The stories of the women of Mysore of the past have extraordinary things to reveal; the indomitable spirit that quietly asserted itself as it silently confronted various kinds of domination

The mythology surrounding the city of Mysore goes thus: the malevolent tormentor of the innocent people of a small town, Mahishasura, was eventually killed by Goddess Chamundeshwari, the feminine spirit protecting the place and its people. It was quite a challenge even for the Goddess to slay Mahishasura for he multiplied when his blood touched the earth – so much like Raktabheejasura. So the Goddess had to ensure that his blood didn’t drop to the ground. However, as all slain asuras somehow gain redemption, Mahishasura too had his and the city came to be named as Mahishapura, and later modernised into Mysore.

The history of Mysore of the common people held for a long time (until the 1980s, old Mysoreans would quite emphatically state) a feminine quality radically different from what Chamundeshwari is credited with. Stories about Mysore are incomplete and empty without these stories being remembered, especially during our times when women of all ages are brutally attacked and pulverised.

Those who were soaked in the benevolent, gentle atmosphere of Mysore, especially during their formative years, have stunning images of the small city and its many unknown, unrecognised people – the women in particular. The stories of the women of Mysore of the past have extraordinary things to reveal and one can only have a glimpse of their world in a short piece like this. It would certainly require a full length study to comprehend all the wonderful dimensions of the inner worlds of those women.

Broadly speaking, one could discern three zones while dealing with the territories women occupied decades before modern education gave them free and full access to the public domain. But all the zones, when put together, point to the indomitable spirit of women that quietly asserted itself as it silently confronted various kinds of domination.

One significant feature of the nationalist movement shaped by Mahatma Gandhi was that it did give women – particularly from the middle class with all their traditional baggage weighing them down – a certain degree of self-awareness and brought them into the public realm, at least marginally. A few women from the middle class found it absolutely necessary to start societies and educational institutions to bring women together to discover their talents and further their studies. Right from early childhood I have heard from my mother stories of the struggles and dreams of Amrita Bai and her daughter Surama Bai who shaped the Bhagini Seva Samaja and Susheela Bai (supported by Prof.B.N. Nagesha Rao) who moulded the Vanita Seva Samaja to instil confidence in young girls and women – with most of them married at the ages of ten or twelve. My mother talks of how she and four or five girls found a new sense of their self when Susheela Bai brought them on stage to sing before Mahatma Gandhi when he visited Ashokapuram (a colony marked out for untouchables), at Mysore, as part of his campaign against untouchability. Many middle class, “domesticated” young women found out that they did have an autonomous self, even if it never manifested itself fully in society. There were many women who, initiated by the nationalist movement and promoted strongly by Rajaji, started studying Hindi and did courses up to Rashtrabhasha and Visharada, with a few even becoming school teachers later on. The immense contribution of the Dakshina Bharath Hindi Prachara Sabha during those times as far as the relative emancipation of women was concerned is in itself an incredible story. Many middle class women quietly turned to writing, music and other fine arts and created their inner world, though only a few went beyond their domestic confines.

There is the need to produce a full length narrative on the so-called “lower” caste/class women who became accomplished musicians and dancers and displayed a rich sense of aesthetics without receiving any formal academic training in schools and colleges. The patronage they received from the Mysore palace and aesthetically sensitive rich men opens up another story of how most of these women never had their own “respectable” domestic life – what is amazing is that these artistes never, ever, cared to attain such “social respectability”. Old Mysore did have women who strongly transcended their social marginalisation through their rich cultural achievements, so much so that even the “respectable middle class” society acknowledged their value and worth as true artistes.

Old Mysore offered a great spectacle of a very different kind of “sisterhood/motherhood”, and these were all profoundly paradoxical images of suffering, strength and triumph. Cutting across caste/class lines the city of Mysore had women of all kinds confronting their cruel destinies in very diverse ways – old widows (single, and in some cases with a mentally disturbed daughter and a grandchild deserted by the man); married women with children (again abandoned by men, who, in many cases, would visit the family whenever it pleased them to do so); unmarried women doing different chores to keep their families intact. Women of all strata – whether they were middle class/upper caste/educated/illiterate/“lower” caste/class women – were segregated in societal terms, but it really made no difference to them as individuals when it came to confronting their cruel and agonising fate. All of them confronted their destiny with great dignity and self-respect, and without any trace of self-pity. Many of us were direct witnesses to the tremendous will power with which these women faced their existential realities, shaping the lives of the younger members of the family even as their own came to almost nothing. This ought to be considered to be an important aspect of the social structure of Mysore for such women and their families were spread all over the city. In fact many people regarded the virtues of such women as the central spirit that gave Mysore its living principle.

One needs to turn to another piece of mythology at this juncture, for it metaphorically represents another view of history. When there was a gross violation of her self, the myth goes on to say, Alamelamma cursed the Wadiyar dynasty and places like Talakad and Malangi with barrenness and void. Modern Mysore seems to be under another curse in recent times - this time cast on it by aggressive global capital that has almost totally transformed every bit of Mysore. There surely would be no Goddess to slay this asura of the modern world. Mythologies cannot come into play at the present. But the spirit of the women folk could perhaps save Mysore from extinction, if anything can save it at all in the future.