Ivory Atelier: Cosmopolitanism, Transculturality, and Devotion in the Works of Nineteenth-Century Craftsmen of Travancore, India.

Conference Abstract: Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century 2016 Art Graduate Student Conference

In early nineteenth century, an ivory throne was made for Maharaja Swati Thirunal of Travancore, the most important kingdom on the Malabar Coast of India. Adorned with exquisitely carved ivory plaques filled with floral, geometric, and figural motifs, the throne was a marvelous object made in the form of a takht—a large, square seat, in which the sitter could comfortably rest his raised and folded legs under him. Each plaque was carved to resemble two layers; the abstract, patterned “background” was carved in higher relief than the representational motifs that formed the foreground. These motifs included exotic dancers from the north of the subcontinent, ferocious lions as flag-bearers, royal emblems, and on occasion, stylized tropical fruits and mythical beasts. About twenty years later, a more elaborately sheathed ivory throne was made in Travancore; this time, however, as a royal gift for Queen Victoria of England. The structure, the carving program, and the aesthetic value of the two thrones were vastly different from one another. In contrast to the older throne which exhibits a South Asian aesthetic particularly appealing to Indian royalty, Queen Victoria’s throne was quite evidently “westernized” and its representational framework was overtly political. However, the two thrones shared the distinct double-layered patterned method of carving, quiet unlike ivory carving elsewhere in South Asia.

            In this paper, I analyze the form, technique of construction, and carving program of the two thrones to provide evidence that both thrones were made by the same school of craftsmen. I argue that the developments in design and form, without any accompanying changes in construction techniques, demonstrate the cosmopolitanism of Travancore craftsmen—their ability to maintain artistic continuity while pursuing non-traditional visual strategies, and adapt to rapidly changing political and cultural environments. I also contend that the carving program of the thrones are evidence of transcultural artistic encounters of these craftsmen with art and artists from other regions in the subcontinent (Tamil country immediately east of Travancore, Gujarat in western India, and Sri Lanka) and with contemporaneous European art. I posit that the craftsmen who worked on ivory were not only aware of contemporary trends but they were also keen innovators who continuously appropriated and updated their craft vocabulary with the specific intention to make objects that were aesthetically pleasing to groups both in India and in Europe. Finally, I present these craftsmen as exclusive servants of Travancore, for whom, perfection of the crafted art object was tantamount to devotion to their king. As such, the production of these thrones was an act of piety, equal in stature to the production of carvings for Hindu temple structures. In making this argument, I suggest that at the level of the courtly craftsmen, kingliness and godliness were at the very least comparable devotional structures if not conflated, and therefore, the art that they produced for the king, were also votive offerings to the gods.

            In studying cosmopolitanism, transculturality, and devotion as central features of craft production in Travancore, I offer a way to study South Asian craftsmen through their art as well as situate them within their contemporaneous sociopolitical context in which both transnational politics and localized religion functioned as artistic determinants. Simultaneously, my study offers a glimpse into social hierarchies of courtly artists and their impact on political and cultural mediations in Eurasia.