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Watt's the matter

Dorothia Henriett Watts was the second principal of the Government College for Women, tutor to the princesses of the royal family and the first director of the State Guests Department. She continues to live in the memories of the senior members of the royal family.



Dorothia Henriett Watts with Radhadevi, wife of the head of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore, at a garden party in 1945.

An austere, single-storey building stands tall among the multi-storeyed buildings that fringe the playground of the Holy Angels' Convent at Nanthencode.

Its former occupant, Dorothia Henriett Watts, was a remarkable woman, who stood head and shoulders above many of her contemporaries. The second principal of the Government College for Women, tutor to the princesses of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore, and first director of the State Guests Department (today's Department of Tourism), were a few of the posts she had held.

Dorothia lived at the convent with her five sisters until 1947, when she sold it to superior general, Mother Louise of the Holy Angels' Convent and left for the cooler climes of Kottagiri (Nilgiris), where she spent the rest of her life and finally suffered loss of memory.

"An inglorious end for a glorious woman, who made her presence felt wherever she went," remark Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma, head of the royal family, and his sister Karthika Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. They remember Dorothia as governess and close friend of their mother and aunt. Dorothia who hailed from an Anglo-Indian family in Travancore, was the daughter of F. Watts, the then Chief Secretary of Travancore and sister of M. E. Watts, the first non-Hindu Dewan (1925-1928) of Travancore. After her schooling at Holy Angels Convent, Dorothia went on to graduate from Madras University. She returned to Travancore and embarked on a teaching career as lecturer at the Maharajah's School and College for Girls in 1900. Dorothia taught English there and was also the first assistant to the principal.

She would often fill in whenever the principal was absent and was soon promoted to this post (1910- 1928).

In the same year, the college was separated from the school and upgraded as H. H. the Maharajah's College for Women. Dorothia was the first warden of the college hostel, which was established in 1921.

Dorothia was often invited as the chief guest for public functions. The newspapers were all praise for her oratory skills. Her professional competence and popularity were not lost on the royal family either. When a search was on for a European Governess for Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi in 1904, Maharaja Moolam Thirunal (1885 -1924), chose Dorothia on account of her sauve manners, talent as well as her familiarity with the local customs and traditions.



The house where Dorothia Henriett Watts lived - on the campus of the Holy Angel's Convent at Nanthencode.

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi reminisces, "I've never seen this woman of statuesque build without her bonnet. However, only her dress was European."

Appointed as a tutor to the princesses in 1904, she taught them English, music, drawing, and needle-work, three hours a week, and was their constant companion.

Dorothia soon evolved from being their tutor, to their close friend and confidante. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi fondly recalls how Dorothia would spend long hours conversing with her mother. She became the mentor and guide of the royal family, the women members in particular. Dorothia was made the special `Pallikettu Officer' for the marriage of the present head of the family in 1934, and entrusted with the responsibility of planning, supervising the wedding and taking care of the guests.

This duty that she discharged with dexterity led to her appointment as the first Director of the State Guests Department of Travancore in 1937.

This post was the outcome of Maharaja Chithira Tirunal's zeal to promote Travancore worldwide. Celebrities such as Somerset Maugham, Paul Brunton, Barbara Hutton and Lady Agha Khan have all been guests of the royal family.

Garden parties on sprawling lawns and extravagant banquets became the order of the day and Dorothia's presence at these functions became indispensable. In 1937, the Maharajah later conferred on her the title of `Rajakaryakusala', in recognition of her meritorious services to the State.

Dorothia belonged to a privileged class (Anglo-Indians being second only to the ruling British, then) and had the right connections.

But it was only by dint of personal merit that she was able to integrate herself into the mainstream of the local society and culture.

That Dorothia lives today only in the memories of the senior members of the royal family and finds scant mention in history books, is perhaps a sad testimony to our neglect of the minutiae of history.

NARAYANI HARIGOVINDAN

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