WHEN MYSORE goes crazy once a year, it has a 400-year-old excuse. We’re celebrating a royal heritage of putting on a wild show, it seems to say. And to bless the technicolour madness, see, we’ve roped in the file-pushers of the Karnataka government, the well-dressed grandson of the Maharaja and a fierce hilltop Goddess who tramples insolent demons. It is Dussehra, the massive billboards seem to say, but it is really a megaphone advertisement for Mysore.
The Mysore version of Dussehra was started by the Vijayanagar kings in the 15th century as a show of military might. Elephants, horses and uniformed sentries were paraded, led by the reigning Maharaja. Later, the Wodeyars took charge of it in 1610 and gave it its current Good versus Evil theme. The 10th day began to represent the day Goddess Chamundeswari killed the demon Mahishasura, after whom Mysore is named. Some 200 years later, a royal durbar was included. Folk singers, concubines and dancers were added to the parade. At this point, the festival began to embody the fusion of religion, politics and pop culture.
After the royal hand in the festival receded in the 1970s, industrialist FK Irani, of the ‘Made in Mysore’ Yezdi motorbikes, created a Dussehra Committee, including 40 roaring Yezdis in the procession. Soon after, the state government took charge, turning the event into a Nada habba or state festival. Today, it is organised by the district collector, the police commissioner, MLAs and several subcommittees.
The Mysore Dussehra grew old. Dulled. Told the same stories. Tourists stopped coming in to see amateur dances and shoot balloons
The Mysore Dussehra began to resemble, well, a birthday party. The city dressed up, is showered with attention, but no one talks about ageing. Yet, that’s what happened to the Mysore Dussehra: it grew old. Dulled. Told the same stories. Tourists stopped coming in to see amateur dances and shoot balloons. “Unimaginative bureaucrats with no experience in event management run the show,” says RB Singh, an old resident. Budgets were rising, but the ideas dried up. Mysore Palace Deputy Director PV Avaradi admits that in the past 10 years, ticket sales for the in-palace events “were pitiful”.
Four hundred years is a long time for a ritual celebration. This anniversary, something had to change. First, the Mysore Dussehra was branded internationally as the People’s Dussehra. Only high-calibre Carnatic and Hindustani musicians were invited. Popular singers like Kailash Kher and Sonu Nigam were signed on. “We called a Pakistani qawwali group to show that it wasn’t simply a Hindu festival, but a global event,” says Avaradi. A dance troupe from Botswana was also invited. Adventure sports were included.
But perhaps no adventure sport can do what revitalised tradition can. Most Mysore residents say their favourite part of Dussehra is the breathtaking lights of the Mysore Palace. For a month, people collect near the palace gates every night. All chandeliers are first turned off. Then, with a loud thud, the lights come on at once. At that same time, in homes across Mysore, bulbs and tubelights flicker and dim.
CYNICS SAY it was never about the people. In its 400th year, Rs. 6 crore have been spent on the Dussehra, but as a headline in an evening tabloid puts it: Nada habba makkalige, Dudda habba sarkarige (State festival for the people, money festival for the government).
If the festival once was a reflection of the things Mysore held dear, it might today be a collection of the things remembered only during Dussehra. The royal elephant, Balaram, for instance. Once kept in the palace, he is property of the Forest Department now. A month before Dussehra, he is transported to the palace and fed 12 hours a day. He gets to carry the goddess. Surrounding him are folk dancers from across Karnataka, infusing the heady drumthump to the procession. They were, however, summoned a day before the procession at 500 and a meal per head.
A day before the procession, in a quaint one-room akhara near KR Circle, Chinnaveera, a 53-year-old wrestler with boxed-in ears and one blinded eye, lies asleep like a fallen giant. His is one of the 10 akharas that still exist in Mysore. Around 50 years ago, there were 160, built by the Wodeyars, who patronised wrestlers. “Today, wrestling is alive for entertainment,” says Chinnaveera. “My own son prefers cricket camps.”
‘We called a Pakistani qawwali group to show that it wasn’t just a Hindu festival, but a global event,’ says PV Avaradi of Mysore Palace
Abdul Rahman, 71, has been riding his No. 21 jataka (horse carriage) for more than 40 years. During the 400th Dussehra, he was the only jatakawala in the city without the silk turban and red and gold shirt, because he missed the one day when the organising committee distributes uniforms and Rs. 2,000 per horse carriage driver to encourage them to stay on the road. There are only 60 jatakas now. These too exist only because of Dussehra.
They might seem like a city’s old quirks. As the Dussehra animated Mysore’s self-perception, they have lodged themselves in the city’s identity. It was not the half-hearted ‘international makeover’ that had people squeezing together for a glimpse of the procession. It was blessed nostalgia.