GV Raja, The legendary administrator and sportsman

The Colonel Thirumeni of Travancore

I had spent my high school days in Trivandrum and it was not difficult to bring up the tidbit from the deep recesses of my mind that the University stadium in those days, had a GV Raja Pavilion. I was never too familiar with the name and I had not much of an idea about the great person who had the name of Lt. Col. Goda Varma Raja (GV Raja). Recently an avid reader requested me to introduce this luminary someday to readers and when I chanced on a chapter covering him in a nicely bound book detailing the life and times of Utharadom Tirunal Marthanda Varma, I decided to give it a go. These days the Uthradom Tirunal is being mentioned often in not so very glowing terms, in connection with the wealth in the Padmanabha temple vaults and well, I guess sooner or later the matter will be dissected and hotly debated by the people of Travancore. They enjoy such debates, if you ask me, and I can say so from my life amongst and understanding of the populace there.

The book itself is nicely written by Uma Maheswari and you can also see some fine sketches by another fellow blogger Sharat Sundar. One thing you will notice is the font used for the titles where v looks like a b and this presented some difficulty in my locating the book in our library system. As I quickly glanced through the pages, one face was arresting in its native beauty, that of Radha Devi, Uthradom Tirunal’s wife. It is documented that as she was a non-vegetarian, and a special kitchen was constructed in the palace for the lovely lady!! The same fact was noticed and highlighted by Pres Dr Abdul Kalam who had written a preface to the volume! But well, let me not digress and please allow me to introduce you all to Goda Varma.

The young lad born to Ambalika and Puthusseri Narayanan Nampoothiri in Poonjar in 1908 was educated at the Mar Dionysius Seminary at Kottayam (another source however states he was educated at SMV school) and later at the CMC College there. After these early days, the rebel in the young mind surfaced when he and his brother were not granted permission to pursue higher studies. They went on a hunger strike and the police who got involved following a formal petition by the elders, threatened action, but even this was of no avail. The matter was eventually resolved and GVR joined medical school at Madras but discontinued it in 1933 after an alliance was fixed with Karthika Thirunal Lekshmi Bayi, the Princes of Travancore, whom he married formally in 1934. After this and a honeymoon in Kovalam, he moved to Trivandrum. This pleasant stay in Kovalam was perhaps the reason why he became a great promoter of beach tourism in Kerala and went on place the state on the global tourist map.

But all kinds of sports and games fascinated him, especially tennis and cricket. Not only those, but also other activities involving physical training, for when the Trivandrum university got established in 1937, Goda Varma found himself appointed as the president of the board  of physical education and commandant of the university labor corps. External coaching was introduced by him when he hired AG Ram Singh as Cricket coach. But here was where he crossed swords with Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer and soon resigned this position. Anyway by then he had also become a Lt Col in the Travancore army.

While his younger days were spent in the pursuit of excellence in football, tennis and cricket for his young wards, he himself continued with other sporting activities like golf, rock climbing, surfing and flying through his middle ages.

The King Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda varma reminiscences (data sourced from Thrippadidanam by Uma Maheswari, duly acknowledged with many thanks ) .…………..

“If Kerala and India has a place in the sports world, it is because of Col GV Raja. In fact his vision was to put Travancore on the world map by first creating a world class international airport here (took a long time for international status - until 1967). For its development and for tourism promotion, an airport tis not just a necessity. In fact he wanted to get the ITI building demolished to make way for the airport.

He started the labor corps in 1937 after the Travancore University was established since he always wanted students to work. In their parades, he led them with a rifle in one hand and a shovel/spade (mammatti) in the other. The helped in the building of roads and bridges. Today that is all gone, though we have NCC in its place though it partakes in no labor activities. Do you know, he was the person who after an official visit to Pangode and seeing soldiers sleeping on the floor ensured they had beds, ever after?

When he wanted to promote tennis, he brought a coach and that was the all India coach Ranvir Singh.  At first the tennis club was at Rathapuram in Sasthamangalam. The shirts had a black and orange color and were initially imported from Britain. At that point of time, Travancore was the only club which had all of nine courts! The very famous Ramanathan Krishnan used to practice in those courts. He did not just hang around at the upper ranks, but spent time with lowly ball pickers (Maniyan or Thankappan are examples who rose to the rank of State tennis players).

The story of how Tilden, Koshay Emerson and Ramilen played an exhibition match in Trivandrum is very interesting, just imagine how it would be if Federer and Nadal played a match in Trivandrum today? Well it was like that in those days with these luminaries. And so they came there after all of GV Raja’s unstinted efforts.

He got a set of four courts built where the senate hall stands today, in a week, but then there was a problem. As there were no floodlights, the game was slated to start at 2PM. it was very bright and the visitors hesitated to come out and play that afternoon (to me that was plain ‘gora’ petulance, the clay court tournaments and the other opens are played in blazing sunlight and with a good amount of discomfort!). As it appears GV Raja had to resort to some threats to get them out and come out they did to play on till 6PM, thus heralding Travancore to the tennis scene!

Well, you may not know, he was the person who discovered Vijay and Anand Amritaraj! He was the one who insisted that they be taken for the Davis cup, but there were protests as they were not members of the team. Varma insisted.  As there was a shortage of finances, support came from JRD Tata and Vikram Sarabhai. It was after this tournament that GV Raja argued for and obtained the inclusion of an Asian zone for the tournament.

When the Trivandrum airport finally got international status in 1967 and a service was organized to Colombo, there were no takers. They would all go to Madras or Trichy to get to Colombo, mainly because of a special reserve bank requirement to obtain and submit a special P form to fly out of Trivandrum. GV Raja eventually got involved, and had the form requirement withdrawn. He was also the person who got the Pushpak trainer aircraft introduced in the Trivandrum flying club against unnecessary objections about its airworthiness. After GV Raja proved that they were unfounded, other clubs also introduced the Pushpak in their clubs!

Later there was a demonstration show involving many fighter jets from Nagpur to Trivandrum. When a problem arose about getting fuel for these planes which had to fly 2500 nautical miles, GV Raja was the man who came up with a workable solution of getting fuel to various Kerala airstrips using bullock carts.

Quoting the maharaja - Interestingly it was also GV Raja who brought together the cosmonauts and the astronauts together at Delhi (I myself could not find any details of this meeting though!) and had them sit at the same table! He had Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins together with their country secretaries and ambassadors at the same meeting at Delhi! Perhaps this was the time when he jokingly apologized to Indira Gandhi as she had to stay awake till 430AM to watch him land on the moon!

You may not know this, but he was the President of Kerala Cricket Association for 13 years from 1950 to 1963 and was the first person from Kerala to become an office bearer of the BCCI; when he became its Vice-president. His services were treasured in posterity by the people of Travancore and the G. V. Raja Pavilion in the University Stadium, Trivandrum as well as the first and the premier Sports School in Kerala are named after him. To commemorate his memory, the G.V.Raja Indoor Stadium was started in a very good and convenient building previously owned by the Maharajas of Travancore. Widely regarded as the Father of Kerala Sport, the birthday of Raja, falling on October 13 is now celebrated as Sports Day in Kerala since 2007. The GV raja pavilion was inaugurated by Pres VV Giri who remarked that it was possible only because GV Raja was travelling, or else he would have forbid such things!

Col. Thirumeni as he was fondly known, got an indoor stadium built at Shangumukham, a roller skating ring, the Veli boat club, and the Sreepadam stadium at Attingal. In 1953 he was involved in conducting the Trivandrum-Kochi swimming competition after he formed the aquatic association and as we saw before, with his great interest in tennis, was also the president of Lawn tennis association. He had established the sports council in 1954, which was apparently the first of its kind in India and took the initiative to form a Golf club association in Travancore. Cricket, football and tennis were his favorite games. He was the person who started up mountaineering activities (this was after he did a mountaineering course in Switzerland and the establishment of the institute at Darjeeling) at the funnel rock in Neyyar dam and other nearby hills and it is said that he even promoted surfing so that the youth imbibed a love for adventure.

Most of information provided above can be found elsewhere, but there is a little known fact about him and his relationship with Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer which is not talked about. This is brought to light in KPS Menon’s couriered letter to Nehru a few days before Indian Independence, while he was serving in China.
Goda Varma was one who supported Travancore’s accession to the Indian union, and felt that the caustic tongued Dewan was trying to take advantage of the situation. The letter was perhaps written just before the CP assassination attempt was made on 25th July after which Sir CP left Travancore. The situation slowly changed with the creation of the Travancore Cochin state in 1949 and finally in 1956, the formation of Kerala.

Going back to 1947, the exasperated Goda Varma secretly wrote to KPS Menon, his friend. KPS Menon transferred this information to Nehru. The letter reads as follows, quoting KPS Menon and provides an interesting account of the times and situation in Travancore.

I do hope something will be done to bring Sir C. P.—for he is Travancore today—to his senses. I reproduce below for your personal information an extract from a letter I have received from Goda Varma Raja, brother-in-law of the Maharaja of Travancore.

"Here in Travancore I don't know how things are going to turn out. I am almost enclosed in a water-tight compartment. On principle I am against my taking (because of my position) any active part in the day-to-day politics of the State. At the same time I cannot agree to things which are against the real interests of the Maharaja or the people. There is a lot of loud talk on independence. It might be good or bad according to circumstances. But the whole thing is vitiated by the advocacy and energy put into it by Sir C.P. This man is clever, able and learned. All this makes him dangerous. I told him some years back that if he cannot behave like a gentleman he must keep out of my affairs. He has yet to learn completely the wisdom of that suggestion.

"To me Travancore can make a real contribution to the greatness of India. The talk of independence I hear from the papers is just creating an opportunity for Si C.P. to have his own way while others break each other's heads or pour abuse at each other. My personal view is that Travancore should have gone into the Constituent Assembly and made a real contribution in its work. Then if the final shape of things did not emerge as befitting the status and self-respect of Travancore it will be time to make a fight for it. Brave and confident people need not be afraid of consulting each other."

KPS continues to Nehru - Men like the writer of this letter dare not speak out. And the press is gagged. Incidentally, I see that that statement of about Travancore has leaked out in a wildly distorted form. A Chinese paper here contained a translation of a report in the Forum of 13th July to the effect that I had tendered my resignation to you in order to go and have it out with C.P! I wonder if it will not be better to let my statement be published after all. When no Travancorean in Travancore dare speak out, those outside must. Besides, when an officer of the Foreign Service has reached the rank of Ambassador, is he to be debarred, as Bajpai is trying, from expressing his views even when they are altogether consistent with his Government's? And in the present case the views were expressed by me, not as a member of the Foreign Service but as a Travancorean, pained to see his State taking a wrong turn at a critical juncture………………

Besides his contribution to sports and games, the genial Raja was also instrumental in sowing the seeds for the growth of tourism and aviation in the State. His life was always filled with adventure and some amount of danger and was once attacked by a tusker He later wrote, “I escaped with no serious injury, except a four inch hole on my right thigh. My football days might have triggered off some reflexes, but I have been forced to remain in bed. I may console myself that it took an elephant to do it” 

In 1971 he went to Amritsar, to participate in All India sports Council Conference. He made an unscheduled trip to the Kulu Valley on 30th April 1972. With friends Bolina, the then Aero Club president, and Swaranjit Singh, they flew in a three-seater aircraft which suddenly nosedived and crashed. GV Raja always had great desire to see a Viscount Flight landing in Trivandrum, but tragically, its first landing was with his corpse in it.

Goda Varma’s concise bio reads thus - Sri P.R. Goda Varma Raja Avargal (b. at the Kanijiramattam Palace, Poonjar, Kottayam dist, 17th September 1908; d. in a plane crash in the Kulu Valley, 30th April 1971), Hon Lt-Col 1st Travancore Nair Infantry, Chair Kerala Travels 1959-1971, Presdt Aero Club of India, All India Lawn Tennis Assoc, Trivandrum Tennis Club (TTC) 1938-1971, Kerala Sports Council (KSC) 1954-1971, Kerala Cricket Assoc 1956-1963, and Kerala Flying Club 1959-1971, Vice-Presdt All India Council of Sports, the Swimming Fed of India, and the Brd of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Dir India Tourism Development Corp, rcvd: Coron Medal (1937), son of Srimathi Ambalika Tampuratti, of Poonjar, by her husband, Sri Puthusseri Narayanan Nampoothiri - issues - two sons and two daughters:
His grandson through his daughter Gouri Parvathi Bayi is my favorite musician these days, Prince Rama Varma as he is popularly known.

And that brings me to an oft quoted amusing anecdote from Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Pres Roosevelt. After a visit to Kaudiar Palace, she wrote in Life magazine, 'I went to Travancore, where I met Chithira Tirunal, the Maharaja. He introduced me to the Maharani, who was not his wife, but his mother, and the heir apparent, who was not his son, but his brother. I have not understood the system. But I am glad that the power is vested with the women.'

Thripadidanam – S Uma Maheswari
Travancore – the footprints of destiny – HH Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma – as told to Uma Maheswari
Twilight in China – KPS Menon
Kerala spirit of sports article
Hindu Newspaper reports

Photos - Wikipedia etc duly acknowledged with thanks

Photos on the Mantel

I have been a little bit tardy with writing over the last two months, but then again there were no dearth of reasons. We had to deal with a tragic loss, the tumult following it and undertake a short trip to India. As you can imagine, traversing these waters were not easy, to say the least.

What started as a relatively straightforward chemotherapy regime ended with severe complications and my mother in law who was a healthy soul otherwise, was gone in a jiffy, to join the many others of our parental generation as a photo on the mantel. She was gentle person, loving and full of life, always inquisitive of things new. I still recall how she used to race cars on the iphone or complete Sudoku puzzles with adeptness that is alien to us. She had hardly a qualm facing the unknown, like traveling alone at her age to the US with little mastery over English. But well, only memories remain now of that dear person. Soon my wife and her brother were busy tying up all the loose ends after their mother’s untimely departure like closing accounts, handling the paperwork, shuttling between offices, banks and so on.  I joined them and trudged through Calicut and some of those offices with a heavy heart, helping them sort out matters and bring to a close, life in a vibrant house which had been my mother in law’s abode.  There is so much I could write about her and perhaps I will, in bits and pieces as time goes by.

Calicut is as it always had been, but this time too, a whole lot of construction was going on and I won’t be surprised if it ends up as a city with no familiar landmarks for people of an older generation visiting it after a period. Paragon still lords as ‘the restaurant’ in town, but it was a new place on the highway bypass called Oven that blew us away with an astounding Fish biryani, this time. The Punjabi Dhaba was drab, and the M grill so so. The veg scene was pathetic, but the Ojin bakery was a revelation in the midst of Ramzan with so many different kinds of Muslim delicacies that vanished off the shelves as soon as the sun set. Kumari’s chips across Paragon took over from our favorite chips shop closer home as the latter had gone down in standard, and chomping down a pack of 50 grams of freshly made varuthakay, sitting in a leaky autorikshaw careening through the waterlogged streets of Calicut, while it rained cats and dogs, is something only natives can understand.

The beaches were crowded and I was surprised when my BIL suggested we drive a little further to South beach. Well, well, see how things change, we have a South beach now, not one to rival Miami, but one nevertheless that sported a ton of people looking across the waters, but nary a bikini clad beauty or a muscle toned beach bum. The youngsters looked across the waters perhaps dreaming of a job in the gelf, or how to square things up with a girlfriend, the older people enjoying the moment, groups of friends, a few couples in love, a large number of noisy black birds which Edward Lear succinctly described as ‘ Ye crows of Malabar, What a cussed bore you are’. The peanut sellers, the salted pickle sellers, the toy sellers, they were all there, rain or no rain.

In the midst of all this, I came across an anomaly. You agree how difficult it is to see order and efficiency in general when it comes to India, right? It is difficult to expect anything like that starting from the airport. But a visit to the village office close to the city jail was the first of the revelations, and the straightforward way in which the young officer dealt with and completed our case was nothing less than a pleasant shock. A visit to the Akshaya Kendra near Westhill topped it for it was here that we came across a super-efficient office, which of course looked nothing like one, just an open room with 4 people. The young lad sitting there, multitasking with a couple of computers, handled crowds with total panache, and dealt with our case with such efficiency, in a few minutes which I know from experience would have meant weeks of visits and prods and pushes to get done, in the older days. Three days later the cards which we had applied for were available.  Seeing youngsters like Backer Shamil made me so much more hopeful of a vibrant India in the future.

Movies like ‘How old are you’ and ‘Bangalore days’ were the main topics of aimless conversation and I must admit that I enjoyed watching both of them enormously. Only recently did I find out that Shahabaz Aman the singer hailed from Calicut, and if I had known, I would have said hello to him, for we share a fondness for Mehaboob the late singer.

And we had yet another surprise when a tree fell over nearby power lines and shut down power to the area, but lo and behold it was sorted out in a matter of hours as a result of KSEB using contractors to do such repairs. In the old days it would have taken so much more time, I guess!

The book scene was tepid to say the least even though Mathrubhumi had opened a swanking new bookshop near the indoor stadium and DC books did not have many new history books to sell. Basheerka’s (Vaikom Mohammed Basheer) daughter works there and watching her face while I requested for the new compendium of Basheer’s stories titled Balyakalasakhiyum kure pennumgalum, could not help but smile. Nevertheless I collected good bunch of books (40 pounds) which were stacked into my usual book repository, a locally procured duffle bag which had been used often to bring them across these continents many times. The heavyweight was of course Bhaskaran Unni’s ‘Pathonpatham nootandile keralam’. As usual it was fun trudging those streets dhoti clad with my trusted kalan kuda (a relic from the 80’s) but all that was brought down with a thud when a shopkeeper gently explained that rarely did somebody wear a double dhoti or carry such an umbrella there days.

Ah! Who cares, and so I went and purchased one more dhoti, with a vengeance.

SM Street was crowded like hell, and on holidays, Street hawkers took over, loudly hawking their wares under the very nose of the great soul who brought fame to the street, none other than SK Pottekat. Mananchira maidan and the pond looked well cared, and I could not but help think of the days when the Zamorin’s family (15-17th century) bathed there. Nevertheless there was a furor across the pond, where the heritage Comtrust building was put up for grabs, for CHF has taken up the issue against destroying that famed landmark from the city.

So much was happening, so much was there to see and experience, but I had little time amidst so many formalities to be sorted out. I could not meet any friends and a week later I was off to Palghat to spend some time with my brother.

I had never expected Palghat to change, but here too bridges and buildings were being built and this was where we got to experience a new vehicle, gaining popularity, the Tata magic. It was fun going around in Muraliettan’s (he is younger than me though) bright yellow vehicle, well protected from rain. Yet again the vegetarian restaurants like saravana and kapilavastu were mediocre. The farmers were reasonably contended as the monsoon though late had arrived. The Temple was being run smoothly though some silly issues were gaining political momentum.  The young and proficient Chenda drummer Sreedharan had obtained a puraskaram, a recognition and wedding bells were in the air as my niece had just got engaged, awaiting a wedding next year. A mandatory trip to Coimbatore showed how life across the border could be, well, somewhat dry though robust from a business sense. Pallavur, a place which was so distant from technology, was now in tune with smart phones sported by most and ipads and the such even though not commonplace, used by some. I was pensive as I sat and looked across the fields, and at the pond which we used to frequent in our younger days and a memory of a particular day surfaced (a story is in the offing as you can imagine).

Our trip is never complete without a trip to Guruvayoor and that went smoothly, and interestingly we drove through the locale where Arnos padre (I had written about him earlier) lived and preached. The mandatory ICH visit was also done and the cutlets pioneered by AKG were stuffed in with gusto and I did spare a thought for Pepita Seth who compiled such a lovely book entitled – Heaven on Earth – Guruvayur.

The pattar at Pallavur had in the meantime delivered the special order for chuttu murukkus and packets of chips, halwa had been picked up from Kumari’s. It was time to leave, but not before going to Lakshmi stores at Tali, across the temple. Nothing beats the mixture he sells (made in Palghat though) and this time we also tried his palada pradhaman, and a medu vadai – phew! both were astounding.

Time to return, and as the day neared, my wife and I were saddened by the fact that we could never again
come back to a home with a caring parent. But I suppose that is life….The departure across the seas took us to Dubai where we met with some close friends. The lush green of Kerala, the drip drip and pitter patter of the monsoon rains were quickly wiped off our thoughts, to be replaced by the intense blinding light, dust and heat of the desert and the loud hum of the road and the ever present air conditioners. The city or what one should say is a metropolis continues to surprise me, and the one which we used to visit during most Ramadan and Haj holidays in the late 80’s bears no resemblance to the ultra-modern city we see today teeming with Bentley’s, Ferraris and Lamborghini’s (We did visit Jas island and the Ferrari world!). And a friend treated us to a great dinner at Asha’s a restaurant owned by Asha Bhonsle. I did not forget to tell them the story of how usha utup convinced RD Burman to compose Chura Liya with Asha based on If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium!

And of course you come across many a lowly laborer from Kerala who casts an envious look at the well-heeled tourist or well to do businessman. That is the person who eventually goes back and builds that garish looking ‘gelf’ house across the street and then travel back to Dubai in a state of penury, to become part of yet another slavish contract. The arrogance of the British expat whom you come across now and then, brings up a snigger in me, for I know them better, having lived amongst them in the UK. Dubai (and perhaps the Far East) is the only place where they can overlord these poor laborers. Armed with lowly qualifications, but possessing a better command over spoken English and coupled with a staunch color preference by the Arab, they rule the roost there. Again, a vagary of life!

Back home…Raleigh made sure we would not forget the monsoon rains so soon, and the rains here have been equally persistent and heavy. Time to get back to the routines and catch up on other matters….