Sunday, 22 September 2019



The beautifully carved wooden lids from the box made by V. Narayanan Achari - private collection of the author.

I first heard about V. Narayanan Achari (b.c.1880), a grand-uncle, while recording snippets of family history on the maternal side. Narayanan, known in the family circles as ‘muchundan’ (one with a cleft lip), had not left behind many tangible effects to preserve his memory down the generations. Narayanan never married and there were no photographs or records of him either in the family collections. I gathered that he passed away sometime during the late 1920s, struck down with small-pox. These tit-bits did not help much to reveal Narayanan’s true persona and I realised that to know more, I should dig deep into the pile of family lore and anecdotes.
Being born into a family of traditional carpenters, Narayana Achari honed his skills under the elderly craftsmen of his native craft-guild. His mastery in crafting sophisticated chests and cash boxes made him popular with an elite clientele. A beautiful wooden box made by the craftsman was later inherited by his nephew – my grandfather. The story goes that one fine day Narayanan summoned his brothers to his workshop to show them a box he made. The box had a secret cavity, in which a gold coin was sealed away by means of a unique locking technique known only to the master craftsman. Narayanan challenged his brothers to locate and unlock the cavity. The one who succeeded could claim the gold coin! Unfortunate for his siblings, none succeeded and Narayanan continued as the unchallenged master of the guild. This very box was tucked away in a corner of our attic, where it remained for ages, covered in dust. An attempt to get it down from the attic resulted in an accident when the box slipped right out of my cousin’s hands, tumbling down through the narrow wooden stairs. I managed to salvage a pair of beautifully carved planks, the lid of one of the inner compartments – but the box was lost.
According to my late grandfather, his maternal uncle’s greatest accomplishment as a master craftsman was acknowledged while he was associated with the construction (1916-1924) of the Sri Ramakrishna Ashram at Nettayam. There, it is said, he carved a large hooded snake on one of the doors. The carving was so life-like that many hesitated even to go near it! It seems like the wonderful story and the awe for the master craftsman filtered down the generations but no one in the family ever took an effort to visit the ashram to find out whether Narayanan’s menacing serpent was still there.
In 2015 I visited the ashram with my wife. The members of the monastic order extended a warm welcome; they took us around and explained the history of the Ramakrishna movement in Kerala and the unique architecture of the ashram building. I was all ears to the hosts but my eyes searched for the snake. I was charged with many new historical facts, but there was no trace of the snake. So, when we were about to leave I asked the Swamiji whether they had any snake motifs on any of the doors. “Why do you ask?” Swamiji was curious. A faint smile appeared on his face as he listened to my family lore. As soon as I finished, he took my hand and said, “come with me, I have something to show you.” He took me to the main hall, there, on one end was a beautifully carved wooden door set within a niche that doubled as a shrine. To my surprise, the huge snake was there! After all, it was part of the monastic order’s crest – how foolish of me to not have figured this before! I missed out the door before as it was kept open during the worship hours, hiding the carving from view. I could very well see why people refrained from touching the snake, it was huge, striking, and when I ran the fingers down its body, a chill went down my spine – it felt just like touching an actual snake!

‘One with the cleft lip’ was indeed a master craftsman!
     The crest of Sri Ramakrishna Mission carved by Narayanan - from the door of the inner shrine,
Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, Nettayam, Thiruvananthapuram.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019



Sometime back, my research on an old book on music led me to Kilimanoor palace. There, I met C.R. Kerala Varma (Sanyāsi Thampuran), a revered scholar who introduced me to the musical heritage of Kilimanoor palace and recalled the contributions of his own guru Sri. Kilimanoor R. Madhava Warrier. A few days back, as I went through my collection of old books, I was surprised to find a small book published in 1947, which never caught my attention before. This book, titled ‘Chaitrakshetram’, was a thullal composed by Kilimanoor R. Madhava Warrier! Kilimanoor R. Madhava Warrier (b.1878-d.1960) was a renowned scholar and musician and composer associated with the Kilimanoor royal family. He was the son of Lakshmikutty Warasyar and 'Marumakan Thampuran' of the Kilimanoor royal house. Today, he is mostly remembered as the composer of songs in the movie 'Bhakta Prahalada' (probably for the Malayalam remake).

R. Madhava Warrier
Madhava Warrier was fortunate to have lived in Kilimanoor palace during its golden age, i.e., during the lifetime of the legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. The artistic tradition of the family was preserved by Raja Raja Varma, court painter to Swathi Thirunal, and his nephews Raja Ravi Varma and C. Raja Raja Varma. Mangala Bayi, the younger sister of Ravi Varma was also an artist of talent. Alongside the artistic tradition, the Kilimanoor royals claimed a rich tradition in music. Madhava Warrier's aptitude towards music was identified by his paternal family members and they arranged R. Samba Bhagavathar, the 'Mullamoodu Bhagavathar' to teach the young lad. Young Warrier found his mentors in Goda Varma (b.1854-d.1904), younger brother of Raja Ravi Varma and his cousin Chatayamnaal Ittammar Ravi Varma Coil Thampuran (d.1850-d.1936), who were both musicians and composers of repute.

After the untimely demise of artist C. Raja Raja Varma, who was an assistant and private secretary to his elder brother, young Madhava Warrier accompanied Raja Ravi Varma on his journeys. The artist who had the habit of picking models from among his family members once asked Warrier to sit as a 'model'. Little did Warrier know that he was being cast as Sree Krishna in the 'Sree Krishna as Envoy' (1906), an important painting ever done by the artist!
'Krishna as Envoy', 1906.

When Raja Ravi Varma passed away in 1906, the members of the royal house, especially the children were inconsolable. For them, the legendary artist was a lovable Valyammavan (patriarch) whose presence in the house always called for a festive mood. To ease the pain of the children, Madhava Warrier penned the following couplet:

Based on interviews with C.R. Kerala Varma, R.K. Varma, and Kilimanoor Chandran.
Sharat Sunder Rajeev