By Girija Madhavan
I was born in 1938 in a house now called “Sahyadri,” the first of the four large Railway Bungalows that still stand facing KRS Road in Vani Vilas Mohalla, diagonally opposite Cheluvamba Park. In those days, it was known as the Loco Superintendent’s Bungalow. A Scotswoman, Dr. Gillespie of the Mission [or Holdsworth Memorial] Hospital, attended on the birth, in the front left bedroom with the window with wooden shade [called a ‘Monkey Top’]. The house was allotted to my father, M. Venkatesh, who was an engineer of the old ‘Mysore State Railways.’ It was a colonial bungalow set in a large garden of trees, flowering bushes and creepers. The cork tree my mother, Mukta Venkatesh, painted still retains its grace. The small mango tree by the gate that I climbed as a four-year-old is now a spreading, mature one.
A portico festooned with creepers shaded the latticed verandah that led into the house which had large rooms and a raftered ceiling. Two oval portraits, framed in rosewood, of elderly men looked down from the walls; my two grandfathers.
This stern visage capped by a Mysore Peta was that of my paternal grandfather, A. Mahadeva Shastri, a Sanskrit scholar, Curator of the Oriental Library of Mysore in the 1920s. The other [a companion portrait, now lost] of a man with curling hair, dark eyes and flaring nostrils, was my maternal grandfather, A. Madhavaiah, a novelist who wrote both in Tamil and English in the 1900s, a social reformer and a colourful character. I was born many years after they died.
An early memory is of sitting on the front step under the roof of the portico and watching a long golden snake undulating past.I was surprised at the fuss that ensued when I recounted what I had seen. A snake catcher was sent for. Acrid smoke billowed from the fire he set under the jasmine creepers. The snake was found in an outhouse. When held up by its tail, it regurgitated five semi-digested frogs. The gardener, Thimmanna, insisted on killing it. He cremated it after pouring milk over the carcass to appease the spirit of the snake- god whom he called ‘Nagappa.’
Those were days of the Second World War. I would perch on the garden fence and watch British Army jeeps and motor cycles go by, soldiers on furlough from the Cantonment in Bangalore on their way to the Krishnaraja Sagara (KRS) Dam for rest and recreation in the big hotel there. The gardener tried to get me to scream ‘Bili Kothi’ [White Monkey] at them as they roared past. They were locally known as ‘Taamies’ [for Tommies].
Processions of young people with flags, shouting slogans were activists of the Quit India Movement and would sometimes march down the street. The Police dealt harshly with them. H.Y. Sharada Prasad was my sister’s college-mate and participated in the protests. He was badly injured in a lathi charge and everyone was very concerned about him.
Mysore had lovely parks, tree-lined roads and little traffic. An Ursu friend of my father would pay an early morning call, riding into the garden on his horse, a fine animal which snorted and stamped its feet. The parks beyond the Palace, named Shalimar and Nishat Bagh by Sir Mirza Ismail, were well-maintained. In what is now called Kuppanna Park, there was a Bandstand with a dome of exquisite art deco panels, sadly all gone now, where the Palace and Police Bands would sometime play in the evenings.
Hardinge Circle was not the octopus-horror of traffic lights and crossroads that it is now. There were wedge-shaped little lawns bordered by flower bed in the Circle. In the centre, a large fountain threw up cascades of water, glittering, crystal clear in the day, illuminated with coloured lights at night, ethereal blue changing, chameleon-like, to green, orange and red. People would park their cars in the Circle and watch the fountain play.
I recall the arrival of a troupe of Tiger Dancers or “Huli Vesha.” Accompanied by drum beats, a group of young men and boys would take up positions around the portico ready for the dancers to begin their act, in honour of the Goddess Sharada. Painted over with yellow body paint, bellies marked in soft white colour, black tiger markings artistically brushed on, clad in loincloths and hair held back in black scarves, they somersaulted into the Circle. Arms and legs flailing, they jabbed and feinted at each other, faces set in a rictus of snarling ferocity while I watched with frissons of fear and fascination from behind the lattice. After a time, suitably rewarded, they would go to the next house in the line.
Village drums can still be heard in Mysuru for a temple festivity or folk event, but in my childhood they could also augur something more sinister and serious: funerals, epidemics and the need to propitiate the Gods. Close to the railway housing complex were the villages of Vontikoppal [the lone village] and Paduvarahalli, forming an urban-rural overlap. Here the village drums rang out not only for festivities but also to appease Mariamma, the controlling deity of pestilence and good fortune. Sometimes it was the announcement of the start of an epidemic, when the drum beat was different, with an underlying menace, a whine from the drumstick being drawn across the taut leather of the drum after the initial stroke.
Girija Madhavan is the wife of retired Indian Ambassador A. Madhavan and daughter of Mukta Venkatesh, the wellknown painter and poet, who lived for 101 years, painting to the last. Like her mother Mukta, Girija Madhavan, is also a painter. The Madhavan couple reside in Yadavagiri, Mysurusi.