How Mysore grappled with modernity

August 21, 2012 03:09 am | Updated June 30, 2016 03:58 am IST

How did the State of Mysore, particularly the city, between the late 18th and the 20th century, depict the precarious position of the monarchy and inscribe its power or the lack of it? Despite its subservient role, did Mysore innovate socially and economically? If it did innovate, what kind of ‘enlightened modernity’ did it create and how was it staged?

Janaki Nair’s book Mysore Modern lucidly answers these questions through a set of eight essays. At one level it is a nuanced account of one of the big princely states which had many firsts to its credit from electrification of cities to funding birth control programmes. At another it is a fresh look at Mysore’s uneven and discontinuous experience with modernity till it became part of the newly formed state Karnataka.

Mysore, in Janaki Nair’s view, like other Princely States, mobilised art and city design to inscribe its triumphs and failures, but also differed in the manner it staged the spectacle. Second by emphasising on economic democracy over the political, at least until 1941 when its proposal to start an automobile company was turned down, it anticipated the ideas of a nationalist elite and in that sense differed.

Defeat of Tipu

The book builds the arguments in two parts. The first four essays constitute the first part. This section traces the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the fall of Srirangapatna and its commemoration in art. Then it maps the prolific output of the Mysore court painters, the desolation of Srirangapatna and the making of Mysore from an ‘insignificant place’ to that of a grand royal city. These essays are rich in details and make for interesting reading, particularly the analysis of how paintings commissioned by Tipu to render the humiliation he heaped over the British survived with minor modifications during the colonial era despite its damaging content.

Janaki points out that it was not benign artistic appreciation that preserved it, but how ingeniously the British reinvented it as a part of the victorious heritage of Arthur Wellesley who occupied Tipu’s palace and later in British eyes became a great hero after he defeated Napolean in Waterloo. Similarly, she shows that the scarred landscape of Srirangapatna served as a site of selective memory and exotic spot to valorise British military.

The capital of Tipu exists in a desolate state even in the post independence period. In contrast, the relatively recent and colonially subservient Mysore city is extolled and showcased for the tourist as heritage. The clever juxtaposition of the two chapters — one on the pillage of Srirangapatna and the making of the royal city — allows for complex reading of the two cities.

What is conspicuously missing in the making of Mysore is the attention to other aspects of town planning where the issue of modernity was often dramatically staged. The role of Otto Koenigsberger who was the Chief Architect and Planner of Mysore between 1939 and 1948 has not been dealt with.

Some of these chapters are insightful, but do not necessarily address the avowed objectives of the book. For example, the section on Tipu and Srirangapatna are important readings but does not weave well with the core concern of the book.

Similarly the chapter on K. Venkatappa, the renowned ‘modern’ artist trained in the Calcutta school, is the most exciting part of the book, but it tenuously hangs within the overall structure. In this section where the local responses are extensively captured is written solely from Venkatappa’s viewpoint and does not engage with the aesthetic concerns of the state.

One gets a brief glimpse of the legal battle between Venakatappa and Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar who ruled between 1940 and 1947 over breach of contract, but not enough to understand how the bureaucracy and the rulers engaged with emerging art practices.

The second part of the book contains three essays and they focus on the non-visual realm. One is about the abolition of Devadasi system and the other is about prevention of child marriages. In these two matters the Mysore State swiftly and easily introduces reforms and innovates over other parts of the country.

The author reveals the ingenious ways of the bureaucracy that conveniently linked land ownership with the services of temple dancers to deny space for them to perform and eventually recover the lands.

Interestingly in the case of prevention of Child marriage while the State enthusiastically embraced the reform and even improvised it overlooking objections in 1893, it refused to extend the Indian Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 to Mysore. The uneven engagement of the Princely state with the social reform is well captured.

In the introductory chapter, Janaki Nair remarks that the Mysore state emphasised on the economic democracy over that of the political. In that sense it anticipated the concerns of the Nationalist elite, she observes. This critical aspect of the state is not elaborated in the book. Having posited this point as the key character of the Mysore modern, its absence disappoints.

In sum, the book is rich in details, thematically interesting and lucidly written. It makes a valuable contribution to the study of Princely state in general and Mysore in particular. Its engagement with issues of modernity is insightful. If it falls short it is then in the manner it is held together.

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