Thiruvananthapuram was once known throughout the world for its craftsmanship in ivory. The raw ivory of African and Indian elephants were transformed into priceless artefacts in small workshops scattered in the capital city. Senior residents of Thiruvananthapuram still recall outlets of famed ivory artefact dealers such as Mohini Fine Arts, Iyer & Iyer, Natesan’s, Sri Mulam Fine Arts and Ivory Works, and O.V. Arts... most of which were situated on either side of the main street from Pazhavangadi to Palayam. Apart from these shops, the School of Arts (present Fine Arts College), and S.M.S.M. Institute also churned out some of the best ivory artefacts produced in Thiruvananthapuram.
The Huzur records point to several instances when rulers of erstwhile Travancore gifted exquisite ivory artefacts to officials on their retirement from government service. In 1894, while in Kumbhakonam, Marthanda Varma B.A., Raja Ravi Varma, and his younger brother visited the residence of the retired Dewan A. Seshayya Sastri and marvelled at ‘ huge elephant’s tusks and ivory knick-knacks ’ - Sastri’s parting gifts from Travancore.
Almost every scholar who has researched the history of ivory carving in Travancore identifies Swathi Tirunal Rama Varma (1813-1846) as the foremost patron of the craft. After Swathi Tirunal, the craft blossomed under Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma, who presented the magnificent ‘ ivory state chair ’ for the Great London exhibition of 1851.
Edgar Thurston in his ‘ Monograph on the Ivory Carving Industry of Southern India ’ (1901) mentions that Visakam Tirunal Rama Varma (who reigned from 1880-1885), and T. Madhava Rao, the eminent statesman and the Dewan (prime minister) of Travancore, had employed their own private team of ivory carvers. However, apart from the few records that outline details of artistic commissions and expenses met for the same, personal details of the craftsmen and their relationship with their aristocratic patrons are often scantly documented.
Art historian Priya Maholay-Jaradi, in her work Fashioning a National Art throws light on hitherto unknown details of Neelakantan Achari, a master ivory craftsman from Travancore. Neelakantan Achari of Thazhasherri Veedu in Pettah, Thiruvananthapuram was born in 1830s as the son of Kochu Kunju Achari, a master craftsman associated with Swathi’s court. Neelakantan Achari was a contemporary and friend of Raja Ravi Varma and was one of the earliest employees at the Dantha Aappis (forerunner of the School of Arts). Chattampi Swamikal, during his early years, had learned the basics of drawing from Achari.
Priya’s research provides details of the craftsman’s association with Dewan T. Madhava Rao. From the archival research in Gujarat and New Delhi, Priya gathered substantial evidence to cement Neelakantan’s connection with Madhava Rao.
As per the records, ‘ Neelacundan ’, an ivory craftsman from Travancore, was introduced in the Baroda court in 1878. ‘Neelacundan’ referred here is none other than Neelakantan Achari. However, ‘Neelacundan’ is referred as a ‘private employee’ of Madhava Rao, who was then serving as the Dewan of Baroda. It is also mentioned in the records that 10 articles made by him were loaned to the Fine Arts Exhibition of Poona [Puune] in 1878.
Neelakantan Achari breathed his last in 1907.
(The author is a conservation architect and history buff)