Don’t show me attitude.
If you insist that to Emma Hamilton(1765-1815), the auburn-haired muse from England you are asking her to die. Without ‘Attitudes’, her name, her career, her grant lovers, her life… all she had earned would be flushed out of history. Perhaps along with it would go, the new ballet form born in the 19th century which Emma heavily influenced.
Born to a blacksmith father, Emma had to struggle hard, climbing up through a string of lovers, to catch the eyes of the artist George Romney. She sat posing for his paintings.
Holding his brush, Romney squinched his eyes. He had seen this face elsewhere. He ran to his library, pored over the paintings, and smiled broadly at his discovery. Emma had the classical beauty of the great Greek and Roman Goddesses.
One brush stroke here or a tuft of hair carelessly thrown over an eye or a wanton expression there was all that was needed to evoke a Greek goddess in the antique beauty of the woman sitting before him.
An inspired Emma soon rose to the expectation of the artist. With her theatrical skills she solidified to become a fresh-faced Circe, melted into a coy Medea, transformed to a frolicsome bacchantine in no time. A frenzied Romney captured them all on the canvas.
Her expressions switched from grandeur to pathos with little effort.
Now fast forward a century. Leap across a few continents, a few seas, and half a dozen societies. We are in the princely state of Travancore in the 50s. In a school assembly to be exact.
When the meeting dispersed, we find a lone woman, a teacher, transfixed on the stage, dazed and shaken. Her hands were shivering. It was only a few minutes back that the royal fingers of the Maharaja of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balaramavarma brushed her mortal hand as he gave away prizes to the students.
The teacher did not remember much after that. Chellamma was smitten with love.
With no sophistries or ‘attitudes’ Emma displayed to charm the world around her, Chellamma began to dream the impossible. Of course she knew that the Maharaja was far, far, far away, beyond her reach studded on the skies, with the stars.
As Chellamma began to piece together a life shaken and stirred by the touch of her man, Emma was going to poke the soft hearts of men around her and would leave them quavering with her new-found charm she reared under the tutelage of the artist Romney.
Romney’s works on her romped all over Europe like the horses in an Aswamedha. Close on their hoofs, Emma also set herself on with a resolution to crush the hearts which would not accept defeat.
Here was our new Emma. She began to reenact her brisk series of classical poses – those ‘Attitudes’ – in real life too, which caused a flutter across hearts in the continent. No wonder, Sir William Hamilton, British Amabassador stationed at Naples was swept off his feet by the Emma magic.
Emma became his mistress. At Hamilton’s Palazzo Sessa in Naples she had to receive his well-heeled guests. While Hamilton entertained them with food and drinks, Emma would slip into a white gown and begin her flash-show. Working a shawl, draping her with a veil or a tunic she would flit from Medea to Queen Cleopatra, from Cleopatra to a peasant girl, one after the other.
The audience stood stunned watching the spectacle. The legend of her Attitudes caught on like wild fire, illuminating the whole of the continent.
But at a corner in Travancore a century after, the dreams of Chellamma crackled, smouldered and sputtered in her heart hardly throwing any light around.
Ask the old men in Trivandrum about Sundari Chellamma. They would smile, brushing up memories of a beautiful woman they used to see on the side of the royal path along which the Maharaja passed on his way to Padmanabha Swamy temple.
Clad in new ‘neryathu’, arms adorned with glass bangles which jingled all the time, forehead smeared with a thin sweaty line of sandalwood paste, eyes lined with black paste, poor Sundari Chellamma stood there in the sun hoping in vain that someday the eyes of her raja would pick her from the crowd.
Sree Chithirathirunal never saw her.
Chellamma went delirious after a few years. People saw her wandering through the streets of the city lugging a dirty bag on her back, talking to herself, making orders to the soldiers in the palace she had built in her mind. She chased away those urchins who teased her out of the dreams by screaming at her: “Sundari Chellamme…”
At Naples, once destiny, snapped itself out of the Emma’s charm, hit hard with vengeance. Admiral Nelson, Emma’s lover succumbed to the wounds he suffered in a battle; Hamilton, her master died of old age.
But not Sundari Chellamma as long as she lived. Even though history depicted her only in patches and tatters, unlike the detailed chapters it lavished on the beauty and coquetry of Emma, it was Chellamma who died more happily.
She simply had the maharaja as her ‘husband’.
Every year on the Arattu day, when the King led the procession, people knew Sundari Chellamma would be somewhere among them in the crowd. She saw her ‘husband’ in royal attire coming, blushed, smiled coyly, moved out of the crowd to help him see her in her new neryathu, her colourful bangles, karimashi, her forehead smeared with sandalwood paste, now wet and rolling down with her sweat along the bridge of her long nose…
Only the king never saw.