Wings of Desire

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.

Emma was left alone.

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.

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Rating: 9.6/10 (5 votes cast)
Wings of Desire, 9.6 out of 10 based on 5 ratings

About Manu Remakant

Manu has written 288 stories in Rum, Road & Ravings. You can read all posts by here.

9 Responses to Wings of Desire

  1. Beautiful! Really loved this piece. What with the intermingling of space and time. It wonderfully brought out the timelessness of love.. But I wish you had dwelt a bit more on Emma’s end. The ending of Chellamma’s story’s end was perfect.

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    • Kavya, thank you. The blend wouldn’t be right if i talked more about Emma. She was a flight of stairs for me to reach Sundari Chellamma. But a wonderful ‘flight’ it was.

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  2. Why would s have Chellamma gone out of mind ?
    True love or obsession ? :0 ???

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  3. I don’t know Balu. Sometimes, it is better to drink the tea. Without fussing over what could have given it the taste – milk, tea dust, or water.

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  4. Chellamma’s is a disturbing story. I have a sick knot in my stomach every time I listen to it. It’s more depressing reading your Chellamma than listening to it; stronger language here. 🙁

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  5. ollatano?

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  6. Hi balu,

    I am basically from trivandrum though now settled abroad. Last night while sleeping, Sundari Chellamma did drop in my dream . Still remember , I used to cling on to my grand mom’s hand and follow along with her to Padmanabha swami temple and also Abhedananda Ashramam ( quite near to padmanabha temple ).At times my grand mother used to talk to her ( sundari chellamma ) and give her some pocket money. Candidly speaking, those days there were few distinctive characters like this … Sundari Chellamma, Bhaskaran, Ravi.. these are the few names I still remember from the list of many. The characteristics I have noticed in them ar e.. They are very lovable,compassionate, filled with emotions, they have a knapsack full of stories to tell, I used to observe the innocence in them though I was a little child. My wish is to make documentary on all these characters.
    Anyway happy to know that I am not alone in my journey, you are there.. Thanks balu.

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  7. Wonderful piece of work Manu. I saw a participant in an online discussion, about Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple, had written that Sree Chithira Thirunal remained unmarried bcoz of a failed love affair ! Some people from older generation had told me that he had a wife ( sambandham ). Anyways, i always felt that the King had a mysterious aura about him. If v take a look even into his pics, v can c that his eyes had a laser like quality ( im veri interested in photography) . It is like his eyes r boring into one’s soul !! Just lukin into his pics i felt this: as a young child he had such curiosity in his eyes; during his teenage years there is a lot of mischief in those eyes; during his middle age a tinge of pain; & in oldage he had an expression of detachment. I know, this is unrelated to ur work yet im veri intrigued by Sree Chithira Thirunal’s personality. Now a days i hav been trying to read a lot on the Maharaja. That is how i ended up reading ur work. U r a really good writer; by bringing Emma’s story u hav elevated the love/obsession of chellamma to new heights. I feel it was more as an obsession; love takes a lot of sacrifice ( chellamma lost her mind, i know), well that is how i feel . Besides she fell in love with the public image/physical charm of the Maharaja, not the man inside. Most of us doesn’t know how the King was in his private world. His contributions for the betterment of common man was outstanding & i hav utmost respect for the great man. Yet i feel that he was a store house of mystery( not that it is bad or anything)….. If u know somthin plz reply. Anyways, keep up the gudwork Manu.

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  8. Nice Writing… I have seen Sundari Chellama many many times…. She was quite old by then. If we called her Sundari Chellamme she used to get annoyed and shout. But when we said Namaste Teacher, she would smile and say Namaste like a teacher would. And yes I remember her dressed like the royal ladies of kerala and she always had a picture of Sri Chithira Thirunal Maharaja with her. I am always touched by this person! May her soul rest in peace

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