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Opinion | An unapologetic woman of power

Sethu Parvathi Bayi was an interesting, complicated woman, who combined phenomenal confidence with an unapologetic quest for power

Sethu Parvathi Bayi (right) with her sister, the senior maharani, circa 1908. Photo courtesy: Manu S. Pillai
Sethu Parvathi Bayi (right) with her sister, the senior maharani, circa 1908. Photo courtesy: Manu S. Pillai

In the winter of 1935, the celebrated American activist, Margaret Sanger, arrived in India to spread the message of birth control. She hoped to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to give her his endorsement which would, she wrote, “be of tremendous value" to her cause. When they met, Gandhi was welcoming of Sanger but not her ideas: abstinence from sex, he argued, and not birth control, was the way forward for India and its families. Sanger was dejected: “He can never accept sex as anything good, clean or wholesome", she complained. Unhappy, but undefeated, she carried on with her travels, journeying to 18 cities, delivering 64 addresses, and meeting everyone from Rabindranath Tagore to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ironically, among those who stepped forward as Sanger’s champions at this juncture was the junior maharani of Travancore—a woman who would win the Mahatma’s appreciation for her role in throwing open Hindu temples to Dalits. Late in December 1935, the maharani invited Sanger to Thiruvananthapuram, her son’s capital, to deliver a lecture. It was a sensation. After all, this was one of south India’s great seats of orthodoxy, in a principality described by a previous ruler as hopelessly “priest-ridden". It was a temple town, and the royal family lived a cloistered life of Brahminical ritual and piety—and here was the ruler’s mother organizing a discussion on such scandalous themes as intercourse.

While Sanger was delighted, this was merely one of many unconventional things the maharani accomplished in her life. Sethu Parvathi Bayi was an interesting, complicated woman, who combined phenomenal confidence with an unapologetic quest for power. Born in 1896 into the lineage of the Kolathiri rajas of Malabar, she was adopted aged 4 into Travancore’s ruling house. Under the matrilineal system, it was her sister, the senior maharani, who occupied the formal limelight, and early on Sethu Parvathi Bayi realized she would have to stand out to be noticed—even if this meant breaching tradition. As her son remembered, she “never blindly follow(ed) custom" but “would respect (it) where it was desirable." And, of course, the judge of where it was desirable was the maharani herself.

Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s personality was tremendous. As a child she learnt to play the veena, later cultivating a formidable reputation as a patron of Carnatic music—Mutthiah Bhagvathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer both sang her praises. As a pregnant woman in her teens, when custom recommended rest and worship, she insisted on her daily round of golf and French lessons. In her 20s, she was the toast of south Indian society, struggling, however, with a conservative husband who sat with lemons at banquets to disperse any caste pollution. Years later, John Paton Davies Jr, an American diplomat was startled as he watched a temple procession with the maharani—while her son piously led the deity for a ceremonial bath, she served her companions scotch whisky.

Inner resolve the maharani possessed in immense quantities—in the early 1930s, she dismissed every Brahminical argument against crossing the kala-pani and became the first in her family to venture abroad. She met European royalty and collected art, also giving the Pope’s officials a dressing down when they tried to lecture her on how much make-up was appropriate. Her conversational skills were legendary: Paton Davies also noted the ease with which she moved from discussing a visit to Bali to “modernistic" furniture to finally contemplating the emotional range of elephants. As for food, a great-grandson recalls that when old and bedridden, she still kept a stove in her bedroom where she personally prepared small delights for her family.

In politics, however, Sethu Parvathi Bayi occupies a darker space. When her sister (and rival) was in power, the maharani had no compunction in backing various moves to destabilize her government, with the British recording everything from fake news campaigns to black magic. When her son gained power, Sethu Parvathi Bayi was perceived as a Hindu consolidationist, their subsequent policies sparking discontent among minorities. “She is arrogant, uncharitable, egotistical, bad-tempered, insular and vindictive," noted one report, and was “cordially hated" by ordinary people. Her son himself, it was recorded, was powerless: Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s “usurpation sub rosa of ruling functions" meant that as late as the eve of independence, the viceroy, Lord Wavell, could diarize that while the maharajah was “not altogether a fool", he was “entirely overshadowed by his mother".

The maharani’s greatest misadventure, however, came towards the end of princely rule. Mass agitation throughout her son’s reign led to a Communist uprising in the region—it was brutally dealt with in 1946, leading to the killing of hundreds. In 1947, it was declared that when the British departed, Travancore would become “an independent country"—a misguided decision taken, to quote historian Sreedhara Menon, by “Their Royal Highnesses…the son and the mother." Of course, an assassination attempt against their minister put paid to these plans, and with the integration of the princely states into the Indian union, Sethu Parvathi Bayi lost power. Hereafter, she was merely a titular maharani, diverting herself from the exercise of authority to full-time patronage of the arts.

By the time she died in 1983, the maharani was wheelchair bound. It is not known if she had any regrets—her sister, for instance, grew so fed up with royal life during the junior maharani’s heyday that soon after independence, she abandoned the palace and moved away forever. And even if she did, it would be impossible to know today. What can be said, however, was that Sethu Parvathi Bayi was a remarkable woman—one with disquieting proclivities in politics, but also a fascinating appetite for life—a combination that saw her championing birth control one day, dining with colonialists the next, and condoning violent action when it came to preserving the power of her state: power which she could deploy with furious effect.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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