Society

The row over Rao

Painting of Madhav Rao by Raja Ravi Varma. Photo courtesy: Achuthsankar S. Nair   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Hard times for the Dewan

The major challenge Madhava Rao faced in Travancore was in handling the people’s struggle for the right to wear an upper cloth. Though he was knighted in 1866, he had to bear the brunt of the reaction in the ‘upper cloth issue’. In 1871, R. C. Cadwell in The Chutney Lyrics-A collection of comic pieces in verse on Indian Subjects showered sarcasm on Brahmin-dominated Travancore and social ills, referring to Madhava Rao as ‘Gammon Row’ and Travancore as ‘Cocoanut core’: Who has not heard of that wonderful man, Sir Gammon Row, the great Dewan, Who has ruled for the last ten years, or more, The Protected State of Cocoanut core? The brightest land, with the lightest tax, And an annual surplus of fifty lacks: The poem goes on to paint the one-sided stand of the Dewan as he hears a case of a British man named Green who was assaulted for entering a Brahmin street:

Due to a misunderstanding with Ayilyam Thirunal, Madhava Rao had to resign and retire in February 1872 at the age of 44. The king expressed his displeasure at the number of petitions alleging nepotism against Madhava Rao. As soon as Rao resigned, his state-chariot was withdrawn. Rao struggled to travel from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi as carts and canoes were not easily provided to him, fearing the wrath of the king. It was P. Sankunni Menon, author of History of Travancore (who was rumored as having poisoned the king's mind against Madhava Rao) who came to Rao’s rescue. It is believed that Madhava Rao’s plight prompted all future prime ministers to tender their resignation at Chenkotta, on the border of erstwhile Travancore. Madhava Rao visited the capital city in 1878 and gifted Sankunni Menon a gold watch.

When he retired, Madhava Rao wrote to his successor Nanu Pillai “I send herewith the following – one silver key of the Durbar Hall used by His Highness on the occasion of the opening of the public offices buildings [the secretariat]…one key of a box containing a superior pair of scales from Alleppy. One seal from Orr & Co intended for the Dewan’s use in connection with the treasury”.

Who made the ‘statue’?

Ayilyam Thirunal did not restrain from granting Rao a pension of Rs. 1,000 per month and gift of land in Nanjinad and also gifted him the Aryasala Palace (the building that was recently demolished, opposite the office of the Theosophical Society, on Thampanoor flyover). Rao enjoyed the trust of the king in waiting, Visakham Thirunal, who wrote gloriously about Madhava Rao in the Calcutta Review of 1872 (a 38–page article meant to compensate the Dewan's dishonourable exit).

The real compensation was when the “statue” in the city centre etched him permanently in the cityscape. The statue was made in England and the sculptor was Eduard Lanteri (1848-1917), a French man (some claim he was Italian) who was settled in England. The sculptor’s name is etched at the base of the statue. He was a professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Arts, South Kensington and is author of a text book on modelling. The sculptor was helped by Raja Ravi Varma. The posture of the statue is strikingly similar to a painting of Madhava Rao by Raja Ravi Varma. The inscriptions on the pedestal are in English and Malayalam.

The first statue in the city

The statue was unveiled in a public meeting on May 30, 1893 by Madhava Rao’s close friend Kerala Varma Valiya Koyi Thampuran. (After the exit of Madhava Rao, Ayilyam had Varma deported and put under house arrest). A tent was erected near the statue and Kerala Varma made a speech on Rao on the occasion. The installation was mired in controversies. Robin Jeffery traces this controversy in his article in the Pacific Affairs Journal (1980).

The idea of the statue was mooted in 1887, during the 60th birth anniversary of Rao. A committee was formed with one of the relatives of Madhava Rao, T. Rajaram Rao. An amount of Rs. 4,000 was collected by public subscription. In 1889, the Maharaja contributed Rs. 2,000 to the statue fund. The time was not conducive to honouring a “paradesi Brahmin” as people’s movements had arisen towards just representation of various committees in administration, and a huge memorandum known as ‘Malayali Memorial’ was gathering momentum.

Allegations appeared in the Madras Standard that the funds raised has been through “black mailing”. They also pointed out that Travancore had wonderful statesmen a hundred years before Rao. Perhaps the death of Rao in 1891 muted the criticism and the clout of Dewan Rama Rao (who was Madhava Rao’s cousin) also pushed the proposal through. Robin Jeffery considers the statue as the first in south India, of an Indian statesman. Thiruvananthapuram had to wait for almost half a century for a second statue – that of Sri Chithira Thirunal – inside the Fort in 1939. Three more statues (busts) that came up in the 1940s vanished. Two were that of Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer (one in front of the Legislative chamber, one in front of the Railway Station) and one was that of Sethu Parvathi Bayi. They were either removed or destroyed. In the post-independence period, more statues emerged.

(This is the second part of a series of articles on Dewan Madhava Rao. The author is head of the Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Kerala. He is a music and history buff.)

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