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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


‘Historical Fiction and the Questions of Sovereignty: Aesthetic form and memory making in early twentieth century Travancore’, 27th November, 2014 .


This paper considers the fictional and political writings of C. V. Raman Pillai (1858-1922, widely known as C. V.), whose trilogy of historical romances Marthandavarma (1891), Dharmaraja (1913), and Ramarajabahadur (1918-19) presented celebratory accounts of two eighteenth century Kings of Travancore Marthandavarma (reg. 1729-58) and Ramavarma (reg. 1758-98). In the two decades that separated his first two novels, C. V. published several essays of political criticism under the title Videshiyamedhavitvam (Foreign Rule) opposing the appointment of non-native Brahmins as Dewans of Travancore. Although his three historical romances were ostensibly focused on Travancore Kings, C. V. saw Dharmarajaand Ramarajabahadur as the first two novels in a planned trilogy on the eighteenth century Nayar Dewan Kesava Pillai (1745-99), better known as “Raja Kesavadas” after an honorific conferred on him by the British. In addition to this shift in focus from the King to the Nayar Minister, a new level of complexity is found in C. V.’s fiction in its recurrent, obsessive preoccupation with a family of rebel Nayarchiefs (Madampimar) who rise from the ashes, novel after novel, to confront royal power. While images of Nayar loyalty, valour and governance appear as direct objects of celebration, the novels also manifest a subterranean strain of heroic mourning for forms of Nayar power destroyed by Marthandavarma’s consolidation of the Travancore state. The paper argues that tensions between these two configurations of sovereignty underlay C. V.’s fictional and political projects. In his historical romances, through a deft use of stylized narration and visual and performance schema drawn from classical and folk traditions from the region, C. V. created modes of characterisation and discourse that brought together praise and mourning, Nayar assertion and ritualised royal acclamation. The paper analyses some aspects of the aesthetic-political work performed in C. V.’s historical novels.


Prof. Udaya Kumar is Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, and Professor of English at the University of Delhi. He was formerly Professor of Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Newcastle University. He is the author of The Joycean Labyrinth: Repetition, Time and Tradition in 'Ulysses' (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), and several papers on contemporary literary and cultural theory and Indian literature. His research interests include autobiographical writing, cultural histories of the body, and the shaping of modern literary cultures. He is currently completing a book on modes of self-articulation in modern Malayalam writing, and working on the emergence of new idioms of vernacular social thought in early twentieth-century Kerala.

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