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How Daughter of Providence chronicles Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s journey from queen to commoner

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Raja Ravi Varma and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, aged ten, prior to her marriage.

Raja Ravi Varma and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, aged ten, prior to her marriage.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There is something about royalty that piques our interest — from what they eat and wear to what they do and where they go, no matter how mundane it might seem when the rest of us indulge in the very same activities.

Now, for the first time ever, the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation is holding an exhibition titled Daughter of Providence, that showcases the life of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last ruling queen of Travancore and Raja Ravi Varma’s eldest granddaughter. 

According to Gitanjali Maini,Managing Trustee & CEO of the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, April 29 was the 176th birth anniversary of the royal artist, Raja Ravi Varma and the exhibition was inaugurated on that day to mark the occasion.

The young Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, in a photograph taken circa 1897-98. This was one of several photographs in a series used by Raja Ravi Varma for his portrait of the future Maharani.

The young Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, in a photograph taken circa 1897-98. This was one of several photographs in a series used by Raja Ravi Varma for his portrait of the future Maharani.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“Every piece in the Daughter of Providence display has not been seen before — whether they are photographs from the family or paintings of the Maharani and her husband. Most importantly, the collection includes a Raja Ravi Varma painting of the Maharani as a baby, somewhere between the age of two-and-a-half and three,” says Gitanjali.

“The entire exhibition has been mounted around this personality, right from the time when she was a toddler, her time as a regent and to the last picture that was taken of her,” she adds.

Gitanjali believes one of the advantages of managing a legacy is the opportunity to pick up on elements and facets. “For instance, Ravi Varma knew very well his granddaughter was going to be adopted into the royal family and he attended her coronation too. Those connections have not really been told by the Foundation or anybody in the art world prior to this. This is the USP of the show because we’re trying to find connections and influences of people who made a difference in the world.”

A studio photograph of the Maharani through the second half of the 1920s.

A studio photograph of the Maharani through the second half of the 1920s.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

The Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation was recognised as the official foundation for anything related to Raja Ravi Varma on February 29, this year.

Gitanjali says photographs from the family have been printed, restored and mounted with captions and stories for the benefit of viewers, on 10 walls arranged in a “flow through” pattern.

“The Foundation wanted to do something meaningful, in an angle never done before using our historical relevance to the artist. By taking the history route with this exhibition, you are able to see the relevance of the works on display. That’s how we planned this show — a chance for people to look at art in a historical way and feel content about what they’ve learned.”

The Maharani’s transition from a queen to a private citizen.

The Maharani’s transition from a queen to a private citizen.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Daughter of Providence was conceptualised by the Foundation with historian Manu S Pillai lending to the research and documentation of the exhibits.

The exhibition will be on display till May 30 at the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, Mezzanine Level, 38 Maini Sadan, 7th Cross Lavelle Road.

Royal grace

Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore was born in 1895 and went on to become one of the most well known women of twentieth century India.

During her rule of Travancore which lasted between 1924 and 1931, she brought about reforms that were ahead of the times. Chief among these was her dismantling of the caste system and the allowing of women to join the state’s legislature.

As the last queen to wield power under the matrilineal system that was prevalent in Travancore at the time, she was addressed as ‘Maharajah’ when she was in power. 

The Maharani was known to leave a favourable impression on all she met, whether they were leaders of the Indian nationalist movement such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, as well as hard-to-please British authorities of the day.

In the 1950s, the Maharani shifted permanently to Bengaluru and having given up her royal titles, she went by ‘Smt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’ as an ordinary citizen, till her death in 1985.



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