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Book Excerpt: Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, The Feminist Queen of the House of Travancore

In this excerpt from The Ivory Throne by Manu S. Pallai, published by Harper Collins, we explore the initiation of feminism in Kerala by the last Queen of House of Travancore.

Perhaps the simplest indication Sethu Lakshmi Bayi gave of her support to the cause of female education was a plain but unusual incentive. In the mid-1920s, much excitement was aroused in Trivandrum when it was announced that all girls who went to college in the state would automatically be rewarded with an invitation to join their queen at her palace for tea.

It was an attractive inducement, one that had its charms in a princely state with a popular Maharani who was perhaps the only ‘celebrity’ available at the time. However, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi backed such symbolic gestures with actual proof of her commitment to female empowerment.

Only months after her succession, the Maharani had elevated Dr Mary Poonen Lukose, Travancore’s first woman graduate and a product of one of the best medical colleges in the West, from being surgeon in charge of the Women and Children’s Hospital and her personal doctor, to the head of the Medical Department of Travancore.

sethu lakshmi bayi
Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi and Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi
Image Source: Facebook

The news was printed in the Madras Mail under the heading of ‘Feminism in Travancore,’ not least because at the same time, Dr Mary was also nominated by the Maharani as a member of the Legislative Council, becoming the first woman to a take a seat in the house. It was the first time in India that a woman was being appointed the head of a major department, and also the first instance of a ‘Lady Legislator’.

When she took her seat at the next session of the Council, ‘she was accorded an enthusiastic ovation and even after that, there was a chorus of praise about the liberal and wise step’ taken by Sethu Lakshmi Bayi in opening these doors to educated women.

By 1928, the Maharani would nominate another woman to the legislature, one Mrs Elizabeth Kuruvilla, who would champion a motion to give equal chances to women in government appointments, with men by the following year.

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with Rama Varma Koil Thampuran on their wedding day
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with Rama Varma Koil Thampuran on their wedding day
Image Source: Facebook

By 1931, the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly, which represented local needs of the various classes of people in Travancore, to the government, saw its rules revised so as to allow women to become members and to vote. As many as five women were immediately nominated into the Assembly, but ‘it is hoped’, announced the Dewan, ‘that at future sessions, elected women will take their place’, fulfilling the Maharani’s ‘solicitude to advance the cause of women and to give them their rightful place in the political life of the country’. It was noteworthy that these five women belonged to various castes, high as well as low, in order to represent the needs of their respective sisters.

Earlier, in 1927, the Maharani opened up the study of law to female students, despite adverse comments, so that in a few years, the state had in Miss Anna Chandy ‘the first woman judicial officer not only in Travancore but also in the entire Anglo Saxon world.’ She began practice at Kottayam, stood for elections to the legislature (and lost), and went on to become a criminal lawyer in the High Court in Trivandrum by 1930.

The idea of a woman advocate drew much attention and also some scorn; in one amusing incident an ignoramus Brahmin was so astonished that he went around insisting that Chandy had to be a man in women’s clothing ‘since no woman could possibly argue cases with such ruthless vigour!’ Yet there were also jealous remarks that she made use of her femininity to win cases, with one disgruntled colleague claiming: ‘If I also wore a blouse and a sari, I would have won.’

In 1927, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi raised the Women’s College in Trivandrum from second grade, where it taught intermediate and ‘ladylike’ but professionally useless courses, to first grade, obtaining affiliation with the University of Madras and starting classes on history, natural science, languages and mathematics.

Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with her consort and daughters,Princess Uthram Tirunal Lalitamba Bayi and Princess Karthika Tirunal Indira Bayi (1928)
Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with her consort and daughters,Princess Uthram Tirunal Lalitamba Bayi and Princess Karthika Tirunal Indira Bayi (1928)
Image Source: Facebook

Trained lecturers and teachers from Europe were also acquired at considerable expense and brought down to Trivandrum. Not only were salaries high, but these professors were also given a number of other perks so as to induce them to stay on; a Dutch lecturer discovered to great happiness that she was entitled to a large bungalow (‘the bedroom suite has three rooms’), one butler, one cook, one cook’s assistant, two gardeners, one sweeper, one chauffeur, two personal servants, and even an ayah.

Soon there were 232 women going to college in Travancore, with over 9,500 girls in English schools. Two women were undertaking legal studies, and fifteen were studying medicine in Madras.

sethu lakshmi bayi

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Indeed, such was the explosion in women’s education that by 1928, about 450 qualified women were being churned out each year, and the Unemployment Enquiry Committee that the Maharani would constitute had, to the surprise of its members, to carry specific studies on the problem of female unemployment in Travancore. ‘A degree,’ it would note in its report, ‘makes a daughter as valuable in the parents’ eyes as a son,’ also expressing some amazement that women ‘look for employment as eagerly as men do…’

Of course, none of this was easy for the Maharani to champion, for there was a great deal of resistance also to progress being made. ‘Our women who have received modern education are usually found negligent,’ ventured a female columnist, ‘in the performance of domestic duties. If a woman who has the fortune to be a wife and the mistress of a home, surrenders the welfare of her spouse and children to servants, and the preparation of food to hired cooks, then the home will itself suffer badly.’

Another critic was even more vociferous: ‘Respected sister! Have you ever contemplated on why we fuss so much over this totally meaningless higher education?’ It was, in the view of this writer, also female, that ‘As women, our god-ordained duty is the care of the home and service towards our husbands. Government service and political activity are beyond its purview.’

It was, again, merely a repetition of the new cultural outlook that women were meant to be devoted little homely creatures, caring for their husbands and children, their minds not meant to tackle any superior intellectual challenges.

Officials too, despite the Maharani’s policy, were unprepared when it came to conceding actual space in jobs to women.

By the end of her reign, it was universally lamented that ‘the great majority of girls’ regarded their education ‘not as something of cultural value in itself, but as a direct means of securing employment and competing with men in the open market.’

But even the most chauvinist male officers had to quietly adapt to the changes unfolding in their plain view, and affirm how it was ‘quite in the fitness of things that this expansion of the scope of women’s work in the public service should come while the country is being ruled by Her Highness, the Maharani Regent.’

They may have cursed Sethu Lakshmi Bayi behind her back, but as always, once having made up her mind, there was no turning back and the cause of female education and empowerment continued ahead in full steam.

(Excerpts from The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore by Manu S. Pillai; Published by Harper Collins; Pp: 704; Price: Rs 699.)

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