All the royals' men


Artist Venkatesh is a fund of stories associated with the Wodeyars. His house is full of paintings, sculptures and more importantly, the miniatures he has created. Venkatesh’s ancestors were employed in different positions in the palace; some served as surveyors while others were bodyguards of the kings. Lakshmi Sharath is fascinated by his insights into the life and times of the kings’ men.

A miniature idol that Venkatesh has created. Photos by the author

It is a busy day and the crowds are milling towards the palace in the royal city of Mysore. I take a detour and enter a quiet part of the City that seems to be wrapped in an afternoon siesta. A light breeze awakens the spirit as I wander around looking for people with a royal connect. A chance conversation with a friend takes me to the doorstep of an artist, Venkatesh, whose memories lead us through a fascinating journey as he shares snippets and stories from the lives of his ancestors.

The leafy environs greet me the moment I step into the lane where Venkatesh lives. Tall trees create a canopy as the detour leads me to a dead-end. I can see chakotas dangling from the branches of the tree, ripe and waiting to be plucked. Venkatesh smiles and ushers us in, while his wife is waiting for us with a cup of tea.

I look around the house in the dim afternoon light. The walls are filled with paintings and sculptures that take you back in time, to a different era. A Raja Ravi Varma painting hangs on the wall, and as you look inside, you see a Mysore painting of Krishna dancing on the snake Kalinga. A painting of the deity, Lakshmi Narasimha, graces the walls, while goddess Saraswati sits gracefully on the other side. Amidst the assortment of gods and goddesses are several weapons that date back to the Vijayanagar empire.

Venkatesh explains that his ancestors who came from those regions were employed in different positions in the royal palace – some of them served as surveyors, while others were personal body guards of the kings.

He tells us that they were referred to as ‘Jirle Meese Sepoys’ and they looked ferocious with thick curled moustaches that spread till their ears. As personal body guards of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, they could walk around barefoot anywhere in the palace and were given the task of protecting the queen. “They wore their turbans or petas round,” explains Venkatesh, adding that they were of a ‘betelnut colour’ and were tied using a fabric that was like an eight-metre saree.

The turban fixation

Venkatesh’s fascination with such turbans started at a very young age and he learnt the art of tying them from his father. “People from any community or nobility, in fact anyone who had to go to the aramane (palace), had to wear a peta (turban) and each of them had his own style. The width of the zari in the peta was based on the grade of the nobility and the person employed in the palace,” adds Venkatesh. Although his family did not look at this as a profession, most people who visited the palace stopped by at their house to get their turbans styled. “We used to tie them for people during weddings and functions and I styled the bombes (dolls) for Dasara, especially the pattada bombes, he says, referring to wooden dolls.

Venkatesh’s pride, however, are the miniatures that he has created, including the throne of the Wodeyars, the ambaari (howdah) that is carried during the procession and a model of the present Wodeyar himself. He uses other materials like golden foil and even wires to hold these miniatures together, once they are wrapped in golden paper after being carved in clay and cardboard.

Past and present

The man is a storehouse of stories. He can talk about every style of turban – be it the ones that the kings of the Vijayanagar era wore to the ones that Marathas or the Mysore Maharajas wore. Venkatesh drapes a turban around his head and mentions that it is slightly tilted, because it is believed to be dressed on the lines of Krishna, who is followed by his community, gollas. He then suddenly breaks into hymns and talks about how the kings protected their subjects and also how even their thrones symbolised the same. He narrates an incident when his great grandfather’s grandfather, who was a surveyor at the palace, requested the king to change a line in his prayer. “My father told me this story. The king used to pray, ‘let my enemies be vanquished’, but my ancestor asked him to make it, ‘let my enemies become friends.’”

We sip more tea and listen to more stories and the conversation veers back to the present. Venkatesh who learnt the Mysore style of painting at a young age from the erstwhile curator of the palace ekes out his livelihood through painting and by teaching the art to several students. He takes us through his technique as he tells us that he has painted on every surface, from wood, glass, fabric, aluminium to even the walls.

The colours are prepared naturally at home and he uses natural and vegetable dyes to create them. “The panchabhootha colours are the main ones. Later, I create more colours such as ivory black which is charred cotton mixed with gum,” he adds. The style is also very distinct with delicate lines and brushstrokes that differentiate it from the parent Vijayanagar style of painting. He then elaborates on the gesso work, which refers to the gold relief work on the embossed painting.

We see a variety of paintings that he has created, from miniatures to paintings decorating the wall. He recalls with fondness the painting of ‘Govardhana giri’ that he gave to the scion of the royal family during the Dashamana utsav. His house is a veritable art gallery, but Venkatesh is lost, living in his own world of colours and stones.

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