Sunday, October 26, 2008

TALES FROM THE CAPITAL CITY - V

THE KING'S CRAFTSMEN

I have mentioned about one of my ancestor- N. Padmanabhan Achari in one of my previous blogs. Padmanabhan Achari’s father and grandfather were also gifted craftsmen who played an important role in promoting ivory carving in Travancore.

Kochu Kunju Achari a.k.a. Ananthapadmanabhan Achari

The first known ancestor of the family who clearly appears in Travancore history is Kochu Kunju Achari, better known as Anantha Padmanabhan Achari. Kochu Kunju Achari was born in Navaikulam in early 1800s; details about his parents are not known. When he grew up he became a well-known craftsman. He became a master ivory carver and later played an important role in introducing ivory carving in Travancore. Not many details are known of his personal life except that he married from Vakkom and had two sons- Neelakandan Achari and Keshavan Achari.

Kochu Kunju Achari and his son Neelakandan Achari - Pictures from the private collection of K. Hari.
During Maharaja Swathi Thirunal’s reign (1829-1847), Kochu Kunju Achari was invited to the capital city by the Dewan to make a golden chariot for the king. Kochu Kunju along with his son Neelakandan Achari, Pandaram vaka Achari of Manacaud Putten Veedu and other craftsmen made the richly gilt and splendid car for the king in 1842, under the supervision of Veeraswamy Naidu. The design was influenced by the description of Arjuna’s chariot in Mahabharata. Even European engineers have expressed their surprise at the native workmanship displayed in its execution.

Swathi Thirunal and his brother Uthram Thirunal.
Sree Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma seated in the golden chariot.
During the reign of Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma (1847-1860), Kochu Kunju Achari and his son Neelakandan Achari made an ivory throne for the London Exhibition of 1851, which was held at the great crystal palace.

The great crystal palace.
In AD 1849, the Madras government informed the Maharajah, HH Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma, of the conducting of a great exhibition in London and requested His Highness’s government to make suitable contributions. The Maharajah, ordered a committee to be formed for this for which Maj.Gen Cullen, the Resident, Dr.Paterson, the Durbar Physician, Mr.Kohlhoff, a judge of appeal court, and Ramen Menon, the Dewan Peishcar, were the members. P.Shangoonny Menon was the secretary to the committee.An ivory state chair in the shape of a throne, reflecting the craftsmanship of the Travancore artisans, was already under construction for the Maharajah’s use and at this juncture it was thought a fit present to be sent for the Great Exhibition. The Maharajah also desired that once the exhibition was over, the throne be accepted by the Queen Victoria as a token of HH’s regards and esteem. This was fully appreciated by the Resident, Major General Cullen and the Madras Government. Accordingly, the beautiful throne along with many carvings reflecting the Travancore workmanship was sent to England.

The following description of the chair appeared in an issue of the Scientific American:-

“Among the priceless treasures comprising the Jubilee presents of Queen Victoria, which have been sent to America by King Edward of England for exhibition at the world’s fair is a wonderful ivory chair and foot-stool. These were presented to the late Queen by the Maharajah of Travancore. The carving on the chair and foot – stool is a revelation of possibilities of art. The feet are in the form of lions’ paws, and the arms terminate in lions’ heads. The back is in the form of a shell, supported by elephants rampant. The seat is of alabaster, and the chair has a gold and silver tissue draper around the underside of the frame, finished with tassels and richly chased ormolu ornaments. The cushions are of green velvet embroidered in gold and silver thread. Every outside path of the chair is covered with delicately carved figures of men and animals.” (from P. Shangunni Menon's 'History of Travancore)

Kochu Kunju Achari and his son Neelakandan Achari played an important role for the development of Travancore School of Arts and ivory carving in Travancore. Kochu Kunju Achari settled in Petta, it was his eldest son Neelakandan Achari who established the famous Pinarammoodu family in Petta. For his services he was given the title 'Ananthapadmanabhan Achari'. Kochu Kunju Achari died in 1870’s.

Ananthapadmanabhan Achari and the Golden Chariot

One interesting story about Anantha Padmanabhan Achari is that after making the chariot in wood he was covering it with gold foil stickers brought from England. He opened the stickers using his teeth, one of the palace officials who happened to see this complained that Achari was eating the maharaja’s gold. It is said that the king went in disguise to see Kochu Kunju Achari’s workspace and watched him, realizing that he had misunderstood his master craftsman, called the officer and ordered him to give Kochu Kunju a tumbler of hot milk whenever he eats gold saying that otherwise gold will not digest easily.

Neelakandan Achari

Neelakandan Achari born in 1830’s in Chirayinkil was the eldest son of Kochu Kunju Achari, he had a younger brother named Keshavan Achari; details about Keshavan are not known. Neelakandan Achari and Keshavan Achari may have been trained by their father; later Neelakandan assisted his father in many of his major works. Neelakandan Achari settled in Petta. While staying there he taught drawing to Chattambi Swamy Thiruvadikal (1853-1924). Neelakandan Achari was a friend of the famed artist Raja Ravi Varma.

Neelakandan Achari was employed in Travancore School of Arts. Details about his wife are not known, the couple had five children. His eldest son Thanuvan Achari established Thazhasherri Veedu in Petta and his three younger sons Keshavan Achari, Padmanabhan Achari and Ramakrishnan Achari lived in Pinarammoodu Veedu. Neelakandan Achari had a daughter named Lekshmi Ammal who was good in carving; she was married to a member of Vayalil Veedu family. Neelakandan Achari died in 1907.

Newspaper report of Neelakandan Achari’s death - MALAYALA MANORAMA,1907 March 21.