to remember that popular pictures of Marthanda Varma had been shaped by C.V. Raman Pillai’s novel on the King. But the Amma Maharani wanted to bring about some changes and that is visible in the paintings,” says Sharat.

Neelakanda Pillai had won the certificate of merit during an exhibition conducted on the sidelines of the Investiture celebrations of Sree Chithira Tirunal. A gifted artist, he got a letter of appreciation from none other than James Cousins, who was art adviser to Travancore at the time, says Sharat showing the letter written by Cousins.

In addition, an album of photographs snapped by Neelakanda Pillai, shows that he had an eye for composing. The photographs are vignettes of a gracious past, of spic and span buildings and places that have not been aged by weather and use.

However, the move to Thiruvananthapuram was not a sound financial move for the family. Letters written by the artist’s daughters before they were forced to shift from the house at Palkkulangara are pleas for financial help and a roof over their head. Eventually, the family settled down in different places and the artist’s name was erased from public memory. His paintings however continue to draw viewers with their vivid details and aesthetic colours.

Unearthing history

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, at present an assistant professor at McGan’s Ooty School of Architecture, has always been intrigued by the history of his ancestors – the famed ivory carvers of erstwhile Travancore. His efforts to document the lives of the community and their work took him to many houses in the city and beyond where he discovered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that he has been trying to put together since his college days.

His work has resulted in a book on the artisan community of the city and Travancore. The draft has been given to the Kerala Council of Historical Research.

In the course of his work, he stumbled upon many artists and photographers who lived and worked in the city. One such forgotten artist was Hariram a favourite of C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, who was one of the artists who had portrayed the Dewan. “Before Hariram's ancient house in Manacaud was demolished, he gave me his entire collection of photographs and sketches. Many of these works are valuable pieces that would have ended up as junk. Many old houses that are being demolished in the city have such collections that are often thrown away by ignorant or careless owners. Little do they know that it is our visual history that is being erased,” he says.

Sharat’s journal, in which he painstakingly jots down his research, interviews and work done each day, is supplemented by detailed pencil sketches and beautiful calligraphy. Sharat plans to turn his journals into books on the people and places in the city.