Reverberations of a major revolution in music came from the quiet town of Mysore at the turn of the 19 century. Western music that emanated from chambers of high culture and Carnatic music that occupied the chaste environs of kutcheri stage descended to the streets, causing a profound shift in the way music was experienced. This 140-year-old transition that occured during the regime of the king Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, took music to the masses of the Kingdom of Mysore, bestowing upon tradition a vision most modern. In 1868, the Palace Bands -- the English Band playing Western music and the Carnatic Orchestra playing carnatic classical music -- was formed and came to be an integral part of the social fabric of Mysore in the years to follow.

“They were unusual kings, Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar and Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar,” says retired chief bandmaster Arokya Swamy, in the cool environs of the Mounted Police Company in Mysore, where the bands are now housed. Unwinding to the days of the royalty, Arokya Swamy, a very fine clarinet player, recalls the beginnings of the band. “Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar was a competent pianist,” who was greatly inspired by Western symphonies. “When the English band was started, there were 150 members in the band, all of whom were localites. They were untrained musicians trained by a French violinist D’Fries, the German composer-conductor Otto Schmidt from the Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra, and Alfred Mistowsky from Poland,” explains Felix Joseph, a pianist who also retired as chief bandmaster after serving for nearly four decades. In fact, Felix Joseph’s elder brothers served in the band and so did Arokya Swamy’s father.

Both these bandmasters who play multiple instruments and are deeply passionate about music recall how there used to be excellent musicians in the band throbbing with the urge to learn, excel and outdo each other — all in the spirit of camaraderie. “We had instruments from all corners of the world – the oboe, piccolo, tuba, trombone and what not. You have to take a look at our music library to believe the kind of books the Maharajas sourced…,” says Arokya Swamy, speaking of the printed music of various styles, genres and composers found in the library. “No country in the whole of Asia has such a wonderful library,” adds Felix. The members of the band spent hours practising and learning new compositions that could be incorporated into their repertoire.

Many of the early bandmasters served as tutors to the royal family as well. Aaron Christopher’s late father who was the bandmaster often told his violinist son that they were “good students.” In the days that Felix Joseph used to practice at the Old Band Room, little Srikantadatta was a curious onlooker.

Despite strict instructions from his governess that he must not interact with the “commoners”, he always had a curious question or two, before he was quickly taken away.

Dr. Raja Ramanna was a big admirer of the English Band, and so was the Mahatma. When he visited Mysore, the band played the hymn ‘Abide With Me’ composed by W.H. Monk and how he loved it. The Mysore Band’s reputation spread far and wide, and they were invited to perform at prestigious ceremonies, including the Republic Day celebrations in 1950. They played for several Indian and Hollywood films. For David Lean’s Passage to India, all the music rehearsals took place in Mysore. Maurrice Jarre, the music composer of the film, got all the piano bits in the film played by Felix — and not the English pianist who he had brought along.

The passion and commitment of the Mysore kings trickled down to all those who came in contact with their grand vision. Sudharma, the bandmaster of the Carnatic Band, narrates the story of how two musicians, sitar player Shehzaad and tabliya D. Sheshappa were sent all the way from Mysore to London to perform at Queen Elizabeth’s wedding. The musicians, who were given just ten minutes to showcase their art, ended up performing for three full hours! “The kings had great dedication towards all forms of learning. Imagine, they sent my father to Pune for 14 years to get trained in dilruba and tabla,” says Sudharma, who also plays the dilruba. His uncle and father have told him stories of how both Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar and Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar could identify where the wrong note came from in an orchestra of 150 members! The Carnatic band begins and ends with Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar’s composition which became the Mysore Anthem, ‘Kaayau Shree Gouri’. Among others, the band also plays the compositions of the Trinity.

The best days are long gone, say these musicians, even as they recognise the importance of these great heritage institutions. In 1951, when Kengal Hanumantiah became the Chief Minister, he brought them under the police department. “We don’t have police duties. Music is our job,” explains Arokya Swamy. However, not many who come into the profession bring the competence of the musicians of yesteryear. In the good old days, most musicians had no education, now they all are, but the value of their music stands diminished. “That passion is missing,” says Felix, who is reminded of the days when they could think of nothing else but music. “We cannot even imagine bringing back the grandeur of those days,” says Sudharma.

These musicians are carriers of the grand dream that the Maharajas had, they nurtured it with the same passion that these kings embodied. The presence of these bands may have become far lesser than what it used to be, but what such a vision did to the Kannada mind is unparalleled – if the true-blue Kannadiga has space for diverse ideas, the Maharajas of Mysore are certainly responsible for this.

The beginnings of a legend

The Mysore Palace Orchestra has been the guiding beacon for many aspiring youngsters who later went on to become legends in the music world.

When the orchestra was led by the veena maestro Venkatagiriappa, a young, musically inclined boy used to regularly attend the rehearsals. Listening to extraordinary musicians like Titte Krishna Iyengar and violinist Sivarudrappa, the boy’s musical imagination soared. By the age of 12, he had made his debut at the Palace. He became synonymous with the instrument he played; Veene Doreswamy Iyengar, at 16, was nominated the asthana vidwan, the youngest in the Mysore State.