The glory days of Machilipatnam began with the arrival of European traders in the middle ages. With the establishment of the, Dutch and English, East India Companies, around 1600 AD, it became the most important emporium of the orient. Modern History of India began at ‘the Bandar’, the chief port on the Coromandel Coast that stretched from Visakhapatnam to Madras. For two hundred years this truly cosmopolitan city had ruled the world trade, until the mercantile state, contending with the local political forces, was compelled to establish its gubernatorial capitals at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay; causing its slow decline.
Today the town stands desolate, only a grey reminder of past glory.
The Coromandel Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (V&A) is a manifest of that glorious phase of Machilipatnam. The museum was built at South Kensington by Sir Henry Cole under the patronage of Prince Albert. It soon became a world class exposition of arts and crafts of the modern era. There is no better record of the traditional skills and the artistic accomplishments of the Telugu craftsmen, anywhere else. The competition from the traditional crafts of Andhra country, especially of textile products, was the single most important trigger for the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The museum is not only a collection of artefacts but a testimony to the historical processes that changed the course of mankind.
The Asahi Shimbun Gallery at the British Museum hosts one of the most prized collections of world heritage – The sculpted stones of Amaravati, called Elliot’s Marbles. The collection includes 121 of the best specimens sent to London in the aftermath of 1857 mutiny and a further forty pieces acquired from private sources. The Amaravati Gallery at the British Museum is undoubtedly the most viewed collection of ancient Indian art anywhere in the world bearing evidence to the cultural and artistic heights attained by our forebears who lived in the Krishna basin.
But it’s a pity today that a child born on the banks of Krishnaveni needs a difficult visa to even look at what is rightfully its.
(Machilipatnam – 1857)
The Alexander Bungalow was not far from the now ruined market called Robertson mound.
Captain Tripe was flabbergasted. He stayed that way, mouth agape, when the butler brought tea in an exquisitely filigreed and monogrammed silver set. ‘Memsaab soon coming,’ he said in characteristically butlers’ English. The memsaab was one Missus Kistna Alexander, now a matronly widow of the agent resident of Masulipatam, well-known and respected by the natives as Krishnavenamma. The reception hall was a grand ensemble of traditional Indian art. Curtains of Cocanada lace, Collumcarry drapes, wooden dolls of Condapilly, and the most astounding of all, the murals painted by the landscape artists of Mungalgherry, it was a riot of color yet very aesthetic.
‘Welcome to Masula, Captain Tripe,’ the rustle of Conjeevuram saree announced her first, ‘Doctor Balfour, dear man isn’t he, was all praises about you, thank you for coming.’
‘I’m honored to be of help, the things that you have here are worthy of a museum,’ he said trying to keep his head straight, ‘It’s my pleasure to photograph all of them, if that’s your wish.’
‘Look captain, it had taken more than forty years for me to collect these things, while I was married to one of the dearest men of your fair country. The things that you see here are as much a legacy of his, as they are my property. Each and every piece has the imprint of his far-sight and innovation. The traditional crafts would have died out if he hadn’t made them suitable to the changing needs and the markets of Europe. You see here … table cloths, wall art, door curtains and furnishings; of kalamkaris, calicos, batiks and prints; the crafts survive today because he had found new uses. You must see his collection of swatches, of textile, special designs suited for seasons and occasions; from France to Russia and from Africa to Java. They’re all here, the glory of Coromandel,’ she paused to catch her breath.
‘Yes ma’am, they will be the pride of any museum.’
‘That’s my intention too, to build a museum here. I’ve preserved them until now, and you see I’m not long for this world and afraid what will happen when I’m gone,’ she sighed.
‘Here? What’s the use of having a museum here, so far away from civilized people? Your collection deserves a place in London.’
‘But they belong here, captain, these are the heritage of my people. I’m born here and so were my ancestors. And, the future generations who will be born here must have a right to see them, appreciate them and cherish them,’ her voice betraying her fears. Earlier, there were some casual suggestions by the collector of Masulipatam and a few visitors from Madras to move her collection to the museum of Prince Albert at South Kensington, which meant her legacy, would forever be lost to her people.
‘Yet ma’am, London is the center of the world, and it’s your capital too.’
‘There are no Yets and Buts,’ she said firmly. ‘When I spoke to Doctor Balfour, he had agreed to take it up with the governor and lean on him to build a museum here, in this town, not in some faraway Madras or London. And… young man if I may call you so, I’ll not allow my possessions to be taken away from me.’ Her words had a touch of finality to them.
‘Yes ma’am,’ he resigned, ‘let me know what service I may be of.’
‘Ah yes,’ she smiled, back to her affable self, ‘first have some pancakes,’ she clapped and the butler was ready with a tray full of ariselu, ‘they’re made of rice and jaggery, flavor of the season, you must be hungry and we have a long walk ahead,’ she said.
A maid held out a wide umbrella made of brocaded silk to shade them when they stepped out, a sprawling wooded compound with a Victorian garden. ‘What you will see is the most astounding of all. I’ve salvaged them, piece by piece, from the ruins of Robertson market,’ she announced proudly. ‘Stupid man, this Robertson, he had brought these stones from a place upriver to panel the market he was building, beautifully sculpted marbles, sheer weight of those stones was enough to bring it down. Now it’s a heap of debris in the middle of the town,’ she sighed.
Tripe was suddenly alert. Is she talking about ‘the’ stones from Amrawutty?
‘I want them to adorn the museum when it is built,’ she was saying, ‘and there they are.’
One look at the stones, carefully buttressed by brick columns, he knew what must be done.
Walter Elliot, President of the Revenue and Marine Boards of the Madras Province was not a man to leave things unfinished. The new building next to the hospital at Egmore was about ready to house the marbles of Amrawutty.
Edward Balfour, Superintendent of the museum, was like a peacock showing off his tail feathers, ‘by the way, I must tell you, sire, Reverend Taylor had completed describing all the stones you sent from Amrawutty, and you must know, they’re being called Elliot’s Marbles sire, after you.’
‘Elliot’s Marbles eh?’ he chuckled. ‘But a pity isn’t it? All the good ones recorded by Mackenzie are destroyed, by that Zamindar Vassareddy’s grandfather, monster that he was. Ignorant natives, have no appreciation of their value’
‘You may allow me to disagree, sire,’ Balfour cut in on his diatribe. ‘You’re right in thinking so. Because… the sculpted stones, supposedly left at the site by Colonel Mackenzie, were not found at the site. The first lot of stones sent by you, seventy nine in all, do not match any of the drawings in the Mackenzie records. But …’ he paused.
‘Those were excavated by me, ten years ago, when I was collector of Guntoor. You know, Mackenzie had listed eighty two stones and none of them could be found at the site. Obviously they were destroyed by the natives.’
‘No sire let me explain, last May, a fresh lot of thirty seven Amrawutty stones arrived at here, on a punt from Masula,’ Balfour smiled, ‘thirty three of the thirty seven stones match the drawings of Mackenzie.’
‘Do you mean… Mackenzie had sent them to Masula?’
‘Possible, even though he hadn’t mentioned in the reports, there are drawings of some Robertson Market in his manuscripts at the presidency college, going by the plans of the market, eighty eight large slabs and around forty lesser pieces were needed for its building.’
‘Oh… so, let’s suppose that he had sent the stones, then all the stones in Mackenzie drawings must be found at Masula. ‘Then what happened to the others?’
‘I know where they are,’ Tripe entered at that very moment still travel wary from a long journey from Masulipatam.
Krishnaveni stood by, her face darkened by sadness and her eyes rivulets of tears. Now she was just a widow ejected from her home.
Cartloads of her things, all that was once dear to her was rolling away in front of her to the port and further on to London. She had run pillar to post to save them. Tried every means, applied to the law courts and even had written to the viceroy … to no avail.
Walter Elliot, president of the board and a symbol of the mighty empire, was firm in his resolve, and she, just a dispossessed native woman. Her efforts … to protect the legacy of her people, were like a proud ram taking the mountain head on, she pondered in Telugu her native tongue.
There was still one shot left in her arsenal, literally.
‘Here it comes, Walter Elliot,’ she grumbled to herself. She aimed the musket, an Enfield, prized possession of her late husband, a good man though, her frail hands shook longing for retribution.
The shot echoed the heartbeats of those thousands of mutinying sepoys up north who were trying at the same time … to do just that… but failed.