Connoisseur King

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

I REMEMBER how, during our middle school days, I would venture out with my friends to the palace gates to catch a glimpse of the Maharaja so that I could salute him. He was always gracious enough to wave back. That was a time when Mysore was under the benevolent reign of Maharaja Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar (1902-40). His concern for the welfare of the people and his statesmanship drew praise, even from Mahatma Gandhi who called him "Raja rishi" (statesman-saint). Assisted by able Dewans, who were loyal administrators, he took the State forward in the fields of industry, commerce and education. After his passing away in 1940, his nephew, Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar, ascended the throne of Mysore.

The coronation of the new ruler was celebrated joyously in every part of the State. Princes and other important functionaries came from all over the country to witness the event. The royal family sent truckloads of sugar to every mohalla in the city for distribution among the people.

I also remember how the nine-day Dasara festival fascinated us. It was a great time in Mysore, and relatives descended on us from all over to participate in the festive fare. With them, we went to the environs of the Palace, experienced the bustle on the exhibition grounds and made trips to Kannambadi and the Brindavan garden, which had come up just about then. We went to the famous zoo in Mysore and climbed up the thousand steps of the Chamundi Hill to reach the temple and to gaze at the 20-foot-high, beautifully carved granite statue of the Bull. We returned home after visiting the palace garage, which housed the several models of cars of the Maharaja. We also made a trip to Srirangapattana, the capital of Tipu Sultan.

On Vijayadasami, the last day of the festival, we deposited ourselves at vantage points to watch the procession of elephants, horses, camels, acrobats, clowns and courtiers, and the Maharaja himself on his way to the Bannimantap and back. We often found that the packed eats that we carried with us were not adequate and we came home tired and sleepy.

I cannot forget the spectacle of jamboosavari, the royal procession, which I regularly photographed in later years. The cavalcade of uniformed soldiers, caparisoned horses and elephants, dancers and floats fascinated me. There were brass bands, which had harmonised Indian and Western tunes. The colourfully attired palace guards and the Mysore Lancers marched in military precision, followed by the Camel Corps - with each animal swaying in step. There were folk dancers swirling past in riotous rhythm.

It was a sight for the gods to see the Maharaja who was seated in a golden howdah festooned with pearls atop a majestic tusker, which had cow elephants covering its flanks. The Maharaja looked conspicuous in his royal robes and gold-embroidered turban, on which was a diamond-studded brooch with a tassel of silken bristles which spread out into a fan, as he turned his head this side or that to receive the greetings of the people.

Clouds of rose petals cascaded on him from nowhere and descended on the golden howdah. The crowds on either side of the road, some twenty or thirty deep, rent the air with shouts of "victory" to the Maharaja, every time the mahout stopped the mount to receive garlands and bouquets offered by those waiting below the welcome arches. They placed the flowers on a silver platter fixed to a pole and carried by Siddiah, a palace attendant. At 7 feet 2 inches, Siddiah, the tallest man in town, wearing a blood-red long coat and a huge turban, drew everyone's attention as he walked beside the elephant to lift the plate close to the howdah, so that the Maharaja could take the garlands.

This picture got stamped on my mind year after year, during my student days. Ever since I started handling a camera, I never failed to photograph the Maharaja whenever there was an occasion worth the effort. I photographed him in the palace courtyard on many festival occasions, and on his birthday, when he rode a white caparisoned horse.

I also remember my visits to the fort surrounding the palace, where the Dasara elephants were kept. Perched on the pillion of my friend Vasu's bicycle, I would reach the palace courtyard two hours after sunset to photograph the chitrakars (artists) painting eye-catching floral patterns on the massive legs and even on the tails of the pachyderms. They worked at night under the light of panju (hand-held burning torches made of cloth soaked in kerosene).

The sacred State Elephant, which was taken in a procession every morning and evening for worship at the Someshwara temple adjoining the palace, received special attention from the artists. They draped the animal in shimmering satin edged with gold lace and also adorned it with anklets, bells and chains. They displayed the same zeal in decorating the privileged tusker that carried the Maharaja in procession on the last day of Dasara. Camera in hand, I would walk the three-kilometre route to Bannimantap where the torchlight parade was held. After taking pictures of the procession from different points on the route, I would return home late in the night, tired but happy.

However, the one occasion that eluded my camera was the Maharaja's durbar, when he held a formal court, seated on his jewel-studded throne under a white silken canopy. That was indeed a sight to remember. The durbar was redolent of the Vijayanagar empire in its halcyon days, of which we have picturesque verbal accounts. Seated on his throne, the Maharaja personified royal dignity even when seen from a distance. I used to crane my neck to catch a glimpse of him from the sprawling courtyard within the fort of the illuminated palace. I envied all those who sat on either side of the throne. One evening, my father returned home excitedly flashing a gilt-edged card that he had received from the palace, inviting him for the durbar. He bicycled downtown hastily, to Sayaji Rao Road, to hire the mandatory durbar dress - a black long coat, a pair of white pants and a laced turban and sash. He found that the pants he tried at the shop turned out to be loose for his slim waist. He solved the problem by tightening it using an old necktie. We thought he looked funny in that dress. We had got used to seeing him in a suit and a grey felt hat.

On his return home after the durbar, Father would give us a vivid, but somewhat exaggerated, account of the glorious spectacle he was privileged to see from close quarters. He would show us the khasahara, the single-strand jasmine garland, around his neck. "They also generously sprinkled rose water on me from an ornamental silver container as soon as I entered the durbar hall," he would mention with pride. He would tell us that the VIPs were offered jodihara - a garland of two strands, considered a greater honour. "You will see me getting that some day," he would declare enthusiastically.

Father's loyalty to the Maharaja was well known. He often said that I must meet him some day. "He is a very gracious and highly accomplished person," he said. As for me, I was looking forward to meeting His Highness as we shared a common interest in photography.

LUCK favoured me one day, when a Rolls-Royce car bearing the royal emblem of gandaberunda - a mythical bird with two heads - halted in front of our home. I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my uncles, J.N. Iyer, stepping out of the vehicle to be greeted by my parents. Iyer was one of the earliest persons from my ancestral village to have migrated to Bombay (now Mumbai) in search of new pastures. Iyer, who was doing a successful business there, had befriended the Maharaja. The Maharaja had heard of his popularity among the Mysoreans, for whose welfare Iyer worked. Whenever Iyer came to Mysore, he stayed in the city as the Maharaja's guest.

Over lunch at our place, I told my uncle that I was anxious to meet the Maharaja. "Can you help me?" I asked. "Of course, I can," he responded, "but, on one condition. You must observe protocol, which is strictly enforced when it comes to having an audience with His Highness. You can see him only if you wear the durbar dress, the sartorial outfit that your father wore when he went to the palace." I didn't relish the idea. I pleaded with him, "Please submit to HH that I may be allowed to see him in a suit. He knows that presspersons are informal in the matter of dress."

I was delighted to learn the following day that the Maharaja had no objection at all to my meeting him with a suit on. The only part of the protocol, to which I gladly submitted, was to remain barefoot in the palace.

As I walked through the handsomely proportioned halls and corridors of the palace, my eyes feasted on the cosmetically clean marble floors, carved mahogany ceilings, stained glass and mosaics, huge chandeliers, and delicately carved silver doors. I looked at the magnificent murals on the walls depicting festivals and the Dasaras of yesteryear.

On reaching his chamber, I bowed to His Highness, who welcomed me with a warm handshake. He was dressed in simple white - a thin coat, a pair of loose pants and rubber sandals. His forehead had been generously smeared with sacred ash. I had heard that the Maharaja was a devout person and spent long hours in prayer.

The Maharaja thanked me for the photograph I had sent him a month earlier - of him with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on his first visit to Mysore, some time after India's Independence. While sipping coffee from a silver tumbler, my eyes fell on the instruction manual of a new Japanese camera, which lay on the low table in front of us. I mentioned that I had seen an advertisement of this camera in a photography magazine. HH immediately asked one of his aides to fetch it for me to see. I silently envied him while he explained its many useful features. I was, at the time, using an Argloflex, which was not rated high by many photographers.

Moments later we began talking about the Maharaja's college, where we both had studied. "You were senior to me by six years," I told His Highness. "It was my privilege to receive my B.A. degree certificate from your gracious hands at the convocation held at the Jagan Mohan Palace." The mention of the college made him sentimental and he went down memory lane. He remembered Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's philosopher statesman and President, who had earlier taught at our college. "In fact he wrote the preface for my book on philosophy titled Dattatreya,"s he recalled. He then spoke about all those who had taught him, their erudition and commitment to teaching. He was very pleased when I mentioned that some of them had taught me as well and that I was still in touch with them even after my graduation in 1944.


When I was about to take his leave, the Maharaja asked me if I could spare an hour in the afternoon to read for Dr. Mistowski, who was teaching him Western music. "He has been a voracious reader all his life. He is very old now. His eyesight is so poor that he cannot read on his own," he explained. He was very pleased when I told him that I considered it a privilege to be of some help to his teacher. He then gave me a copy of Edgar Snow's Red Star over China, which had been published just then. "You may start your assignment by reading from this book," he said before I stepped out of his chamber.

I broke the news of my meeting with the Maharaja to Professor W.G. Eagleton, who taught me English in college. I visited him now and then at the Professors' quarters in Saraswathipuram. I was surprised when he told me that he had taken the liberty to recommend my name to the Maharaja. He then talked about Dr. Mistowski, the eminent Polish musicologist, who was a very cultured person with varied interests, which included mathematics and literature. He was a composer in his own right and also the adviser to the Palace Band. He had come to Mysore as an examiner of the Trinity College of Music, London. Nearly all the children of the royal family were trained musicians, tutored in the Good Shepherd Convent under an Irish nun named Mother Maurice. Music examinations were held and examiners, like Dr. Mistowski, would come from abroad. He and his wife could not return to wartime Britain and were forced to stay on in Mysore as the guests of the Maharaja.

I used to ride a bicycle to Dr. Mistowski's place, a small bungalow on the way to the Lalita Mahal Palace, three kilometres away from my house. A mild-mannered intellectual, he would listen to me in supreme concentration for an hour, with one palm placed over his closed eyes. And, when the clock struck four, his gracious wife would promptly bring in a tray of tea and biscuits for us. Soon after tea, the short, stocky old man with his head bristling with silver-gray hair, would slowly lift himself up from the chair and walk awkwardly towards me, since he was unsteady on his feet. Moving his outstretched hand in the air, he would fumble to find my coat pocket to slip into it an envelope. "This is a small token of my appreciation," he would say. I guessed that he was giving me money. When I opened the envelope after my first week's reading, I found seven rupees in it as my weekly remuneration - a princely sum in those days.

On my way back home I would stop by at the Bombay Indra Bhavan to help myself to a masala dosa, hot jilebis and a cup of steaming coffee. I would ask the waiter to pack the same stuff for my brothers and sisters waiting at home for my arrival.

DURING the years that followed, I had many opportunities to meet the Maharaja, who always had a kind word for me. He would enquire about my personal welfare and was keen to know about the progress I had made in photography. When I became a news photographer for some newspapers in Bangalore, I had the opportunity to travel with his party in the company of my fellow journalists, to cover events over which he presided. We were touched by his concern for our comfort. We particularly enjoyed the journey by his special train, the plush-carpeted compartments of which were elegantly furnished. Uniformed palace attendants attended to our needs.

People felt privileged to listen to the Maharaja when he spoke at meetings organised by members of local panchayats or boards. Some would then hand over petitions to him seeking his help for a new road or a new school.

On one occasion, a villager prostrated before him, firmly gripping his feet and putting his head between his pair of shoes. His Highness shuffled uneasily but the villager was so ecstatic and in tears that he would not let go of his grip. It took some time before the palace attendants could gently remove him from the scene.

Some time in the late 1950s, I was thrilled to read in the newspapers that the government had decided to conduct `khedda' to capture wild elephants as their population had increased. Khedda was the grandest spectacle for tourists after Dasara. The highly specialised and complex operations were conducted in the presence of thousands of spectators in the evergreen forests around Karapur, 100 km from Mysore.

The elephant herd was driven into the Kabini river and then on to the massive stockade with a trap door, amidst the din of hundreds of clappers and drummers. Mahouts on trained elephants called kumkies went inside the stockades and roped the captured animals, which were later taken out for training. With the completion of the Kabini project, the entire area of elephant activity is now sadly under water, putting an end to a spectacle for which Mysore was famous.

On the eve of my trip to Karapur I met R.K. Narayan, the well-known writer, who had encouraged me in my work. I was thrilled to know that he was also going there to write a feature for the radio on the khedda and that I could travel with him in his car. "It is a beautiful subject for your camera. You can make an excellent photo feature for the Weekly," he said.

Our journey by car to the Kakanakote forest was a wonderful experience. Thick bamboo clusters dominated the lush green landscape. The chirping of birds broke the stillness of the jungle. There were monkey troops on treetops, playing and making noise. Some beautiful peacocks crossed our path. We saw many forest officials on kumkies, their valuable allies in the driving and roping operations, followed by many villagers holding clappers and drums. Soon, they gathered at the temple of Ganesha to offer prayers for the success of the khedda operations. They were on their way to take up positions in the jungle.

When we arrived at the riverbank to watch the elephant drive, Narayan strode out hastily to occupy his chair in the special enclosure, while I clambered up the platform, specially built on tree forks for photographers. It was already crowded. Camera in hand, I stood at one edge, nervously trying to balance myself. How could I photograph from this wretched position, I wondered. Suddenly something unexpected happened.

One of the aides of the Maharaja came up to me to say that His Highness had noticed my discomfiture. "Sir, I have been commanded by mahaswami to escort you to the royal enclosure," he informed me. I felt very thrilled and hastily alighted from the platform and followed the aide to the royal enclosure. The Maharaja welcomed me with a smile and motioned me to occupy a chair near his. I saw him holding his 8 mm home movie camera while, on the low table in front of him, was the still camera that I had seen in the palace. There was also a pair of binoculars.

Exactly at 2.30 p.m., the Chief Minister gave the signal for the start of the river drive. The Chief Conservator of Forests, who was a mile away on the other side of the river, instantly received it and fired his gun. Within seconds the silence of the jungle was shattered and the place reverberated with the sound of innumerable gunshots, clappings and drumbeats from hundreds of men who had surrounded the elephant herd on three sides, leaving only one side open - to the river.

There was much excitement when some elephants, which were in the forefront of the herd, came into our view. Though they were far away, I took two shots and was looking forward to taking more pictures when I felt someone tapping on my shoulder. I looked back in surprise, only to find that it was the Maharaja trying to draw my attention. He looked at me kindly as he placed his still camera in my hands and asked, "I'm shooting a movie. Can you take some stills for me?"

I did not know what to say. His Highness had commanded me when the elephants had already entered the river. They had begun splashing water on each other, while behind them, the foresters were firing guns in the air urging them on. The combined noise from the many sources frightened the animals and they marched slowly in the direction of the stockade. The sight was so beautiful and the excitement so great that I went on shooting pictures using only the Maharaja's camera. When I picked up mine, it was too late. I heard the thud of the stockade's trap door coming down. Some 70 wild elephants had been captured.

My ashen face reflected my utter disappointment. I had totally failed in my mission to make a beautiful photo feature for my favourite magazine. I was in no mood to watch the roping operations that had begun. I ambled along the road to board a bus to Mysore, leaving Narayan behind.

"Where did you disappear? I looked for you in vain after all the elephants had been roped," asked Narayan in surprise, when I met him the next day. "Were you able to get some excellent pictures?"

"I don't know," I replied. "I must wait until His Highness gets his film roll developed. I may not be able to see the pictures which I shot using his camera," I said sheepishly and went on to tell him the whole story.

A disappointed Narayan looked at me and said in Tamil, our mother tongue, that I had behaved like an ashadu (simpleton).

ONE day, in 1956, I received a long telegram from James Greenfield, the New Delhi bureau chief of Life magazine, assigning me to do an extensive photo coverage of the Mysore Dasara. He told me that newspapers had carried reports that the Maharaja would be holding his public durbar for the last time. He would also not go in procession sitting in the gold howdah thereafter. Life wanted to give its readers a pictorial glimpse of the splashy spectacle, of what it believed was the last regal event in princely Mysore.

For Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar, the last ruler of Mysore, it marked the end of his official position as Rajpramukh or Chief Prince. Later in a compensatory gesture, the Government of India appointed this popular and enlightened Maharaja Rajyapal - Governor of the State.

I readily agreed to carry out the assignment for Life. "It is an easy job for me," I told my young wife. "Now that I am doing an assignment for a prestigious magazine, I'm sure I will have no difficulty in getting the required permission to photograph the Maharaja's durbar."

I enthusiastically covered all the Dasara events - an exercise that I had gone through in earlier years. It was easy taking pictures of the procession on Vijayadasami. But how would I take pictures of the durbar?

"Since His Highness knows you, I'm sure he would certainly let you carry your camera to the durbar hall," my optimistic wife assured me. "But how can I get an appointment with him now to ask for permission? He is so preoccupied with the festival," I told her.

Anyway, I decided to try my best and went to the palace office to broach the subject with some junior officials who were known to me. "Can you help me get a photographer's pass for the durbar" I asked them, only to be told that it was impossible. "Sorry, we can't do anything in this matter. Some people on the Maharaja's personal staff have become so powerful that they are now doing things considered impermissible," they hissed into my ear.

I became a little worried but did not want to give up. I believed that the Maharaja's ADC, Mahadevaiah, who had seen me with His Highness in the palace and on his tours, would not hesitate to forward my letter to the Maharaja seeking his permission to let me photograph his durbar. I was also sure that His Highness would not disappoint me. But, when I called on Mahadevaiah, on whom His Highness had bestowed the rank of a Major, he gave me a niggardly handshake without even getting up from his chair. After reading my letter to His Highness, he returned it to me, saying, "I will help you if you pay me the `fee', which, in this case, is five thousand rupees." I was bewildered. I controlled the anger that was welling up in me and pleaded, "At least please show my letter to His Highness. I'm sure he will not turn down my request."

Major Mahadevaiah did not budge. I did not give up either. I told him that I did not want to pay for a facility that many invitees to the durbar, especially foreigners, enjoyed freely. The Major did not respond. My words seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.

I decided to be smart and resourceful as was expected of a professional news photographer. "I must somehow get the picture I want without going to the palace myself. I have my commitment to my magazine. I don't want to let my editor down," I told my friend Kuppuswamy who owned the Murugan Studio on Shivarampet. He had admired my work published in the magazines. In fact he was personally supervising the developing and printing of all my exposed films. Many officials, including those who worked in the palace, visited his studio to get themselves photographed or to get their work processed. When I explained my problem to him, Kuppuswamy told me in a matter-of-fact manner, "Please relax, Mr. Satyan. I can understand your disappointment and anxiety. I know what you want. Trust me when I say that I will certainly help you. Come to me two hours after the last day of the durbar and the exposed film roll you so desperately want will be waiting for you on my table."

I was thrilled but asked him how he could be so certain. "How are you going to manage it?" I asked. "It is not all that easy." Kuppuswamy looked at me with an enigmatic smile and said, "Please don't waste your time asking silly questions. I have made a promise and will deliver. Have faith in me and relax." I went home, certain that he would keep his word.

I quietly went about my work of photographing the remaining Dasara events, including Ayudha Puja (worship of tools). I was left with only one responsibility - to collect the roll containing the durbar pictures from my friend Kuppuswamy.

On the day I was supposed to meet him, I felt miserable waiting for two hours to lapse after the durbar was over. I reached Kuppuswamy's studio at the appointed time. One look at his smiling face told me that he had succeeded in his mission. He shook my hands before placing the precious film on my palm. I heaved a sigh of great relief and rushed, at that late hour, to Hotel Metropole, to hand over my films to the Time-Life correspondent, James Greenfield.

Three weeks later, the postman brought me a copy of Life magazine. My Dasara pictures had been beautifully printed across three pages. I was particularly delighted to see the durbar picture, which had occupied almost a page. As I had not taken that picture myself, my name had not been credited for it.

On seeing the magazine to which the Maharaja was a subscriber, Major Mahadevaiah became so angry that he complained to His Highness that I had played a dirty trick. He saw to it that I was summoned to the palace to give an explanation.

When I went to the palace I found the Maharaja in his usual self - gracious, kind and understanding. He congratulated me on the pictures I had taken for the magazine. He casually asked me how I had managed the durbar photo. "I know you were certainly not there," he said. I told him the story of my meeting with Major Mahadevaiah and how horrified I felt when he demanded money from me. "He even refused to accept my letter addressed to Your Highness," I added in sorrow.

"I'm sorry for what happened. Please don't feel bitter about it anymore," said His Highness in a kind and calm voice. I told him that I was leaving Mysore to work in Delhi for some years as it would give more professional opportunities. His Highness shook my hands saying, "I hope you won't forget Mysore. Please keep in touch. I wish you good luck."

I saw Maharaja Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar years later in New Delhi, in the winter of 1965. He had come to participate in the annual conference of Governors held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. He was talking to Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri as he emerged out of the conference room to enter the Moghul Garden, when I saluted him before taking his picture.

Some years later I got the sad news of the demise of my dear friend Kuppuswamy, whose studio in Mysore had become a part and parcel of my professional work. He had stood by me during my early years as a photographer and revelled in my success in Delhi. I felt sad that he was not alive to tell me the story behind the roll that contained the durbar picture. But a mutual friend later told me that the palace photographer Raju, who was a great friend of Kuppuswamy, had taken it. I expressed my instant urge to meet the photographer, only to be told that he too was dead.

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