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Multifaceted Madhava Rao
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Madhava Rao's "Magic Lantern"


The moving image

In December 1863, residents of the capital city witnessed something spectacular at the Free School in the city (at that time, in the place where the present Ayurveda College stands). As they assembled to hear the lecture on ‘The chief buildings of London’, the speaker Rev. J. Duthie, missionary and master in Nagercoil School established by LMS, used the ‘Magic Lantern’ to project the pictures of the buildings of London, arguably the first cinematic screening in Trivandrum. Magic lantern is an early form of a slide projector, with a kerosene lamp as light source. They produce very dim pictures, but must have been a great curio at that time. All over the world Magic Lanterns had become popular with slides produced in very creative ways. Madhava Rao recommends it as a good gift for kids. Madhava Rao organised many lectures in the Free school, mostly by missonaries, on topics ranging from ‘Books and art of book making’ to ‘Steam engines’, the last one byJ. Bensley, head of Central School of Thiruvananthapuram.


Rao seems to have dabbled with all latest technologies of his times. He made a map of Travancore with Malayalam description using a Lithograph that he himself operated. To teach students of Maharaja’s Free School he brought a steam engine and he demonstrated its use by driving a ‘car’ with it. One Kolhoff is seen as having presented a “hydro-electric machine” to the state in 1863 (dynamos and cells were already in Travancore court). He was also fascinated by the ‘Music Box’, a mechanical device with simple programmed music, which he recommended as a gift to kids. His own music box is on display in the Kerala Musueum of Heritage and History in the city.


Prisoners of convention

Ms. Blandford, the founder of Zenana Mission School, writes about how Madhava Rao's daughters themselves were prisoners of the social customs of early marriage. She also wrote about the practice of isolating widows.


"My school was opened on November 3rd, 1864, with a daughter and niece of the good Dewan... The elder, Cavary Bai, was living with her husband the younger, Ambu Bai, a sweet girl often, was married, but still in her father’s house. I taught them both English, drawing, and needle work five days in the week, to which music was added as soon as a piano had been purchased. Elder daughters of the Dewan then came in to share the music lessons and to chat and laugh. We soon began to understand each other and became great friends; but a very real affection sprang up between Ambu Bai and myself, and I was very sorry when she was suddenly withdrawn to go and live in her husband’s house two years afterwards. She sent me her eldest daughter Suckoo Bai, who attended the Fort School for some time and was a great favourite. The Dewan’s daughters were creatures of social customs… Now, alas! Dear Ambu Bai has become a widow, and suffers greatly from rheumatism. I have not been allowed to see her for some years. Her companion in study, Cavary Bai, lost her husband, Annaji Rao [for a brief period the chairman of the text book committee] , soon after the birth of her second son, and deep was my grief when I first saw her afterwards with shaven head and sad face worn with fasting and tears. ... now her books and work must be laid aside, and nothing but privation and misery were before her. Her two baby sons would, I thought, be solace and induce her to try and live for their sake, but her health had always been delicate, and she could not bear up against the overwhelming grief and self-inflicted austerities. She drooped and died two years afterwards".


Family man

Madhava Rao stayed in Padmavilasom Palace inside the Fort in Thiruvananthapuram. It was demolished a couple decades ago and the Directorate of Technical Education stands in its place. The house was home to Rao’s children and nieces and nephews. One of his daughters got married here (the Raja visited Padmavilasom and gifted Rs. 3,000 on that occasion). A son, T. Ananda Rao, was born to him while he was in the capital city. Later, Ananda Rao became the dewan of Mysore.


During his reign as Dewan, he promoted the girls’ school in Palayam, which taught English, French, stitching, music and drawing, but was mainly attended by Christian girls. Rao appointed Ms. Abel as its Headmistress in 1867. He permitted the establishment of the Zenana Mission School in a palace in the same compound of his office. The present building came up in 1913 after the old building collapsed. That missionaries were allowed to operate inside the Brahmin dominated fort area indicates his progressive outlook towards modern education. He sent his daughters and nieces to the school. Rao shifted the centre of power from the Fort to the new Secretariat and brought modern education into the fort.


He seems to have traveled widely in the state. He also chose to withdrawn from the busy duties of administration occasionally and relaxed in Agasthya Mountains, Mahendragiri, Asambu Malai, Achan Kovil Malai... On one occasion, he along with his family members rowed a boat from Attingal Kottarathu Kadavu to Poovan Para Kadavu.


Mateer in "Native life in Travancore" indicates that Madhava Rao used to buy English books from Bombay [Mumbai] for his children. In 1861, he found one such book – Principles of Morality – interesting. He got it translated into Malayalam and printed it for government schools. He himself wrote a history of Travancore and used it as a school text book. He wrote poems too, one of which was a Marathi poem on ‘Veli’ in Trivandrum (where his family owned some property).

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Lady Madhava Raja Ravi Varma_edit

Wife, Yamuna Bai (painted by Raja Ravi Varma)

Daughter, Ambu Bai

This article by Prof. Achuthshankar Nair, Head of the Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Kerala which appeared in the The Hindu of 16th Oct 2015 is reproduced  with his permission.

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