Reading through the recently published historical play, ‘Jesus Pearl’ (YESU MUTHU in Malayalam) by Gopikrishnan Kottoor was a voyage of discovery for me. First, I had known the author as an eminent poet in English and a disciple, like me, of the great poet and teacher, K Ayyappa Paniker. His proficiency in Malayalam and his ability to create a felicitous and authentic historical play, covering a significant period in Travancore history came as a complete surprise.
Equally new to me was the incredible story of a loyal and brave senior soldier of Marthanda Varma, Neelakanta Pillai, who answered the magical call of Christ and became a martyr after performing miracles. One of the many gaps in my knowledge of Kerala history was filled by the book.
The reign of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma has been characterized by historians as a significant era, basically because of the Maharaja’s conquests, which led to the expansion of his kingdom and the Maharaja’s unique gesture of placing the kingdom at the feet of Sree Padmanabha, the presiding deity of Thiruvananthapuram and then ruling the kingdom on His behalf as Padmanabha Dasa.
Equally spectacular was his victory over the Dutch army, the only case of an Indian Maharaja defeating a European power.
Captain De Lannoy, originally a Dutch naval officer, had arrived with a Dutch naval force at Colachel in 1741 to defeat Marthanda Varma, and to take over his territories. De Lannoy, who was captured in the battle, subsequently earned the trust of the king, who made him an officer in the Travancore military. His role as the military commander of the Travancore army was instrumental in the later military successes and exploits of Travancore.
But nowhere had I read about the role of De Lannoy in the proselytising of Neelakanta Pillai. But following my reading of Kottoor’s play, I saw some material on this episode, including a Tamil movie on Devasahayam.
The success of Kottoor is that he adopted the genre of a historical play, which is considered as something which comes at the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment, and exploited the potential of dramatic techniques to maximise the impact of the story. He is neutral on the question of conversion, reflecting the spirit of the eighteenth century, when Hindus were more relaxed about conversion to Christianity or Islam and it was not politicised as today. The conversion may well be characterised as immaculate as it proceeded smoothly, even though it had far reaching repercussions.
Kottoor is very convincing about the genuine inspiration of Christ, which influences Pillai. Similarly, the Maharaja is shown as more tolerant than his advisers and the general public. The poignancy of Devasahayam’s wife, who was renamed Gnanappoo, finds full expression in the words the author crafted for her in some crucial conversations. She accepts her husband’s logic, but warns him of the dire consequences of his exceptional courage and defiance of the society in which he is a respected leader. Her worst fears come true and her last meeting with her husband is one of the most moving scenes in the play.
The play does not follow the pattern of a Shakespearean or Greek play in which many events and characters influence the evolution of the hero. There is no villain or injustice in the play. Devasahayam follows a straight path of growth in the service of the Maharaja and the decision to convert to Christianity is his own. In fact, he does not see any contradiction between his loyalty to the Maharaja and his religion even if his job involves taking care of the temples and other Hindu establishments. De Lannoy welcomes Pillai’s conversion and acts as a catalyst, but he does not instigate the change or put any pressure on his friend. He merely assures him that faith in Jesus Christ will bring solace to his troubled mind. Ramayyan suggests at one point that De Lannoy may have trapped Pillai, but the Maharaja attributes the change to the broad-mindedness of Pillai. But when Ramayyan hints at the consequences of the conversion, the Maharaja gives Ramayyan a free hand by saying that the latter should ensure law and order and take any action to prevent any disgrace to the kingdom.
The Maharaja approaches the whole issue calmly and hopes that Pillai will return to the Hindu fold and continue to serve the kingdom. It is only Ramayyan, who takes the tough line, which the Maharaja cannot overrule. The punishment had to be given, but the Maharaja tries to soften the blow till the very end. If the Maharaja had applied the law more stringently, Devasahayam could not have created the miracles in the public eye before his execution. Throughout the play, the Maharaja remains sympathetic, but enforces the law without any mercy, reinforcing the general assessment of him as a great, just and God-fearing administrator of Travancore.
The scene of the baptism, which turns Neelam Pillai to Devasahayam, is very delicately handled. The words that he speaks soon after the change are a departure from his earlier plans to continue in the service of the Maharaja even as a Christian. There is a complete transformation of the man who speaks for the first time about his past as a life in sin, giving the clear indication that he would rather die than return to his past. Here, the author shows his deep understanding of the philosophy of conversion as a reincarnation. This enables Devasahayam to resist all pressures, temptations and pain to stay in his chosen path, leading to martyrdom. A letter from his wife expressing the hope that he would go back to her is the final test, which he wins.
The last scenes of the play are fashioned on the “Passion” of Jesus' suffering and redemptive death by crucifixion as picturised in many narratives, paintings and movies. The suffering is as unbearable and, in certain ways, more cruel and inhuman. The decisiveness and non-repentance of Devasahayam is as unrelenting even with his realisation that, unlike Christ, he has no chance of resurrection. No wonder, Devasahayam is on his way to sainthood.
Kottoor’s ‘Jesus Pearl’ is a path breaking work in form and content. It reminds us of the craft of Shakespeare and C V Raman Pillai, who used the bare bones of history and myth to create living characters. Marthanda Varma Maharaja, De Lannoy, Devasahayam, Ramayyan and Gnanappoo come to life here, embellished by the pen of the author, but their historic authenticity remains intact. The play is a compelling read and a virtual screen play for the stage and the screen.