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Roya vignettes: Mysore - A name, a heritage

Mysore, the capital city of the Wadiyars, has always enchanted its admirers with its quaint charm and rich heritage, KAUSALYA SANTHANAM speaks to its heir Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar.

Splendour in the Indo-Saracenic style.

THE Dasara celebration of the Wadiyars of Mysore is legendary. Pageantry and religious fervour have marked the obeisance paid by the rules for centuries to their patron Goddess Chamundi who resides on the lovely hill overlooking the city.

For nine days ever year, the city donned festive hues as successive kings offered worship to the Goddess to bring prosperity to the kingdom and keep pestilence at bay. On the 10th day, the ruler, in silk and priceless gems, wended his way in procession through the crowded streets on the gorgeously caparisoned elephant.

In the 1970s, the government stepped in to conduct the procession with the idol of the Goddess placed on the golden howdah. But Sri Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, 26th in an illustrious line and heir to one of the most wealthy royal houses in the country, celebrates the festival with as much devotion as his ancestors.

The dynasty was founded in 1399 A.D. when two princes of the Yadava dynasty, Yaduraya and Krishnaraya came here from Dwaraka. After worshipping at the Melkote shrine, they halted at Mysore and were guided by the priest — "Wadiyar" — of the Bhairaveshwara temple, which still exists in the palace premises, to come to the rescue of the recently widowed queen. She was being coerced by the general to get her daughter married to him so that he could take over the kingdom. When the Yadava princes defeated the general, the grateful queen gave the princess in marriage to Yaduraya. He took the name of Wadiyar to acknowledge the help of the priest and became the founder of a dynasty which rose to claim its place among the most powerful in the country.

In the 16th Century, Raja Wadiyar defeated the viceroy of the Vijayanagar empire, wrested the famed golden throne from him and established the sovereignty of the Mysore kings with Srirangapatna as the capital. Till then the Wadiyars were the feudatories of the emperors of Vijayanagar. During the time of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, there was a brief eclipse as the claims to succession of the young heir were ignored. He was reinstated by the British and in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, Chamaraja Wadiyar X and Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV introduced numerous reforms and helped modernise the State by setting up colleges, banks, industries, hydro electric power projects and hospitals. Mysore benefited greatly through the services of the Diwans Mirza Ismail and M. Visveswaraya who were administrators with vision.

Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, Srikanta Datta's father and the last ruler of Mysore, was a philosopher-statesman and a celebrated composer of Indian classical music. He became Raj Pramukh and later Governor of the erstwhile Mysore State and the Madras Province. His name evokes reverence in Mysore for the renown he brought to the State.

The son is reclusive, given to academic pursuits and happy to be with his beloved books. Yet he is in the maelstrom of public life as his parliamentary duties demand it — he was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament and is now a Congress (I) MP for the fourth consecutive term.

The major part of the Mysore palace, constructed superbly in Indo-Saracenic style, is under government control and open to visitors.

The entrance to the residential quarters is unobtrusive. You mount the stairs and pass through the long corridor, the walls of which are thickly lined with photographs of the family and an impressive display of weapons. There are innumerable books in antique cupboards. The passage leads to a huge drawing room. Seated at the far end in a muslin dhoti and shirt is the heir to the fabulous heritage. A picture of simplicity, he speaks in low, even ones and is remarkably without airs.

Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar and Pramoda Devi.

"These are the portions of the palace which have been occupied for four generations by the family," explains Srikanta Datta during the course of the interview. "The palace is mostly ceremonial. There are very few living quarters, maybe just 25 suites at the maximum. Guests mostly stayed at the Lalitha Mahal." The dazzling white Lalitha Mahal which was originally built to welcome the British viceroy, is now a hotel leased to the government.

Srikanta Datta celebrated his 50th birthday recently in a rare display of pomp.

"We thought it was necessary to use the occasion to showcase Mysore as a tourist destination," he says. "We do not receive as many tourists as Rajasthan, for, the region is not sufficiently advertised. The government has a responsibility to provide good infrastructure as has been done in some States in the North." He feels that turning palaces into hotels is the best way of maintaining them and cannot hide his pride at the manner in which helped by his wife Pramoda Devi, he has refurbished and converted the Regency Vilas in Ooty into a superior hotel. This despite the fact that both of them have no formal training in interior design.

Regarding the maintenance of the Mysore Palace, he says, "This side (the residential quarters) is not attended to as much as it should be and there is a glaring contrast of colours in the ceremonial halls. The government is taking interest but there is an impersonality in their approach. There is no garden to speak of. You should have seen the gardens during my father's time."

Srikanta Datta who has a Masters in political science seems very unhappy with the quality of public life. "All over the world it is the same — might is right. I just cannot be subservient, I was not so even to my parents. The salaam is against my conscience and I find the whole process boring. But it is very difficult to extricate myself", he says sadly. "There is a limit to what I can do. The MP is supposed to act as a catalyst. My bond with the people? It's okay," he replies. "I meet members of the public five days a week."

But like the heirs of the other princely houses, Srikanta Datta feels the government is rather hostile to the erstwhile royalty. "Inimical statements are issued from time to time. The authorities do their best to stomp on us."

He cheers up when the talk turns to his father. "My father composed 98 Carnatic — kritis — and wanted to complete the magical figure of 108." Srikanta Datta who has studied Western classical music plays the piano and guitar and is well versed in jazz. A graduate in law, he has obviously imbibed his love of learning from the late Maharaja and lectures to post-graduate students in the Mysore University. "Father was a walking encyclopaedia — Britannica and Americana. My grandfather and grand uncle were considered the wealthiest men in the country in the 1940s. But my father would not allow my (five) sisters or me to skip school for a single day. He believed there was no substitute for a good education. Father would quiz us constantly and if we did not know the answers, we would be pulled up sharply. But he had a sense of fun as well."

In common with the other royal houses, the Mysore House too has a passion for sports. "My grandfather and great grandfather were excellent in polo," says Srikanta Datta who is interested in shuttlecock, swimming and horse racing and was captain of the Mysore University cricket team.

When you remark on the gleaming cars parked at the entrance, he says rather unhappily, "But they are all new! All the old ones my father had (12 Rolls Royces, two Bentleys and two Daimlers) were all sold off in the early 1970s."

Although Srikanta Datta feels the princes were betrayed by the government when the privy purses were abolished, he has a positive way of looking at it. "The business acumen of the royals has been brought out now. It is a pity however that there is so much acrimony and dispute in some houses in the North regarding property." There is a pending court case regarding the Mysore Palace involving the prince and the government.

Mysore has always had a strong interaction with the royal houses of the North through ties of marriage, "My great-grandmother came from Kathiawar but she acclimatised very well. My step-mother and aunt were from the North. My mother chose a bride for me from the South as she wanted to avoided cultural clashes."

Despite his enormous wealth, the politician-prince is very frugal. `Travelling to Delhi is expensive and so I avoid going there unless it's necessary," he states to your amazement...

The Wadiyars are deeply religious.

This is at no time more evident than during the Dasara festival. After conducting elaborate rituals, Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar ascends the golden throne, believed to have belonged to the Pandavas, in the presence of family members and the loyal palace staff.

He then continues a 600-year-old tradition by offering daily worship to the Goddess who established the triumph of good over evil and by swiping off the head of the demon Mahisha gave the city (Mahishooru) its name.

The royal residence

MYSORE has a rarefied air. Perfumed with incense and sandalwood and synonymous with soap and silk, it is among the most beautiful cities in the country. Here the small town atmosphere is intermixed with the comforts of a metropolis. A city of gardens, royal buildings and well laid streets, its crowning piece of architecture is the spectacular city palace which is on par with the most beautiful mahals of Rajasthan and Baroda. Enter the Jaya Marthanda gates and you are struck dumb by the perfect proportions and sweep of the palace, though you may be visiting it for the 20th time. The exquisite interior matches what the exterior promises with its carved arches and high cupolas. The masterpiece in cast iron by British architect Henry Irwin was commissioned by the queen regent Vani Vilasa Sannidhana to replace the old wooden palace of the 17th Century which was accidentally destroyed in a fire. The structure was completed in 1912.

Tourists swarm the part of the palace under government control. Surprisingly there is discipline here and the place is quite tidy.

On the way to the stunning Kalyana Mantapa is displayed a range of royal artefacts with visitors poring over them in wonder. Murals of the durbars and processions depict courtiers in their buttoned up coats and white trousers standing in neat rows like stick figures.

The stained glass ceiling of the massive hall, used for royal weddings and poojas, has the peacock motif in bursts of emerald greens and turquoises and the pillars echo the same iridescent hues. The breathtaking ornamentation is carried on in the Durbar hall upstairs with its successive arches and columns. Paintings by Raja Ravi Varma and Shilpi Siddhalingasamy cover an entire section of the walls (There are wonderful Ravi Varmas at the Jaganmohan palace-museum too, though displayed rather sloppily). Elaborately worked doors that won the first prize in the exhibition of 1947 in London lead you to the Amba Vilasa or Diwani Khas, the hall of private audience, and the brilliant hues of blue and gold once again assail your senses with the richness of colour. This is the scene of the Dasara festivities.

The residential museum set up by Srikanta Datta houses an extensive collection of Tanjore paintings in the Mysore style and the gold leaf and gems glint softly in the fading light of dusk. There are the usual carriages and tunics too which every royal in the country used, and now laid out as exhibits. Within the palace complex are numerous temples whitewashed with the typical zeal of the government authorities.

The city palace is one of the six palaces owned by the Wadiyars.

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