Let’s Hear Once More the Story of Travancore from Owl’s Awl

Architect husband-wife duo Sharat Sunder Rajeev and Sruthi Satheesan are working towards preserving the heritage of Travancore with the help of art and heritage walks. Sruthi is an Urban Designer and Sharat a Conservation Architect working as Assistant Professor at College of Engineering Trivandrum, Thiruvananthapuram.

The couple is concerned that when non-Indians visit the fort area or any place of culture, they are misinformed about many aspects. "There aren’t many qualified guides in Trivandrum especially in the temple. The temple is maintained by a trust and they don’t encourage guides since they maintain strict traditions. The Palace complex is maintained by the royal family. Although there are a few guides, they aren’t well versed in the intricate details," they told CSP in an interview.

When Sharat and Sruthi take these tourists in their heritage walks, they are told about the minute details and hidden history of the region. "Bring trained as conservational architects, it helps us to explain architectural details, the structure and evolution of the city" they say.

Interested in history right from his childhood , Sharat used to go around the city and record things for a column called “Hidden History” in a daily newspaper where he wrote about buildings, people, and culture of the people of Trivandrum. He focused around the historical fort area of Trivandrum as that was his place of interest. This was because the Padmanabhaswamy temple, the old Palace complex and the old settlement were inside the fort area. The couple were also conducting heritage walks in Thiruvananthapuram.

Sharat academic study was on the fort area. That gave him an opportunity to study the place and understand its cultural aspects. Additionally, being a member of a family of artists who were associated with craft traditions, he learnt more about the place, crafts and more. Sruthi is an Urban Designer who also pursued her masters in College of Engineering Trivandrum. Her first semester project was based on the Trivandrum fort area. The products as seen in Owl's Awl  are a continuation of the research projects that the two have been a part of the past few years.

Their products have received an overwhelming response from the Indian diaspora. Excerpts of the interview with CSP:

Sharat Sunder Rajeev and Sruthi Satheesan

What are the research projects you are involved with?

Being architects, our primary area of research was concerning architecture, but Sruthi being an Urban Designer focused on the urban fabric and the settlements. I have varied interests, because when I started my study on the fort area during my under-graduation, my focus was on buildings, but when I explored the area and interviewed people, I found that there were so many interesting stories that were waiting to be told and explored. I used to carry my field books to observe and document these stories. I still carry my notebook where I document the details of interviews. In most cases, I also sketch to supplement the data I manage to collect. Documentation is very important to me and whenever I visit the fort area,  I try to meet new people to document unknown things.

The Anchal Oottakkaran who was the messenger  of those days and the Hanuman Pandaram were  a few things that people were aware of at a certain period of time, and maybe after 1950s, these aspects were not familiar to the modern generation. They were revived through the documentation that we did prior to starting Owl's Awl.

What is the inspiration behind the name Owl's Awl and when did you begin this venture?

The initial idea was to make vegan leather journals. The Owl represents knowledge and wisdom and Awl is the tool used to make these journals. So we put the two together and the name was born.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we couldn’t get our hands on the materials to make our journals. Instead we decided to launch our puppets and other paper dolls. We started to plan this venture in  2018. The initial thought process started much before the pandemic lockdown period. Many of our friends asked us if we came up with this idea to utilise the break we had during the lockdown but that isn’t the case.

Also as I mentioned earlier, this is part of our research. When we decided to make journals, we tried to identify certain suitable materials and we then thought of vegan leather as a good medium to make the bind. We wanted to make it eco-friendly and decided to not use animal leather.

Hence, we chose vegan other but that didn't materialize due to certain reasons, and we were not able to procure raw materials. We still find some difficulties in procuring certain kinds of paper as they aren’t easily available after the pandemic, which is why we decided to launch these articulated paper dolls.

Can you tell us about your product - Anchal Oottakkaran?

I must mention that we always try to supplement our products with actual records and unusual sources, because when you make something and turn it into a product and when this reaches another hand, people become aware about these products and they write to us asking us more information on the product, and our responsibility is to provide them with authentic information.

The Anchal Oottakkaran is the earlier version of a post man. Nobody knew how an Anchal Oottakkaran looked like or what his uniform looked like. Paintings and photographs weren’t available too. The later period in history certainly provided photographs but we wanted to show people how an Anchal Oottakkaran looked like maybe in the early 19th century, because this is a tradition which was started by a local ruler Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the founder of Travancore Princely State. Anchal Oottakkaran was a messenger who carried confidential messages during the war and he also worked in major temples like the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Whenever anything was to be taken or offered to the temple and if one is located far away from the temple, it was given to Anchal Oottakkaran. It began this way and it later integrated with the postal department, so there were no authentic depictions or photographs or paintings, as such.

While we were conducting our research, we found  a very old mural in the gopuram of Suchindram Temple. The gopuram was reconstructed during the 1870s and after reconstructing the gopuram, several artists painted murals on the gopuram. Incidentally the gopuram had the mural of an Anchal Oottakkaran. So that was the only source from where we could get an actual representation.

We took a photo of the mural and made a painting first, and it is very interesting because the later depictions tell us that Anchal Oottakkaran wore a khaki dress but here in the mural you see him wearing a white dress, a white turban with a sash running across his chest with the Conch shell emblem of Travancore Princely State, and a bag with letters or war notes. He would carry a small weapon with him and, in some cases like seen in the mural, a small staff with a pointed end. There were small bells attached to it, that when he runs from one place to another people would know that a messenger is coming. One should not stop a messenger unless they have a particular reason. If the messengers without reason, a fine is to be paid along with a punishment.

What is it about the Travancore Princely states that appeals to you and why do you think it is important to promote their history?

The issue in mainstream history books and even when history is taught in schools, is that South Indian history is often sidelined. Things are changing right now and we have several young authors like Manu S. Pillai and others  are writing about South Indian history. Generally when we study history, we do not study Travancore in detail.

We study that the first organized revolt against the British took place in 1857 which is considered the first war of Indian independence but when you look at Travancore history, even decades before the first war of independence, in 1809 there was an organized rebellion against the British and unfortunately it was quenched and the British maintained an upper hand in that revolt. Nevertheless, events similar to this has happened in Travancore. Interestingly, if you look at 18th century history, Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma was  the first king in India to wage a war against western power. He fought against the Dutch and won the battle.

Generally, when you look at Kerala  and its cultural traditions, they are very different from what you have in Tamil Nadu. The problem is people tend to generalize South Indian cultural history but Travancore and Kerala in general are very different and unique compared to Tamil Nadu’s cultural history. There are many reasons, (i) we have the formidable mountain ranges, that is, the Western Ghats and there are very few passages in this mountain ranges so cultural exchange, certainly took place but on a much smaller level,(ii) In case of Kerala it was blessed with a long coastal stretch, and there were many ports that from ancient time maintained trade relationships with Arabs, Greeks and Romans.

So, there is a certain uniqueness attributed to Kerala but it does not get its due recognition. We have a special place for Travancore in our heart, because both of us are from Trivandrum and I (Sharat) have a special affinity to Travancore in particular because my paternal family were associated with the reconstruction of Padmanabhaswamy temple. My ancestors were brought in from Tirunelveli for the reconstruction of Padmanabhaswamy temple. My grandmother's family excelled as ivory carvers and were employed as private employees of the Travancore Maharaja. I have also written a book ‘Soul of Kerala’ that was published by Kerala council for historical research where I document this history. It started as a family history, but then I rewrote it for a larger audience. So the book documents the history of ivory carving in Travancore starting from early 1800s until it was abolished by the Indian government in 1970. So our ancestors certainly had a role in promoting art and culture.

Are you still involved with the royal family of Travancore?

Several of my ancestors were associated with the royal institution as private employees but later when the school of arts (currently known as the Fine Arts College) started as an Industrial School of Arts in the last quarter of 19th century, many of my ancestors became government employees. They ceased to be private employees of the Maharaja for they became government employees. Following that they were influenced by Ravi Varma and his success influenced younger generations to take up art and some of my ancestors during early 1900s deviated from the family tradition of ivory carving and took up fine arts as their main profession. Some of them went to the Madras School of Arts and trained in academic artistic traditions. Some of them excelled as court artists. Even today, we maintain good relationships with the royal family. Two years back, I was nominated as a conservation consultant at Padmanabhaswamy temple by the royal family.

What do you wish to achieve with Owl's Awl?

As I mentioned earlier, initially we used to conduct research and collect all the data and compile it. I used some of the details in my first book and I used to write a lot of articles so the information I collated during these interviews was very helpful. Apart from that, we were also trying to create awareness in people which is why we were conducting heritage walks. When we began heritage walks, the current generation were very unaware of history about their own family, their own ancestry or architectural history.

There are monuments that are very old and were being protected by the State Archaeology Department. The palace complexes are still owned and protected by Palace Trust. Unlike these monumental structures, when you look at the domestic architecture, they aren’t protected and people were not aware of the importance of these things. There was a lot of transformation taking place in the fort area, which was not compatible to the heritage of that place. This was an initiative to start the heritage walks. We conduct independent heritage works, but most of the times we try to associate with this Facebook group 'Heritage Walk Trivandrum' which was formed by Bina Thomas Tharakan. She is an archaeologist now based in the Trivandrum. So we used to collaborate with her to conducted several walks. When we started Owl's Awl, we decided to bring these products. Initially, we decided to bring out certain products from Travancore region and wanted to branch out to other regions of  Kerala and India but we decided to start from Travancore as we were familiar with the place and had enough material to begin. We found many cultural traditions, rituals with very interesting colourful ceremonies which were unfamiliar to those who came from a different part of Kerala.

That is exactly why we began with the Pancha Pandava articulated paper doll and this was associated with Padmanabhaswamy temple. There is a famous festival associated with the temple which is known as the Panguni Utsavam. It is a tradition of erecting gigantic Pancha Pandava figures in front of the temple facing the temple gopuram and is a grand sight. In the past. These figures were made using timber and towards the end of the festival, there is a performance that takes place in front of these figures that commemorates the actual fight between the Pandavas and Kauravas. The Velakali are people dressed as warriors and they represent the Kauravas. They appear before the Pandavas and the dance performance actually mimics the war traditions.

Who are the Hanuman Pandarams and why are they significant to Travancore history?

Hanuman Pandaram used to visit people’s houses up until 1970s.We  actually found it quite difficult to work on that because there were no actual depictions or painting is. The Hanuman Pandaram used to  hail from a particular community and once a month, they will visit a few houses. They would also perform some songs but the most interesting thing was that if you have a naughty child at home, then parents would invite the Hanuman Pandaram to threaten your child to behave. The Pandaram used to wear a mask and had a bag in hand.

The mask’s lower jaw was movable and fortunately, we managed to find a photograph taken some time during early 1950s from a private collection.

Were documents unavailable due to oral tradition or were they destroyed during colonial times?

Well, that's not the case. There was lack of awareness after the post-independence period because old systems changed, and many traditions, like, for instance, the Anchal Oottakkaran, that was integrated into the postal system. He can be considered as a predecessor to the current day post man. But when you when you look at various other traditions and rituals, what is interesting is that the royal family used to patronise a lot of people, for instance, when I was doing my research on my first book, I found out that when my ancestors started out as private employees to the maharajas of Travancore, they had no tensions, because if you're working on a particular piece, you can work on it for maybe one week or a month or even a couple of months, there was no pressure, but then things changed. Of course, colonialism had an impact. When mass production came in, the pressure to produce greater number of  products in a limited time frame was there. So the old tradition was changing but regarding documentation I think there is a lack of awareness in that field and we merely did not document things. Even visual documentation is lacking in the case of  Kerala and that is very important. Although writing and  recording things  is important, a photograph will help you with documentation, because, as I mentioned with the Anchal Oottakkaran and Hanuman Pandaram, we didn’t find good images  and that was our major issue. Luckily, we did later find old sketches and murals.

These are rare instances, so documentation or awareness towards documentation is actually less. I won't say that Indians do not document. People often say that Indians lack idea of documenting which is not true. India has its own way of documenting things such as through oral traditions and  other traditions like for instance if you go to Haridwar you have the Pandas. If you want to gather information regarding your ancestry, you need to consult the Panda. So there are cases of people going there and finding their history that is over 500 years. So we do have a system of record maintenance and with regard to Travancore history, the Padmanabhaswamy temple is a place where you will find unbroken history from 13th century onwards. They have day to day accounts of the temple in palm leaf and according to some sources, there are records from before 13th century, but in 15th century a particular gopuram where these old records were housed was destroyed in a fire outbreak, so that is how we lost the old report. Palm leaf documents need to be maintained well and I think they are very relevant because people used to read Ramayana and Mahabharata written on palm leaves. But with Western education, people look down on these things and consider them as very old and not modern or up to the standards. So there was a time when people neglected maintenance and many precious documents were lost. Now there is a resurgence, because when we conduct heritage walks we get a good response from the modern younger generations.

Other than bookmarks and journals, what more would you like to work on?

Our original idea was to bring out journals and journaling accessories. Due the pandemic, we have put that on hold. Currently, other than figurines, we also have art prints which also originated from our research. For example, we have a drawing titled “Vestiges of an Agrarian past” which came out of my research on Southern Travancore architecture. Timber houses were very unique to that region and it was considered as the rice bowl of Travancore State. When I visit these houses, I make sketches and document the plan and the sections of the house. The sketches will provide an idea of the landscape and the setting of the houses. Currently, there are very few such houses in southern Travancore.

Ravi Varma’s painting of "Hanuman’s Discourse" was available in a private collection and was recently auctioned. We were also in touch with the family that owned the painting, we made copies of this painting and it  is now available in our store.

Each artwork takes time to complete and this also depends on the theme. Hanuman’s Discourse took me five days to complete and the painting of Serfoji II, the Maharaja of Thanjavur took 15 to 18 hours to complete. An old painting of the Thanjavur Madhava Rao who served as the Dewan of Travancore took me almost the same hours.

Our mission is to create awareness and at present we are reaching out to people via Instagram. We are speaking with a couple of brands in Trivandrum and we hope to launch our products in stores soon.