[PAPER ABSTRACT] Mediating in Ivory: The Royal Gift as Political Interlocutor in Travancore-British Relations, 1849-1851.


This paper is an excerpt from my as-yet-unnamed dissertation chapter that looks at issues of political and cultural diplomacy between Kerala courts and Europeans. In this chapter, I discuss the role of gifts and trade-related objects as political and cultural mediators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and suggest that a shared Eurasian 'taste' acted as a viable force of cultural communication. In the second section of this chapter, I explore the agency of two ivory thrones through a study of the somatic affects the objects produced in users and viewers of these thrones, and the act of mediation between various elite classes of India and Britain that the thrones undertake. Simultaneously, I discuss each throne’s use or disuse over the course of the century. 

This section explores the agency of art objects as royal gifts in the nineteenth century by studying the decorative and material aspects of the ivory throne gifted by Maharaja Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore (a kingdom in South India) to British Sovereign Queen Victoria. Analysis of the carving program of the throne’s many ivory plaques reveals a structured design that was intended to communicate a set of ideals, which allowed the throne to assist Travancore in establishing a stronger (political) relationship with British royalty. At the same time, the ivory carvings display subtle subversions that speak of issues concerning sovereignty and kingship in South Asia in the early colonial period and the concomitant sociopolitical complexities in Travancore’s interactions with the British East India Company, the immediate British governing presence in the subcontinent at this time. Both the crafting and the material of the throne served as modes of communication. The throne thus acted as a mediator that symbolically relieved the British East India Company as middleman, and enacted the role of a direct royal conduit between Travancore and Britain.