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The King’s Craftsmen 

They came to the city in a large boat that halts at Vallakadavu. From Vallakadavu, they got into bullock carts to make the rest of the journey to my home…. Just behind the cart occupied by the patriarch was the cart that carried the wooden cradle made for the newborn Prince of Travancore…” narrated Sharada Ammal, then in her nineties, as a group of little children listened in wide-eyed wonder.

Grandmas have always told stories to children, tales that snuggled inside their imagination and nestled there for years together. That was how women kept alive oral history, especially about those that did not belong to upper echelons of society and so did not have the luxury of having their stories written by scholars and historians.

So it was with young Sharat Sunder Rajeev when he heard his grandaunts Sharada Ammal and Kamalam narrate stories about princes and princesses who came all the way from a place up on the Malabar coast and fabulous craftsmen who accompanied them to build palaces and temples for the royal family.

Little did Rajeev realise that the tales his grandaunts told the children were about their ancestors. By the time Rajeev became a teenager, the stories awoke in him an abiding curiosity to know more about his legendary ancestors; ingenious craftsmen who built many of the fabled temples in erstwhile Travancore and later became world famous as ivory carvers of Travancore.

“Right from my school days, I began interacting with elders in my family to learn about the great craftsmen who had done our families proud with their breathtaking craftsmanship,” says Rajeev, a conservation architect and author of a book on ivory craftsmen of Thiruvananthapuram, The King’s Craftsmen.

The book tracks the footprints of his ancestors who came down from places around Kannur with two princesses who were adopted into the royal family of Travacore and settled in Attingal.

“Most of the earlier period had to be oral history as there is little written evidence. But their work has been mentioned in documents and temple records. So my book is a combination of oral history that has been passed down in our family and early records of some of the incidents that were written down by one of two of my ancestors. For instance, it has been documented that one of my ancestors Thottathil Moothu Asari was associated with the construction of the eastern gopurams of Padmanabhaswamy temple built around the 16th century,” says Rajeev.

He has been working on the book for more than 10 years and travelled extensively to meet people and collect tales and material evidence of the craftsmen, who initially settled in Attingal, Kadakavoor and Navaikulam.

“Once the capital city began to grow under the monarchy of Marthanda Varma, these guilds began settling in Palkulangara, Pettah and Manacaud. I began the book when I was a student of the College of Engineering, Trivandrum and so there were limitations on how much time I could spend on the book. But I followed all the clues I got and met many of the descendants of the artisans who had once worked closely with the ruling families in Travancore and as Durbar artists,” says Sharat.

Completed five years ago, the book was published recently by the Kerala Council of Historical Research. Sharat’s book is at once a portrait of his illustrious ancestors and a thumbnail sketch of Kerala’s society in different periods of time. It is a piece of untold history that is told from the view of craftsmen and their legacy and how their body of work was shaped by influential princes.

He talks about how the legendary craftsmen of wood gradually began working in ivory as per the monarch’s orders, most likely during the time of Swathi Thirunal and how, over time, they became the best in the field of ivory carving and became famous as the Travancore school of ivory carving.

“Records show that Swathi was presented with a musical instrument Swarbath that was made in ivory by Kochu Kunju Asari on January 4, 1836. The best known is of course the ivory throne that was made for the Great Exhibition held in London. It won a prestigious prize at the exhibition and established Travancore as a centre of the finest ivory craftsmen,” explains Sharat.

To ensure that their craft was passed on to a new generation, the School of Arts was established around 1860 in Thiruvananthapuram and this eventually became the first fine arts college in Travancore and Kerala. Sharat got lucky as one of his relatives was able to give him a kind of log book that was once used in the college. That gave Sharat details about classes, teachers and students.

“Once ivory carving became illegal in the seventies, many of the craftsmen began to exchange the chisel for the brush and became well-known artists. Many of the early portraits of the royalty and feudal families were painted by them. Some of them went to Madras [Chennai] and got work as artists for posters and backdrops for plays and movies,” he says.

He points out how K. Madhavan, who printed some of the early posters of films in South India, was famous in those days for his posters for Tamil films.

That is not all. As Rajeev points out the book neatly documents the now extinct art of ivory carving with detailed diagrams and technical explanations. “The craft guilds had experts who could come up with exquisite works of art. They made everything from figurines and inlay work to cuff links, combs and bangles. Each had to be worked in a different way and since ivory was very hard, one wrong chip could spoil an expensive piece of ivory. So the carvers were perfectionists and disciplinarians,” he says with a smile.

Rajeev adds that the book also explains the reasons for the current socio-political place of the craftsmen’s descendants. Even as his book opens a new chapter on the history of Thiruvananthapuram, Rajeev is busy at work on his next one.


(source: The Hindu)

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