The Travancore Sisters were the pride of Malaya Cottage, writes SANGEETA

`Malaya Cottage' has a special place in the history of Malayalam cinema. It was a grooming ground for some of the most popular stars in the industry. Situated at Poojapura, Thiruvananthapuram, the mansion was home to Penang Padmanabha Pillai, a planter who worked in Malaysia.Pillai had six children, all boys. Karthiyayini Amma, his wife, had a liking for girls and would invite home her nieces, one of whom she eventually adopted. A great lover of dance and music, Karthiyayini Amma made arrangements for the girls to learn dance at Malaya Cottage. Soon many girls from Karthiyayini Amma's extended family joined the music and dance lessons.

All in the family

Most talented of the lot were Karthiyayini Amma's nieces - Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, later known as the Travancore Sisters. "Only Pappi (Padmini) was formally adopted. But my mother-in-law treated all of them like her daughters. I still remember, she bought them a made-to-order silk sari from Kanchipuram. Since Lalli (Lalita) and Pappi were wearing a sari for the first time, Amma got it consecrated at Madurai Meenakshi Temple," says Visalakshi Amma, wife of the late Ravindran Nair, Karthiyayini Amma's son."They were initiated into different dance forms under Guru Gopinath first and later Mahalingam Pillai and Udayshankar. It was not the Travancore sisters alone, actors Sukumari and Ambika, their cousins, were also part of the Malaya Cottage clan. They all lived like a family there." Sukumari, has vivid memories of her childhood in Malaya Cottage. "As a child, I used to hang around when Lallakkan, Pappiakkan and Rakkiakkan practised. Then, I slowly started learning with them, they used to take me to their performances and to the film sets. Just being with them at the right time has made me what I am today," says Sukumari."Malaya Cottage, in a way, inspired three generations of actors," feels Mahalakshmi, daughter of Ragini. "The first generation of actors, including my mother, was groomed there. And perhaps it is their success and passion that inspired Shobhana and Krishna to make a career in films," she adds.Actor and danseuse Shobhana is the niece of the Travancore Sisters and actor Krishna, the grand son of Lalitha."Though I have not seen Malaya Cottage in its glory, I remember my mother talking fondly about that house. She had many bungalows in her possession later, but she loved Malaya Cottage the most. Even during her last days, she spoke about the great time she had in that house. She wanted to get back there, but by then it had been demolished," says Mahalakshmi.Today, the Nabard headquarters at Poojapura is located on the site of Malaya Cottage, she says.In its heyday, Malaya Cottage was one of the biggest mansions of Thiruvananthapuram and could easily accommodate around 50 to 60 people. "It was a beautiful house. With its flower laden drive-in, long corridors and a dancing hall, it would remind anyone of a typical Mills and Boon mansion. The house had expensive artefacts such as chandeliers, silver crockery, brass idols and glass collections from all over the world," recalls Kanakam Nair, Karthiyayini Amma's niece.But Malaya Cottage became famous not for its architectural elegance and opulence, but for its acclaimed inhabitants. The Travancore Sisters and the house do not exist any more, but their legacy will continue to inspire others.

* * * Home productionsMalaya Cottage also had its own `home productions' with Sathyapalan (the second son of Karthiyayini Amma) as producerdirector and the Travancore Sisters as the lead actors. `Ummini Thanka,' `Veluthambi Dalava,' `Minnunnathellam Ponnalla' _ belonged to that genre.Sathyapalan produced and directed a number of feature films in both Tamil and Malayalam, many of them super hits of those times. Sukumari and Ambika also made their debut in tinsel town when they were living at Malaya Cottage.