It is 7 am and Mysore is still stirring awake. Peacocks call from the zoo. I walk around and watch a trio of spotted owlets on a tree. Their eyes are fixed on me as they fight sleep. It is the Dussehra season (also known as Dasara locally) but the city is still wrapped in a world of its own. A light drizzle refreshes the atmosphere and the silence is interrupted by the calls of birds. As the day dawns, I travel around the city soaking in the sights and sounds of the festive season, and I experience a Dasara which takes me to places and palaces to see paintings and dolls and to hear stories and conversations filled with nostalgia and pride. My Mysore diary is all about vignettes, as I see a mosaic of the city through them.
Dressing up for the Durbar
Three men peer over old photographs in a small tailoring shop near Mysore’s landmark hotel, Dasaprakash. It is still raining. “Was it Drona or Arjuna before Balrama?” asks one of them. The other answers, “Drona.” It takes me a moment to understand that they are talking about the elephants which lead the procession and bear the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari in a golden howdah. Arjuna, am told had lost his chance as he had killed a mahout accidentally. Balrama had taken over since the early 1990s and he is the show-stopper every Dasara, except this year when the honour might go to Arjuna. “You can see them in the evenings sometimes as they are taken out on a mock procession for training,” says Nayak, who runs the tailoring outfit. For more than four generations Nayak’s family have shared a special bond with Dasara.
“We used to literally dress up the people who were the royal invitees for the Durbar,” he says. “We have stitched around 50 coats made of twill overnight.” I learn that invitees to the Durbar in the old days had to wear a special costume and these were stitched by Nayak’s family who used to hire them out for Rs 10 a day.
“It became so popular that we used to hire out 500 or more Durbar coats every year. After the Durbar was stopped, all of them were eaten by rats and we now stitch convocation coats,” he says with a sigh. However, the costume has slowly found its place back in Mysore through tourism. Nayak says his latest clients are tourist guides of Royal Mysore Walks, who now wear these costumes and take local people and foreign tourists on a walking tour to give them a feel of the past .
Painting the maharaja
The small lane leads into an open field filled with tall trees and lush greenery. One of those simple homes is a veritable art gallery where artist Venkatesh lives in his world of colours and stones. The walls are filled with Mysore paintings of gods and goddesses, while clay dolls decorate the house. He shows us a miniature doll of Ganesha made out of red clay. A Krishna dances atop Kalinga in one of the rooms inside. He takes us to his puja room, where we see weapons from the Vijayanagar empire. “They are considered religious and we worship them during Ayudha Puja,” he says.
Venkatesh’s ancestors also had a tryst with the royalty and his father and grandfather were employed in the palace and were experts on tying turbans. “There are so many different styles and each community wears it in a certain way. I learnt the art of tying and wearing one when I was a child,” he says. Venkatesh is an encyclopaedia on trivia and styles when it comes to turbans, or petas as they are called.
He tells us about soldiers, referred to as “Girle Meesai Sepoy”, who were personal bodyguards of maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III. His forefather was one. I learn that they had free access to the palace and walked about barefoot. They had to look ferocious, and hence they had thick moustaches and their forehead was smeared with ash or vibhuthi. Dressed in green and white with a red sash, their red turbans were tied using a fabric that was like an eight-meter saree. I learn later that these turbans vanished after all the gold and silver in the fabric was melted away. Venkatesh, however, was so fascinated by the art of tying fabrics that he even designed his Dasara dolls along those lines. A small replica of the present-day Wodeyar was created by him. A talented painter, well-versed in Mysore and Tanjore styles, he ekes his livelihood teaching art and taking orders. It is almost lunch time and I leave him to his world of colours.
Bombe Mane recreates 1939 Dasara with dolls
At a small gallery, a craftsman carved in wood invites you to his Bombe Mane or house of dolls. Portraits of artisans around the country adorn the walls as you gaze at more than 5,000 dolls made of clay and wood. Bombe Mane is a tribute to these men and women who live in an obscure little village and yet speak to you through their art. Amid the medley of gods and demons is the celebration of Mysore. The palace stands, soldiers and elephants -- all carved in wood -- jostle for space as they march along, recreating the procession.
Raghu from Bombe Mane shows me a world that they are recreating with 2,000 dolls. “This is the procession that happened in Mysore in 1939. We have put it together looking at old photographs, postcards and other archives, but it is still incomplete,” he says.
Paintings take you on a nostalgic path as you see the old wooden palace in one of them . Raghu tells us that they were inspired by the theme of the Jumboo Savari -- the royal procession of Goddess Chamundeshwari on the back of a ceremonial elephant -- created by 100-year-old postcards.
“Unfortunately these postcards are all lost now,“ says R G Singh, the man behind Bombe Mane. “The owner of these postcards was an Ayurvedic doctor who was the personal physician of the royalty.”
I move to the next gallery and see a miniature version of the palace, carved in intricate detail in wood. Mysore comes alive in this little house. Raghu laments that the doll-making tradition is almost dying but R G Singh says there are more than 2,000 craftsmen in this city and I move on to meet one of them.
Mysore in Miniature
Murugesh and his family live in a world of miniatures. Their world is small but intricate. Almost all of Mysore is recreated in his workshop. “I have been making miniatures since I was 16,” says Venkatesh. His parents and siblings join him and we see miniatures of Mysore Palace, Lalit Mahal Palace and even the St Philomena Church in his house.
Some of the craftswomen are getting the finished product ready as he has to deliver more than 500 miniatures before Dasara. The smallest is about six inches. He confesses that he has no idea how to draw even a straight line yet he is able to create a model out of a building once he looks at a monument. The rains threaten to pour as Murugesh quickly packs all the finished products. “Hopefully, in a few years, I will have all the monuments of Mysore created as miniatures,“ he says as we leave him.
In Mysore, always a royal Dasara
The sun sets and the rains stop. Almost on cue, the lights come up in Mysore, giving the city a new hue. It is 7 pm and the view is breathtaking. The palace and the gates are lit, the roads are dazzling, and the temples sparkle like stars in a dark city. Even the tongas have a new look as they are spruced up for the function. We walk into the palace and stop to listen to the music. Tourists throng from every corner but the crowds are lulled by the gentle strains of music that emerge from the palace. The music gets louder and melodious and it echoes of a past that was glorious and mighty. Dasara in Mysore is not just a festival. It is a royal event.