P. Sankunni Menon and his son K.P. Padmanabha Menon, who authored History of Travancore and History of Kerala respectively, remain forgotten
The life of a historian seems to be short in public memory. P. Sankunni Menon (also spelt Shangoonny Menon) and his son K. P. Padmanabha Menon are two home-grown historians that history seems to have forgotten.
Sankunni Menon was Dewan Peshkar of the erstwhile state of Travancore who spurned the offers of high offices to write the monumental History of Travancore, while his son Padmanabha Menon was a leading advocate who gave up his profession to write two seminal historical works—History of Kerala (4 volumes) and History of Cochin.
Today, there is nothing to perpetuate the memory of these two pioneering historians.
“It is indeed sad that there is no memorial for these two great historians in the State. Both of them worked out of Ernakulam district but the authorities have not even bothered to name a road in their honour. Their works have been the source and inspiration for later history books but I think even the Kerala History Association have forgotten them,” says Ravi Kuttikad, journalist who has researched and written extensively on them and their works.
Sankunni Menon’s work was first published in 1878. It focused attention on a hitherto unknown chapter in the country’s history. It traces the history of Travancore elaborately from ancient times to the closing years of the 19th century. It was re-published in 1983. A Malayalam translation of this work was published in 1973. “When Sankunni Menon embarked on his project he had no model to base his work. He knew it was going to need a monumental effort. He decided to move to a quiet place of his own and found a plot of land on the banks of the Periyar at Puthenvelikkara, near North Paravur. He built a beautiful house that stood there till it was pulled down sometime in the early 1990s.”
Sitting in his room that was lined by books, lit by the warmth of oil lamps, Sankunni Menon waded through information, collated it, wrote down drafts, with his son Padmanabha Menon assisting him diligently. “There is a letter that the father wrote to his son. In it he tells him that history would judge that his decision to spurn the offer of Dewan for writing this work was right. He was certain that his work would stand the test of time, but sadly he has been forgotten.”
The house at Puthenvelikkara had an impressive library and would have been a fitting monument for Sankunni Menon. “It was here that Sankunni Menon stayed, wrote this work and breathed his last. When the legal heirs decided on pulling the structure down a committee headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was formed to try and preserve this historical monument. The then Minister of Culture T. M. Jacob was informed and he issued an order to the Tahsildar. But before the order could be enforced, the building was pulled down.”
Padmanabha Menon stayed at Edappally, his mother’s house—Krishnathu Puthenveedu. The modified house still stands on Blossom Road at Punnakkal. He attained considerable proficiency in English and Malayalam, history and law. He served as assistant to Sir H.H. Sheppard, who was then the Advocate General to the Government of Madras and who afterwards became a judge of the Madras High Court. He decided to move to Cochin and worked at the Appeal Court, before he shifted for a while to Travancore where he had good legal practice. Padmanabha Menon was nominated to various committees like the Marumakkathayam Committee appointed to consider changes in the law and custom of the Nair community. Scholars thought that his History of Cochin (Kochi Rajya Charithram) was a work of absorbing interest, immense educative value and unique in the annals of Malayalam literature.
His History of Kerala in four volumes with 2,500 pages was completed in 1910. Padmanabha Menon used a portion of the Aluva Palace for this work. The work was published in 1924, five years after his death.
The delay in the publication of History of Kerala was entirely due to Padmanabha Menon’s ‘pious solicitude for historical accuracy’. He is said to have investigated matters over which there could possibly be any doubt or dispute so that he could present a work of unassailable veracity. His sedentary habits, mental strain and absence of physical exercise affected his health leading to his death.
History has not been kind to the father-son historians who lived, worked and firmly believed that history did not belong to them, but that they belonged to history.