Manu S Pillai, author of The Ivory Throne, on 19th century Travancore, political intrigue and book-to-screen adaptations

Author Manu S Pillai, whose debut work, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, was recently picked up for a screen adaptation says ‘a series would be ideal’ to create a complete picture of everything that has gone into the book, which is also the producers’ vision.

The 2015 historical non-fiction is a captivating narrative of the ruling family of Travancore and a compelling tale of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the monarch of the province, in what were the declining years of matrilineal society. Even as the former regent wound up a mere footnote in history, the book brings her out of the shadows and traces her story – from her seven-year rule of Travancore, and the reforms she brought about during her reign to her days after the heir apparent came of age and ascended the throne. Pillai also writes about the twilight of her life, lived out in Bangalore, without the privileges of her titles and status.

Along with Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the book also explores other tussles for power within the household such as the alliance of the queen’s consort Martanda Varma with the British Imperial officers and the feud between the regent and her sister, Sethu Parvathi Bayi.

 Manu S Pillai, author of The Ivory Throne, on 19th century Travancore, political intrigue and book-to-screen adaptations

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the regent of Travancore and her sister, Sethu Parvathi Bayi

This slice of history rediscovered by Pillai in The Ivory Throne has been optioned by Arka Mediaworks, the production studio that has previously worked on projects such as the Baahubali franchise.

Brought to life over six long years of research, the story begins in 1498, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on the port of Calicut in Kerala in search of spices and plunged the province into two centuries of conflict.

The author, the former Chief of Staff to MP Shashi Tharoor, says that it was not the ‘humdrum tale of kings and queens,’ rather it was the ‘politics, court intrigue and the sheer personality of the female protagonists’ that he found remarkable.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the court of Travancore maintained its matrilineal hierarchy to the core. It advocated among other things, the practice of sending away the remains of a deceased husband to his home. His final resting place was not to be with the deceased of the noble house. “This setting is something most Indians are not familiar with,” Pillai notes, and “all of this, from the hairstyles to the costumes and customs, could potentially translate in a very appealing fashion on screen.”

Yet, Pillai credited the director and filmmaker Anjali Menon for first suggesting that the book would be great for a series. “I did think I would one day make a documentary based on the book,” he observed, “but web series as a concept was still new at the time I was writing.”

While scriptwriters and storytellers have time and again borrowed novels, short stories and creative non-fiction from authors for the screen, the demand for good content in the digital space has never been more urgent. Critically acclaimed series including Netflix’s Sacred Games, an adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name has also been instrumental in breaking ground for Indian audiences to trickle into the online market.

“I think they [OTT platforms] are insulated to some extent from prudishness, silly censorship requirements, and are tailored for a global audience rather than purely local tastes,” Pillai says. “This is great for quality even if it is not for political correctness and sensitivities.”

The author, who published his second work of history, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji in 2018 pointed out that since he is "a historian and not a scriptwriter,” his instinct is not to get too involved in the process of script-writing for The Ivory Throne. He would rather leave that to the experts, contributing only at a later stage to spot any glaring errors or inaccuracies.

Sethu Laxmi Bayi of Travancore

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore

Of the screenplay retaining the very essence of the book he says, "It depends very much on who the scriptwriter is and how the director sees the project." Pillai explains that since his book is set in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, there is a wealth of material available in that window of history to create an accurate picture of the time. There is lesser room to connect the dots and employ the imagination. Whereas, for older non-fiction stories, such as those set in the 17th century, records describing the period might not be readily available. In such cases, “there may be creative leaps (and not always very clever ones).”

Furthermore, he adds that some things that make sense in a book may be difficult to translate on screen. For instance, the level of detail that goes into an adaptation might hinge on something as simple as production budgets. And despite all their limitations, books, on the whole, would allow for greater flexibility.

While the adaptation of the court intrigues and political games of Travancore into a possible series could well be an interesting prospect, “there is a long stretch ahead before the book really "comes alive" on screen,” he says.

Barely over 25 when it was first published, the author won several accolades including the Tata Literature Live! Best Debut (Non-Fiction) Prize and Yuva Sahitya Akademi Award, for his historical non-fiction. Following his academic pursuits in London, Pillai had served as an aide to Lord Bilimoria CBE DL, at the House of Lords during 2012 and was subsequently also commissioned as a researcher by the BBC for the history series, Incarnations.

But according to Pillai, success should be taken with a pinch of salt. “Life is long and there is a lot to do,” and it is easier to focus and carry on without taking the adulation and acclaim too seriously.

“To allow ephemeral feelings of praise and success to influence long term goals is a recipe for unhappiness.”

The Ivory Throne by Manu S. Pillai

The Ivory Throne by Manu S Pillai

For Pillai, the process of writing The Ivory Throne had begun quite simply as an investigation into the regent and to find out why this granddaughter of the noted painter Raja Ravi Varma was removed from the mainstream historical narrative. However, eventually it had opened up a whole new world for the author that taught him much about “the past, about human character, avarice and that quest for power.”

Over time, he had amassed information spanning three continents, trawled through hundreds of files and documents, perused personal diaries and letters of “some of the most colourful characters in the book” and interviewed dozens of people who knew his protagonist.

“The story of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi,” he says, “is truly remarkable, full of achievement and tragedy; success and disaster; power as well as oblivion.”

Manu S Pillai's The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore has been published by HarperCollins

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Updated Date: Apr 01, 2019 14:44:59 IST