CHATAYAM TIRUNAL RAMA VARMA
A FORGOTTEN AMATEUR ROYAL PHOTOGRAPHER
H.H. Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma, the Elayarajah (c.1900). Detail from a photograph by Ramen Pillai, Trivandrum.
Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma - the Elaya Rajah of Travancore - whose life was drawn to an abrupt end on 6 June 1901, at the age of 33, was an acclaimed amateur artist and photographer. As a member of the Amateur Photographic Society of Madras, the prince never missed a chance to present his works at exhibitions conducted by the Society. In Travancore, the prince brushed shoulder with professionals like Zachariah D’Cruz (the Government Photographer) and Ramen Pillai. In 1887, the young prince set out on a journey to see important cities like Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. These explorations gave him an inclusive picture of the vast and diverse history and culture of India, and most likely these journeys transformed the prince into a travel-photographer.
In Travancore, the prince made regular expeditions to explore places of scenic beauty and tried his hand at portraiture and allegorical themes. Among the photographs exhibited in Madras were those of architectural landmarks like Vandur Teppakulam (Madurai), Tevalli Palace (Kollam) and studies such as ‘An Indian Prince’ and ‘a portrait of Mr. Charles Michie Smith’ (the eminent Scottish astronomer), presented to the Madras Society in 1895. The prince, it seems, was in love with the southern districts, for he produced several photographs documenting the scenery, landmarks and life of people, e.g. ‘Kuzhithuray Bridge’ (Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu) and ‘A view of South Travancore’ (both dated c.1897).
The ancient Jain temple at Chitaral, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu, c.1890s. Photograph by Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma. From the private collection of the author.
The following excerpt from a letter (dated 9th May 1898) written by the Prince sheds light on an interesting photographic expedition he made to the southern districts.
“Many years ago on one of my photographic outings in the southern districts of our picturesque country I was attracted by this interesting rock-temple (the famous Jain temple at Chitaral, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu). Going thither one fine morning camera in hand I exposed a plate almost against the sun as the temple faces the west. The result was nothing extraordinary. Still I have the satisfaction of added to my collection of photographs one of a building of such classical interest.”
Sadly, for someone credited to have followed photography with such passion, this bromide print of the temple at Chitaral is the only work that can be attributed to the prince without a doubt.
Sharat Sunder Rajeev, 23 August, 2020.