The Curious Case of Ramchandr Baladzhi

Prince Ramachandra Balaji in Russia

One of the first organized rumblings against the British EIC’s tyranny in India was the much written about Sepoy mutiny in 1857. The British had previously retaliated against early stirrings by hanging Mangal Pandey, but as the unrest spread to Agra, Allahabad, Ambala and Merrut, some British soldiers were lynched at Delhi while Bahadur Shah, proclaimed as India’s emperor, looked on. After the British arrested Bahadur Shah, things took a turn for the worse and the siege of Kanpur and the flight of the British resulted in the death of a few British with Nana Saheb being held responsible for the events that occurred.

For the uninitiated, Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, a.k.a Nana Sahib was the adopted son of the deposed Maratha Baji Rao II, exiled at Bithoor near Kanpur by the British. Recalling from my article on Manu, Nana Sahib's childhood associates included Tatya Tope, Azimullah Khan and Manu who later became famous as Rani Lakshmibai. 

Nana Sahib was the legal heir to the throne and eligible for the annual pension from the East India Company. However, after the death of Baji Rao II, the EIC declined to pay the pension on the grounds that the Nana was adopted and that the Maratha kingdom no longer existed. The Nana, as you can imagine was quite offended by all this and sent an envoy (Azimullah Khan) to England in 1853 to fight his case with the British. However, Azimullah Khan failed returning home in 1855. Matters dragged on with Nana remaining cordial with the English. The British expected Nana Sahib to support them when the rebellion spread to Kanpur, however Nana joined up with the rebels and decided to fight them instead.

The English military reached Kanpur in July and defeated Nana’s forces who in turn retreated to Bithoor. General Havelock went after Nana, but Nana Sahib had already escaped, never to be caught by the British. By 1859, Sahib was reported to have fled to Nepal with his family. Sahib's ultimate fate was never known. The British wrote a number of books and articles about Nana and the mutineers, painting a picture of those who revolted as the vilest scum on earth, for they had the temerity to maim and kill a few British men and women. Many anti British nations like the French projected Nana as a hero for standing up to the British. Jules Verne based the famous character of Prince Dakkar or Captain Nemo on Nana Saheb. Nana’s stories of valor grew and grew in the Indian mind.

But then again, let me remind you, this is not an article about Nana or his heroics. It is about another person, a very strange character and not yet known to many an Indian reader. In the year 1878, a scruffy Indian arrived in St Petersburg armed with letters of introduction from Iskandar Khan, grandson of Dost Mohammed, the Emir of Afghanistan. He, this shabby looking but proud man, was according to his own words, the nephew of the famous Nana Saheb who fought the British.

That certainly interested many top level Russians of the region. Why so? A little knowledge of the political scene post 1850’s is required. As you will see, the ‘great game’ was already afoot. Like most people who become insecure after acquiring riches, a beautiful woman or a great jewel, the British were worried about the loss of India, their great possession and source of all kinds of raw material, riches and semi-finished goods with little effort and great profit. Many others were eyeing the jewel from both the west and the North. While the British worried about the French on the western borders, the Russians were breathing down heavily from beyond the Northern Mountains. The only buffer was the northwest frontier provinces. Earlier in the 19th century, Napoleon (who had even planned to team up with the Russians to invade India) had been defeated and the French advances had been held up near Egypt and Syria.

To put it simply, Russia was fearful of British commercial and military inroads into Central Asia, and Britain was fearful of Russia adding "the jewel in the crown", India, to the vast empire that Russia was building in Asia. This resulted in an atmosphere of distrust and the constant threat of war between the two empires. If Russia were to gain control of the Emirate of Afghanistan, it might then be used as a staging post for a Russian invasion of India. Starting in 1830, the game moved like a well-crafted game of chess, with both parties trading pieces, only they were much bigger. In October 1838 Auckland issued the Simla Manifesto, a piece of propaganda designed to blacken the reputation of Dost Mohammad Khan (Emir of Afghanistan) and to ensure British influence was extended into Afghanistan for it to become a buffer state. In December 1838, the British marched into Afghanistan and arrested Dost Mohammad, and sent him into exile in India, replacing him with the unpopular Shah Shuja. By 1842, the Afghans were in a rebellious state and the British withdrew. By 1846 however the British had captured Sindh and defeated the Sikhs and later in 1857, the Persians. The Crimean War had ended in 1856 with Russia's defeat by an alliance of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The new and wary Czar Alexander II of Russia waited some years so as not to antagonize the British, then Russia expanded into Central Asia in two campaigns.

In India the EIC, after the 1857 rebellion, finally relinquished possession of the states and regions it held passing them on formally to the British crown. Now that domestic strife was contained, it was time for the British to go back to the troubled Northern borders. The Second Anglo Afghan War was fought between the British Raj and the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880, when the latter was ruled by Sher Ali Khan, son of former Emir Dost Mohammad Khan. The war ended after the British emerged victorious. The Afghan tribes were permitted to maintain internal rule and local customs but they had to cede control of the area's foreign relations to the British, who, in turn, guaranteed the area's freedom from foreign military domination. This was aimed to thwart expansion by the Russian Empire into India.

It was during these events that the troubled Russians heralded the arrival of a smooth talking Ramachandr Baladzhi or Rama Chandra Balaji, so called nephew of Nana Saheb, the peshwa who made the British tremble in Kanpur. The events that transpired between this one man representative of the Indians against the British, or so it was as he put it, and the Russians in St Petersburg was for me, very interesting. I must admit that my sources were few and with little corroboration, I have to depend on just one fine article by TN Zagarodnikova and bits from the doctoral thesis of Alexander Graham Marshall.

Alexander the liberator had become a reformist Romanov Czar after the emancipation of serfs in
Alexander II
1861 and after selling Alaska to America in 1867 and was avoiding assassination attempts all the time. As they say, Balaji presented a strange picture in St Petersburg, which was the Russian Czarian capital then. A scruffy man with a scar on his cheek, looking sad and hungry, and wearing shabby clothes, but with a proud countenance, this young fella was just scraping along, with borrowed funds and earnings tutoring rich families, in English. He spoke many languages, including Russian and French and perhaps Farsi. Curiously he cultivated a number of acquaintances in high places, some very important men, who were all trying to find him work or to help him.

Balaji arrived in Russia around the end of the Russo Turkish war, where the Russians were victorious as the Ottoman Sultan sued for peace; and the Treaty of San Stefano was signed by Russia and Turkey. Balaji was at that time in Turkey and came across an acquaintance, a Japanese officer whom he knew from his days in Berlin. The Japanese officer introduced him to the Russians who invited him to Russia. So that presents the first piece of a growing puzzle. What exactly was Balaji doing in Berlin or Turkey?

Balaji of course was effusive in providing details of his background, which when analyzed seriously proved to be full of holes. But let’s see what he said. According to his testimony, he was born in 1850. As the British soldiers arrived in Bithoor, he fell out of the window and broke his cheekbone. A childless English officer took the boy first with him to Calcutta and thence to London, where he found the climate less than salubrious. So he grew up in Italy, but as an Englishman, visiting London often, until he was sent to Switzerland in 1859 for continued education. He went on to learn Sanskrit from somebody who had come to London with Duleep Singh (remember the Kohinoor story?) and later owing to the benevolence of the Rajah of Kolhapur who died in Florence, got enough funds to make a trip to India and back to Switzerland (he was forced to go back by the British). In 1870, he entered the Berlin University for higher studies (curious that he did not go back to Britain), struck up an acquaintance with Prof Weber an eminent Sanskritologist, and KA Kossovich, the pioneer Russian Sanskritologist.  It was while vacationing in Britain that Balaji met Iskandar Khan, who invited him to Persia.

Iskandar Khan the grandson of Dost Mohammed had been trying to get back the Afghan throne for himself, but failing to get support from at first Russia and later the British, left in 1877 for Turkey and finally settled in Persia.

Balaji was not interested with that invitation then and went back to Berlin. Warned however by his friends that the British, wary of his friendship with Iskandar, were planning to send him off to the Jamaica, Balaji abandoned his studies and went to Tehran. From there he tried to go back to India, but after getting robbed by Afghan tribals, returned to Tehran. Interestingly his next venture was to launch an agitation favoring the Persian Japanese treaty to import green tea directly to Persia instead of Bombay, thereby damaging British commercial interests.

I checked this aspect of the story and it appears that a Japanese team did come to Tehran to discuss a trade treaty. Though the members of the mission held trading fairs in Bušehr and Tehran in order to exhibit Japanese products, they did not draw much interest from the Iranians. The treaty talk never took place, because Japan wished to be treated on a most-favored-nation basis by Iran and obtain the same extraterritorial rights that the European countries enjoyed, which Iran did not agree to.

The connection between Iran’s Nāṣer-al-Din Shah and iskander Khan is quite real, but the involvement of Balaji in these matters is somewhat circumspect what with his lack of experience in trade matters. It is also clear that balaji never mentioned any connections with Nana Saheb while in Tehran.

As the story runs through its course, Balaji next found himself in Istanbul where the San Stephano treaty was being negotiated. From there he found his way to St Petersburg, and it is felt by the Russians who studied him later that he had a singular plan. The English were not too pleased with the treaty signed between the British and the Turks and the Russians felt another war was in the offing. To avoid it, it was better to pose a threat to the British at the Indian frontiers and get them busy. Balaji (maybe induced to do so by Iskandar Khan) wanted to persuade the Russians to attack India coming down through Afghanistan, and liberate India from the British yoke. The real question is who would believe an unkempt Indian refuge with such a major idea. Well, that is the interesting part, for within months he had built up a social circle, though hardly making his own ends meet. His circle included VV Grigoriev, the famous orientalist, Baron Jomini and Von der Osten Saken top officials in the foreign affairs department, Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich, Semenov Tyan Shansky, MN Katkov the editor of ‘Moscow Vedomosty’, and other personnel in the Japanese and Persian embassies.

It was also an opportune moment for Balaji to scout out a potential route to India, for the Grand duke was heading an exploratory trip to Turkestan in Central Asia. The intention of the trip was to check the potential in restoration of the Amu Darya’s flow, obtain cooperation of the Khivans and Bukharans, the acquisition of riches, and the opening of a new water route from the Caspian through the Amu Darya to India. Balaji proved to be very useful and accompanied the Duke. Balaji and Afghan Mirdali Khan apparently testified to the existence of ancient river beds and tributaries. Balaji was soon heralded in social circles and was to be seen in many parties and it is mentioned that many a Russian lady found him quite romantic. Articles about Balaji and his exploits appeared in Moscow newspapers and journals.

In India, Madame Blavatsky was livid and saw through Balaji’s caper. She wrote to newspapers that this fellow Balaji was an imposter, for she herself had been involved in resurrecting the Nana legacy in India and knew that Nana Sahib had no such nephews. She wrote to the editor of Indu Prakash

“Ever since my arrival here, in February, with a hospitality and persistence worthy of a better cause, I have been hailed by every class of society as a secret emissary of the Russian government—a ‘spy,’ to call things by their proper names. And yet, so poorly informed am I by the authorities of my native country of the ways and doings of the Russian police, that, in my ardent curiosity, I have now to apply to you for help. Will you kindly put your head together with mine to try and ‘guess’ who may possibly be a certain mysterious individual who has recently appeared in Russia? He calls himself a ‘prince of India,’ and provoking the greatest curiosity in the general public is, at the same time, received as an honoured guest by the St. Petersburg ‘court’ —though, as I am informed, secretly. This is what one of the numerous papers I received says of him, mentioning his arrival. I translate verbatim: . . . ‘A few days ago, arrived at Moscow, on his way from Petersburg to Samara, the Hindustani Prince Ramchander Balajee of Bhottor. Colonel and Aide de Camp on the general staff the Count N. Y. Rostovtzeff has been placed at the orders of the prince, and now forms a part of his numerous suite.’ Who is this prince? He evidently belongs to the native place, if he is not actually of kin to the famous Nana Sahib, of course. Though news for your readers, this piece of information will be stale for the omniscient police of India, who, for instance, have discovered in a twinkling of the eye that I was a dangerous Russian spy. They must certainly know all about this mirific prince. How provoking, then, that they will not tell!”

Interestingly, the Russians also had similar doubts. Col LN Sobolev had investigated Balaji and submitted a report with the result that suspicions of Balaji being a British spy were rife. His connection with the circumspect Iskander khan was another reason. Zinoviev the Russian ambassador in Tehran reported that Balaji never mentioned any connections with Nana Saheb while in Tehran and was actually selling medicines (herbal?). It is also mentioned that Balaji was finally recalled from the Grand Duke's party due to suspicions in higher quarters about his character and his 'bad influence' on the Grand Duke. But Balaji continued his meager existence till 1880, providing tuitions for children of the richer families or taking handouts and loans from his many friends.

Proponents for his cause such as Col Korolkov maintained that he was definitely not a British spy and that his plans to access India through the dangerous Samarkand route would not have been approved by the English. While there, Balaji had met the Sikhs living there headed by Guru Charan Singh (who promised support with some 300,000 people for a future attack against the British). He also published an article in 1880 – My visit to Abdurahman Khan in Tashkent, in a newspaper where he outlined the difficulties faced by Indians living in Central Asia without their families and the handful who had their wives and daughters, but were fearful for their safety in these khanates.

Gen Skobolev
The Russians must have decided that their suspicions were unfounded for we find next that Balaji obtained a Czar’s decree accrediting him to the Asiatic department and he is seconded to Gen Skobelev with an ample allowance of 400 rubles.

The nature of his duties were never clarified, and the questions were if he was to be a liaison for the various Indian envoys (of Indian princes and rajas such as the maharajah of Kashmir) who came to Russia for support, if it were to coordinate with new forays involving Iskandar khan in Afghanistan or if he was to coordinate the selection and facilitation of Indian born agents into the Russian forces. He was certainly knowledgeable and provided original opinion. He understood the various polemics played out in the region and the complicated geopolitics at play. His knowledge of the geography and history of the Central Asian khanates was more than adequate. But he also came up with wild ideas such as Indians being potentially encouraged to move to fertile Afghanistan from the crowded plains, plotting a revolt against the British through the Maharajas of Kashmir, Patiala and Gwalior and so on. His duty was to start work in Turkestan in right earnest and hoping for active Russian support, he soldiered on.

It was summer 1880 that Ramachandra suddenly requested permission to go to Tehran to attend to some urgent personal matters. Marshall believed another motive - Unhappy at the lack of positive commitments from his interviews with Russian War and Foreign Ministry officials however, Baladzhi left for Persia. The Russians provided him the necessary papers and money. Surely I believe they suspected something was afoot and wanted to check his movements,

Mme Blavatsky continued to air her suspicions wondering why Balaji was considered important 

"From Simla I wrote an article for the Novoe Vremya, ‘The Truth about the Nephew of Nana Sahib’. I have gathered the most elaborate information about this scamp. Golos constantly prints letters written by this liar, as if to incite England to make war on Russia. And Novoe Vremya disdained to print my note. For what reason? Besides being true, it is written as a free contribution. One would think they might have believed in the good intention of a countrywoman of theirs, of a Russian who is at the very source of the information about this self-proclaimed and false ally of Russia -- this Prince Ramchandra. His biography -- perfectly false -- has appeared in the June number of the Russian Herald, 1889. And his letters from Bagdad and Cabul, printed in Golos, amuse and needlessly irritate everyone here who knows the truth of the matter….

She continued her tirade in another letter- Nikolay Mihaylovich Prjevalsky (or Przhevalsky) (1839-88) was a famous military man, traveller, explorer and geographer. From 1864 to 1866 he taught geography at the military school at Warsaw, having graduated from the Academy of the General Staff. In 1867 he was sent to Irkutsk where he explored the highlands on the banks of the Usuri until 1869. In 1870, accompanied by only three men, he crossed the Gobi Desert, reached Peking, explored the upper the difficulties of the Bagh-o-Bahar and Baital Pachisi in the land of Wasudew Bulwant Phadke, or translating the exercise from Hindi into Russian in the “legitimate heir-loom” of the “Prince Ramchandra,” the hapless hero of the Russian Golos—in the North-Western Provinces! Will you kindly inform us whether Mr. Walter T. Lyall’s advice is to be immediately carried out, or must we wait till the Kali Yuga is over?

Balaji proved to be very erratic after that, for he first wrote from Baghdad that he no longer wanted to be part of the Turkestan project, but a month later wrote from Shiraz that he was trying to find business for the Japanese in Persia. Next he wrote to Gen Skobelev that he was willing to rejoin service. Skobolev was livid and recorded that he wanted no part of Balaji, who he believed to be mentally ill.

But strangely Balaji was very much part of the Skobolev camp during the Geok tepe conflict with the Czar’s express support, who insisted that Balaji be included, but be supervised strictly. Things did not go well and Skobelev complained about Balaji again to his HQ as being an evil person. Balaji, not waiting to see what the reply was, escaped, headed for India. But he was captured in Ashkhabad enroute to Herat and was sent back to St Petersburg with a police escort.

It is not clear if he was kept under house arrest or imprisoned, but a few months later in March 1881 was released and moved out to Moscow where of course he had neither the contacts nor means for his daily sustenance. He went back to St Petersburg and wrote to the Czar asking for an allowance of 1000 rubles to travel out and abroad. The Czar himself replied with his handwritten order on the side of the petition, that Balaji was not to be provided any further allowance and that he be escorted and released at the border.

We have to conclude that he left Russia after this three year troubled stay. But what happened to him? Nobody knows for his trail just went cold and he vanished……

Questions remain, who was Balaji and what were his motives? Why was he so important and how did he cultivate such a group of influential friends? Was he really a British spy whom the Russians toyed with during the great game? Was he just another Indian nationalist?

Some clues exist for the reasons why Balaji fell out of favor with the Russians, that Balaji was quite rude and short tempered, kept only to high society and upper class Russians, and that he simply could not get along with Gen Skobelev. It is possible that he had a falling out with the brutal General and that was the reason why he eventually tried to escape. Let’s see what happened in Geok Tepe where Balaji was an eyewitness riding shotgun (not exactly - he was consigned to the transport column) with Gen Skobelev.

In January, 1881, General Mikhail Skobelev, the hero of Plevna, with 7000 men, stormed the Tekke fortress at Geok Tepe, where were assembled 35,000 men, women, and children, with 10,000 horsemen. Nearly 20,000 persons were slain in the fort and during the pursuit, while the Russians lost barely 1000 men. This butchery broke, or rather annihilated, the Turkoman power, and, strange as it may seem, the survivors of the massacre have become loyal subjects of the tsar. The victory of Geok Tepe brought Russia to the borders of Khurasan.

Skobolev remarked once that he would not like to be a commander in an Indian invasion plan with a large army of 150,000 troops but at the same time mentioned, ‘It will be in the end our duty to organize masses of Asian cavalry and hurl them into India as a vanguard, under the banner of blood and rapine, thereby reviving the times of Tamerlane’.

Perhaps Balaji wanted no part of such a campaign. In 1881, the Czar Alexander II was eventually assassinated after many aborted attempts. Did Balaji go back to working with Khan in Tehran (We know that Khan was active in Mashad during 1887) or did he retire to England or India? We do not know. There is a glimmer of a possibility. In 1894, a two volume work was published in London anonymously with the title “Russia’s march towards India’ by an Indian officer. Was Balaji the author? Just a wild guess. In any case, it is clear that he had nothing to do with Nana Saheb, but was indeed a capable character at various forms of bluster and intrigue.

General Mikhail Skobelev died in the Hotel Dussaud in Moscow on July 7, 1882 under very strange circumstances. It was generally felt that his death was linked to a heart disease. Rumor had it however that he was actually poisoned by foreign agents and, lastly, his death was also linked to a female presence. More than a century after, the mystery still lingers (Sputniknews)

The great game continued and the Russians continued to irk the British, prophesying Iskandar khan who remarked to some of his London interlocutors years earlier- Our rocky country serves as a protecting bastion to English dominion in India. We are well placed by Nature in our stronghold, and we are warlike in a high degree. But we are much divided among ourselves as tribes, and by blood feuds. If once the Russians should succeed in lodging themselves there, it will be utterly impossible to dislodge them again."

On September 10, 1885 the Delimitation Protocol between Great Britain and Russia was signed in London. The protocol defined the boundary from the Oxus to the Harirud and was later followed by many additional protocols providing detail. In 1895, it was agreed that the Amu Darya River would form the border between Afghanistan and the Russian empire. The Russians gained all of the lands North of the Amu Darya which included the land claimed by the Khanate of Khiva, including the approaches to Herat, and all of the land claimed by the Khanate of Khoqand, including the Pamir plateau. To ensure a complete separation, this new Afghan state was given an odd eastern appendage known as the Wakhan Corridor. As William C Rowe concluded, "In setting these boundaries, the final act of the tense game played out by the British and Russian governments came to a close”

Nana Sahib’s Nephew in Russia – TN Zagorodnikova (Indian history a Russian viewpoint, ICHR MS8 – Ed. Eugenia Vanina)
The Origins of Conflict in Afghanistan - Jeffery J. Roberts
The Russian General Staff and Asia, 1860-1917 - Alex Marshall
Dar Al-Harb: the Russian general staff and the Asiatic frontier, 1860-1917 - Marshall, Alexander Graham (2001)
The History of Nations, Volume 5 edited by Henry Cabot Lodge
Indians Abroad - Sarva Daman Singh

It is mentioned that a number of sources relating to Balaji still exist in the former USSR Moscow and Tashkent archives. Many of the documents are in French, the formal language of Czarist Russia, others in German. In case anybody has additional information on this story, please comment in detail.

Turkestan, literally means "Land of the Turks" in Persian. It refers to an area in Central Asia between Siberia to the north and Tibet, India and Afghanistan to the south, the Caspian Sea to the west and Mongolia and the Gobi Destert to the east.

Thanks again to TN Zagorodnikova for the article on this interesting character, for much of the data in this comes from her article.

Additional information 10/31/16 – MI Salonikes article, British newspapers

After I posted the article, I found an online version of MI Salonikes’s – Indiiskii patriot v rossii and with a passable google translation, dredged out additional aspects of the Balaji story. In effect it does not change the story line, but provides more information, some changes to the time line and adds meat to the character. The additional points are
  • Balaji stayed at the Porsche pension while studying at Lausanne Switzerland paying 100CHF per month. He learnt and spoke French, German, Italian and English. At Switzerland he gave English and music lessons
  • During his yearly and obligatory summer visits to Britain, he learnt that his parents were alive and living in Nepal. He learnt that he had a brother named Sridhar(?)
  • In 1868, he met the Kolhapur prince at Florence and this man gifted him £2000 on his death bed. Using this money he went to Nepal where he met his parents and brother. The British learnt of his visit and sent him back to Britain in 1869 fearing that he might be persuaded to go against them.
  • He joined the Berlin University with British permission, and was a volunteer in the army hospital when the Franco Prussian war broke.
  • During the next attempt to go to India he got robbed and came back. Then he went to Turkey hoping to get their help in his plans to topple the British in India. Later he met the Russian staff officers and landed up in St Petersburg.
  • While in Russia he lived in the house of the Persian Consul Jabbar Ali. Help came from Yamamoto and Nissi of the Japanese embassy. Prof Kossovich from Berlin had given him letters of introduction.
  • Following the Amu Darya expedition, Balaji requested support from the Russians to infiltrate Russia and start a rebellion, but no help was forthcoming.
  • Following this he went to Tehran in 1880 and started the discussions with the Japanese on the tea imports. This is documented in a London Times report.
  • On his own, he went and joined up with Gen Skobelev as it was a war affecting negatively the interests of the British. He was distraught after seeing the violence and suffering and had a fall out with Gen Skobelev after mentioning this.
  • War minister Dimitri Milutin sent him off to Moscow and facing a terrible isolation there, Balaji wrote to the Czar, who in exasperation, expelled him.

His departure to Tehran in 1880 suddenly is explained in anxious British press reports as an intrigue to support the accession of Abdur Rahman, the new Emir of Afghanistan. The British press describe this as Prince Rama Chunder’s second missive to Afghanistan. They also confirm that Balaji was responsible for the arrival of Japanese trading ships at the Iranian port. We note that these are picked up as Balaji’s own reporting on the Golos newspaper.

 The pall mall budget reporting of Balaji’s visit to Kabul scoffs at Balaji and his ‘idle tales’ – Ram Chunder would to-day have no more influence (sic. in Cabul) than a New Zealand chief

In the end we can see that it was his objections to Gen Skobolev’s actions at Geok Tepe got him into serious trouble. But was he a double agent, a Russian agent or a one man army, an Indian Patriot? 


Ravi Varma and Ramaswamy Naicker - The rivalry

The Painter, his teacher, a rival and a muse

Though I know little about painting, I can certainly say that I like studying the women lovingly brought to life on canvas by Ravi Varma and his younger brother. There are some who would wonder why I brought up his brother’s name in the same breath. Well, they did work in tandem with the younger Raja Varma finishing up with many of the portraits of the elder Ravi, during their heydays. He was no mean painter himself, and is a person whose persona I will bring to light on these pages someday. Ravi Varma himself has been written about in so many books, but there is unfortunately quite a bit of conflicting and incorrect information in some of his early biographies, which were perhaps a little too effusive. Nevertheless, he was a genius and also in many ways just an ordinary person, deeply religious, meticulous in his work, quick to take offense and in later days a mite tired after the onset of diabetic symptoms, for which sadly there were no insulin therapies in those days.

Ravi Varma
Today our whole perception of the physical look of a Hindu god is somewhat due to Ravi Varma and his lithographs. The fine muscular structure of Shiva, the majestic look of Lakshmi, the somber face of Saraswati, Bhima’s physique, Yudhishtira’s pensive looks, Damayanti’s forlorn face, Ravana’s fierce countenance … name it, they were created from the faces of ordinary mortals of India, in the studios of Ravi and Raja Varma.. The saree was popularized with his paintings, Ravi was the first to depict to the masses the drapery of many a fine Maharashtrian and Kancheepuram saree.

But how did he get there? How did he learn his basics? The story is quite interesting and I got some detail from Deepanjana’s biography on the artist. Additional detail came from the debut book on the Travancore Royals by the young Manu S Pillai and an exquisite article on Travancore art by Sharat Sundar Rajeev. Was Ravi self-taught? Did he learn painting on the sly? In a previous article, we talked about his later day muses at Bombay, but who was his first muse, who was his first mentor and sponsor? If he learned from a teacher, who was the teacher and what kind of paintings did he do? The answers are very illuminating and throw light into the workings and life at the royal houses of Travancore.

Like most palaces, the rich Travancore abodes had their share of poets, singers, courtesans, writers,
Raja Varma (Brother)
scribes and painters. What was once the so called Kerala mural style of paintings or frescos dealing with mythical characters and legends, which you can still see here and there, were being replaced by the company style or hybrid Indo European style, steeped in very visible subjects and realism, but with a tint of the Mughal. The style of painting which took root in Travancore during Ravi Varma’s younger years however was the so called Tanjore style, itself influenced by the Vijayanagara style, and even the Company style.

If you recall from our discussions around Swati Tirunal and music, there was a steady flow of artisans from the declining Maratha Nayak kingdom to Travancore in the latter decades of the 19th century. The Travancore rajas, patrons of art and music were glad to receive some of those stalwarts moving out from Tanjore, westward. These artists (Rajus & Naidus) or ‘oviars’ were originally Telugu speaking people from the artistically vibrant "Rayalseema" region of Andhra, who moved to Tamil Nadu in the wake of the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire and the establishment of Nayak rule in Madurai and Thanjavur. Some of them famed in art, moved to Travancore, carrying with them mastery over a new medium, oil, in search of patronage, particularly to the courts of Swathi Thirunal (1829-47), and his successor, Ayilyam Thirunal (1847-80).

The encouragement to painting on modern lines in Travancore was given by Swati Tirunal who invited to his court Alagiri Naidu, a native of Madura, considered to be the best painter of the day (Pedda Dasari was another exponent who painted at the courts during this period). Alagiri Naidu, expert on ivory painting was the person who introduced canvas painting in Travancore and it was he who executed the painting of Dewan Subba Rao, and a few other exquisite paintings. Popular during the 1850’s Naidu was instrumental in teaching his methods to Raja Raja Varma, Ravi Varma’s uncle.

Ramaswamy Naicker or Naidu who followed him was an oil painter in the European style, specializing in portraits and served in Ayilyam Tirunal’s court. While some people pass off Naicker’s art as linear (I don’t), examples of which can still be seen in the Sri Chitra art gallery, he was popular and in 1874, at an exhibition in Calcutta, Ramaswamy of Travancore dominated. Naidu carried off the prize for 'the best work by a native artist'.  Looking at his two marvelous paintings “three Nair girls of Travancore” and “mother and child” you can see the influence he had on Ravi Varma’s picturization, especially the curves and depiction of native jewelry.

It was an incident between this Naicker and Ravi Varma that was to become a catalyst to Ravi Varma’s meteoric rise and Naicker’s (Naidu) decline. According to popular tradition, “once in a weak moment he (Ravi Varma) approached Naidu for some guidance, but Naidu only curtly refused.” Later biographers of Varma often point to this incident as a decisive moment in the life of young Varma, for it was when he made up his mind to excel Naidu at any cost. But let us see what a couple of his biographers have to say.

The 13 year old Ravi Varma who had already been dabbling in water colors, was brought to Trivandrum by his uncle Raja Raja Varma in 1862 and was presented to the maharaja Ayilyam Tirunal, mainly to be interviewed as a potential suitor for one of the palace princesses (a point debated by some). Manu Pillai explains - In 1859, less than two years after the adoption the Maharajah decided to get the Rani married and three young suitors were presented to her. One of them was Kerala Varma of Changanassery, the grandnephew of the Maharajah’s father. The other was Kerala Varma from Kilimanoor while the third was a Ravi Varma, also from Kilimanoor. The choice had to be made most carefully. A royal consort would father future Maharajahs and hence intelligence, good looks etc were all essential qualities. Rani Lakshmi Bayi chose the Koil Thampuran from Changanassery. She had rejected Ravi Varma because he was dark skinned and her sister Rani Parvathi Bayi had selected the second person.

His uncle sought a second meeting with the king and it was here that Ravi presented the Raja with three of his handiworks, one of which resembled the new consort of the Raja. The meeting covered many other subjects and the Raja took a liking for the young fella from Kilimanoor and asked him to stay back to live in Trivandrum and learn from the palace stalwarts. Nobody, or for that matter Ravi himself would have imagined that this one meeting would be the forerunner to the buildup of his brilliance, fame and name, but also the fact that he would sire the girls who bore future lineages of the Travancore dynasty.

Kerala Varma Koyil Thampuran (Parappanad royal family) born to a Parappanad Rani the cousin of
Bhageerathy (Wife)
Ravi Varma mentioned above (he was married to Kerala Varma’s mothers youngest sister) was a friend and sponsor. He was the person who presented Ravi his first set of Winsor & Newton oil paints around 1866. Ravi stayed at the Moodathu madom near the Padmanabhaswami temple and observed the painters of the palace and the sculptors at the temple, those were the informal lessons which formed his base. Ravi also found access to the palace collections and libraries, he saw European paintings, especially French art, on the printed medium. Ravi also struck up an acquaintance with Madhava Rao, the dewan, which was to serve him in good stead for the future. Three years passed by and as the young boy started to feel at ease in the palace, the resident painters started to get more wary of the new entrant (with an access to the king), as his paintings started to show more promise. In 1866 he got married to a child princess Bhageerathi from nearby Mavelikkara, but he was not to stay at his brides home for long (for that was custom), and he returned to Trivandrum to get back to a problem which was vexing him, the matter of mixing pigments with oil to create good paintings. It was something he simply could not master, even after some guidance by his uncle.  He requested Naicker’s help and the meeting between the two resulted in naught and left the two as bitter enemies. 

Ravi complained to the king, and Naicker did likewise, to his friend - the raja’s brother Vishakam Tirunal, the Raja’s rival and heir, whom he had always courted. Ravi Varma as you can see had brought about a minor palace crisis which was eventually resolved when Naicker was asked to let Ravi watch him at work. Ravi leaned nothing new, and the aspect of making and mixing of paint was always done in secret, in a neighboring room, well away from Ravi’s prying eyes. At some point, Ravi became friends with Arumugham Pillai, Naicker’s assistant. Whether he was bribed or he acted on his accord is not clear, but Arumugham became a late night visitor to Ravi’s studio to impart special training to him. The story reminded me of Dronacharya and Ekalavya, but left a question. Who was really the teacher Arumugham or Ramaswami? Pillai himself went on to excel at his work and set up the art section at the Napier museum and I would consider Arumugham as Ravi Varma’s guru.

Two events in 1868 were to turn the tide even further. One was the arrival of European painter Theodore Jensen and the other the entrance of a muse (and perhaps romance) in Ravi’s life.

A painter of Dutch origin, who had just finished working a commission for the British royal family, named Theodore Jansen came to India to seek his fortune as a portrait painter. Before moving to Travancore, Jansen had already completed a number of portraits at Poona and Bombay, and many of his works had been exhibited in the special Picture Gallery at the Nagpur Exhibition on 1865-66. Now his task was to create paintings of the Ayilyam Tirunal and his family, especially his consort the beautiful Kalyanikutti amma. It was a turbulent period in the palace, with the Visakham Tirunal scheming in the background, the new royal consort now the Nagercoil Ammachi establishing her will in the household and Dewan Madhava Rao getting estranged from the king. Let’s get to know the beautiful lady.

After the death of Thiruvattar Ammachi his first wife, the Maharajah married in 1862 one Kalyanikutty Amma (born 1839) the daughter of Krishna Menon, a former Dewan of Cochin and Lakshmi Amma. She had been previously married to Punnakkal Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, a kathakali exponent.

As Sharat Sundar Rajeev, Travacore history buff explains - ‘Kaithavilakam Bungalow’ a.k.a. ‘Bungalow Ammaveedu,’ located in Punnakkal Lane, is the home of one of the prominent families inside the Fort area. The history of Kaithavilakam Bungalow is entwined with the life of Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, one of the greatest Kathakali exponents of Travancore. Easwara Pillai was a favorite of Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma, the King of Travancore. According to popular family tradition, Easwara Pillai had married four times and one of his wives lived in the Bungalow Ammaveedu.

That was Kalyani Kutty. Kalyani arrived in Trivandrum during the 1850’s after eloping with the Pillai. When and how the king met this lady is not clear, but it is rumored that he met her either at Cochin or at Trivandrum and that he was so enamored with her and took to visiting her on the sly. Easwara Pillai as it seems, had no choice but to hand his wife over to the king.

In 1865 she was formally married to the king following three years of ‘kettilamma status or consortship’, and was adopted by the Maharajah into the Nagercoil Ammaveedu after which her full title became Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi.

Nagercoil Ammachi was also a scholar of Sanskrit and a poet in her own right, having authored Rasa Krida, Satya Panchakam, Pativrataya Panchakam, Ambarishacharitram and other works. She learnt English, hobnobbed with dignitaries, studied the Bible and so on, all very uncharacteristic for a Royal consort who should typically remain behind the scenes. Kalyanikutty Amma as we heard previously, was a woman of renowned beauty and a Carnatic composer of merit, as evidenced by her oeuvre ‘Saptaswara Sankirtanam’.

Jensen was now in Travancore to paint the king and this strong willed lady. Meanwhile Ravi approached Jensen to be formally inducted as his pupil and Jensen promptly refused, for this haughty painter had no intention in having any kind of competition. Ravi requested the king’s help again and the king ruled just like he did with Ramaswami naicker, that Jensen let Ravi watch him at work. 

Jensen had a torrid time for over a month painting the king and the Nagercoil Ammachi, for they were not sitting together but the painting had to show them side by side. With separate sittings and a glowering king, he felt very uncomfortable. Ravi on the corner was also doing the same portrait, but in his own fashion. After they were done, Ravi impertinently presented his portrait to the king, and his likeness of Kalyanikutty amazed everybody, with people agreeing that it was a brilliant painting.

It cemented Ravi’s reputation in Travancore and drew him to his first muse, the royal consort Kalyanikutty. Again, we have to rely on rumors that she became a patron of sorts, supporting him after that event and there are many mentions of the consort’s regular visits to Ravi’s studio at irregular hours. In 1870 the painter left on a trip to Mookambika, and that was when he took his first commission at Calicut to paint Kizhakke Palat Krishna Menon’s family.

As the tale goes, he came back and was gifted a Vira Shringala bangle by the king. Soon he rose to fame as a portrait painter and with it came busy days, more rumors etc. At the palace, the things were turning sour, with Madhava Rao breaking off from the king, the king’s tussle with his brother and the strong willed Nagercoil Ammachi’s involvement in state matters. Kerala Varma Koyil Thampuran’s hand in all this was suspected and as a result of all this intrigue, was declared a traitor and banished.

Manu pillai explains the intrigue - The Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal, who ascended the musnud in 1860, was on bad terms with the Elayarajah Visakham Thirunal, who it was rumored had tried to secure the removal of his brother with the connivance of Dewan Rajah Sir T. Madhava Rao. The Dewan had been “retired” with a handsome pension, but the relationship between the Maharajah and his brother remained tense. Kerala Varma, who was a protégé of the Elayarajah, became the Maharajah’s pawn to punish his brother.

Over and above all this it appears Ramaswamay Naicker was behind spreading some of the rumors that Ravi Varma was getting singular praise only because of Kalyanikutty. By 1872, Madhava Rao was retired or dismissed and Ravi Varma who was considered to be close to Kerala Varma was also asked to leave Travancore. Eventually Ravi was called back to Travancore, only to leave again in 1881 after machinations by Naicker and the ill will shown by the new king Visakam Tirunal.

M Kasper writes - Relations between the painter and his Travancore patrons, however, were not always smooth. Ayialyam Tirunaal, Maharaja until 1880, was genuinely supportive, but his brother and successor Visakam was not. He thought Ravi Varma too big for his britches. He was especially miffed once when Ravi Varma happened to get an Imperial citation made out to Raja Ravi Varma, an honorific which the Maharaja felt the artist wasn't entitled to. Ravi Varma was bothered in turn, and thereafter he took to using the title openly, just to get the old ruler's goat. It might be noted that the only gift for which Visakam is thanked today is introducing tapioca to Kerala.

Naicker’s and Ravi’s tussles continued with both competing at exhibitions, and it is debated often as to who won and whose name remained for posterity. Finally Ravi Varma stopped submitting his work for exhibitions, for his fame had spread and there was no need. It was time to spread his wings and move North, with his friend and confidante, his younger brother Raja Raja Varma. In some ways that rivalry was necessary for that provided Ravi the impetus to excel. The rest of the story covering the days before he returned for good, will be taken up another day.

Let me now present an ode to the painter from Subramanya Bharati - Bharatiyar (a rough translation of Subramanya Bharathi's vaazhthupaattu- 'Chandiranoliai Eesan padaithathu)

God created moonlight and the Jataka bird to drink it. He also created gods to consume the nectar, he created Iravata the elephant to match the splendor of Indra, he created beauty in flowers, in the blue sky and on the countenances of women, for the famed Ravi Varma to paint it on Canvas…The master's light... . Has lit the palaces of Kings and the huts of the poor", bringing "delight" to all….

Even though I am great fan of Raja Ravi Varma’s works, the two paintings of Nayar girls by Ramaswamy Naicker are my personal favorites, of late. They are just fascinating, if you spend a few minutes in front of those works and look closely, some might agree. See them here 

But were they better than Ravi Varma’s figures? Well, it depends….

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, "The Durbar Artists of Travancore," in Tinpahar, October 12, 2015,
The Painter Deepanjana Pal
The ivory throne Manu S Pillai
Madras Miscellany By Muthiah S (when art breaks records 9Dec 2002) 

A note for the uninitiated – The Rani of Travancore is not the wife of the King, but the sister or neice of the king. The king’s wife is called an Ammachi or consort. The king’s son does not become king, but his eldest nephew becomes one. All this because of the practice of matriliny in Kerala. Ammaveedus were the residences of the consorts of the Maharajahs of Travancore in Trivandrum. The main Ammaveedus are the Arumana, Vadasseri, Thiruvattar and Nagercoil Ammaveedus. The Ammachi as Samuel Mateer put it…is not a member of the royal household, has neither official nor social position at court, and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose associate she is.” For further details refer Manu’s article 

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