A people's prince

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A people's prince

Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, scion of the erstwhile Mysore royal family and the last descendant of the Wodeyar dynasty, was a man with multifarious interests that always kept him in the limelight, remembers Vikram Sampath.

A pall of gloom descended on Mysore on December 10, 2013, even as the royal city shut down in a spontaneous and voluntary gesture to mourn the sudden demise of its last prince. There has been a palpable sense of grief and loss at the untimely death of a man whom history almost chose to be a king. Social media was abuzz with how the Mysore Wodeyar dynasty had come to a staggering end after a 600-year-run since the time of its establishment by Yaduraya in 1399. To many loyalists, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar represented the link with that bygone era, and the abrupt snapping of those ties evokes a sense of Greek tragedy. Looking back at his life and times, the missed opportunities might seem to loom larger than the hits — but that is when one judges the man outside the context in which he had to struggle his way to remain relevant.

Unlike the police action that brought the royalty in the neighboring Hyderabad to its knees, it was a smooth transition of power to the Indian Union by his father, the last Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. It was in Independent India that Srikantadatta was born on February 20, 1953. Barring a few regal pastimes that still continued, like hunting wild animals, under his ‘Daddy’s’ supervision, the transition to the life of a commoner was as sudden and fast as the loss of the kingdom had been. The final death knell to all Indian royalty was however dealt with the abolition of titles and privy purses by Indira Gandhi. At around the same time, Jayachamaraja, who had served successfully as Raj Pramukh of Mysore State and Governor of Madras, had a series of personal reverses. His eldest daughter Gayathri Devi died in 1974 to cancer; legal tangles and property disputes dragged the family name to court. All of this broke the spirit of Jayachamaraja and his will to survive, and the same year he died in September.

It was under such exceedingly difficult times that 21-year-old Srikantadatta was named as heir of the family — though succession in the changed political context was merely an anachronism.

Like all vestiges of royalty across India who were either entering politics or redesigning their properties as heritage hotels, Srikantadatta chose to try his luck in the rough and tumble of Indian politics. That the people of Mysore loved the family was a known fact.
And why not, after all, under the Wodeyars, erstwhile Mysore state had attained such a high degree of economic and industrial progress, social reforms and cultural amalgamation that was seldom seen in any princely state. Under them, Bangalore became India’s first city to be electrified in 1905. Mysore was the first province to provide a representative system of governance to people, extension of voting franchise and education to women, reservations to backward castes, the largest reservoir of Asia created in the form of the KRS Dam, the first University set up outside the Presidencies — numerous such progressive measures that without doubt made modern Karnataka what it is today. So much so that even Mahatma Gandhi openly wondered if a province as prosperous as Mysore needed freedom and compared it to the mythical Rama Rajya — the ultimate utopian state.

Life in politics

It was riding on this history that the last prince became a four-time Congress Member of Parliament from Mysore, starting in 1984 by defeating K P Shantamurthy, an Independent. His switch to the BJP in 1991 cost him dearly and he lost to the Congress’s Chandraprabha Urs. Moving back to the Congress, he won successively in 1996 and 1999, but trailed a poor third in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. His critics assailed him for being completely aloof from the people, operating only out of his palace, hardly responding to the needs and problems of his constituents, and cocooning himself by a coterie of insiders whom he trusted. Being ever wary of people around him and also being laconic by nature, he conveyed a false image of being smug and snooty, which did not bode well for a democrat. A despondent Wodeyar quit electoral politics for good thereafter.

His multifarious interests however kept him in the limelight. Along with his wife Pramoda Devi, he strove to market Mysore silks. Many, including fashion designer Prasad Bidapa, credit him with single-handedly reviving the silk-weaving industry of Karnataka and bringing back to life some 100-odd silk units. He was the visible manifestation of the world-famous Dasara and kept alive these traditions that have been coming down in an unbroken way since 1610. A voracious reader, music buff and connoisseur of painting, he helped recreate the grandeur of the Mysore school of painting and curated exhibitions of the same. He actively restored family properties like the Fernhill Palace in Ooty, the Rajendra Vilas atop the Chamundi Hills, and the Bangalore Palace, though many openly wondered why he did not market the Mysore royalty in a manner that his counterparts in Rajasthan have done so successfully and reaped rich dividends, both personally, and for their State’s tourism. But again, deeply suspicious of any external intervention or suggestion, he kept to his flock of advisors who possibly advised him forever to be insular and restrained. But none can deny that he was an eternal fighter — be it the persistence with which he got back possession of the Bangalore and Mysore Palaces, or the rightful dissent on a flawed Sound and Light show that was dubiously produced for showing at the Mysore Palace. Always the one for the fast life, Srikantadatta then turned his attention to cricket which had always been a passion with him.

He was in fact captain of the Mysore University cricket team. In 2007, he was elected as Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) president for a three-year term. Picking on the IPL momentum of the times, he started the KPL series, which unfortunately did not take off in the manner he envisaged. Ironically, just 10 days before his demise, he was back in the seat as KSCA President. But, sadly, he did not live to see his dreams come true.
His death brings back to the fore the much-touted curse of Rani Alamelamma, which the royal family believes, has left alternate generations childless since 1610, and necessitating an adoption from the collateral line to further the dynasty. Srikantadatta’s own assertions in the past of having a communion with the Rani’s soul and the wearing off of the curse have only attracted scoffs from rationalists. While the succession issue might be the last of concerns of a democratic Karnataka, having a new Wodeyar would only help renew the link for the present generation that knows precious little of its glorious past.

On a personal note, the Prince and I shared a tenuous relationship as we had differing view-points on how the family history needs to be presented, and on the transgression of myths and curses on the rationality of science. In a rapprochement attempt, a few years ago, a certain media-house had arranged an interview of sorts where I was to speak to him on issues related to the dynasty’s past and present. Even as we differed and dithered in that interaction as well, I surprisingly found him extremely calm and open to contrarian views, if presented logically. At the end of it, he very graciously extended an olive branch and invited me for another round of discussion at the Palace. Blame it on hot-headed, young blood, I was vexed by then and completely disregarded that kind invite from the generous man. Now that he is gone forever, the guilt of not having made peace on a matter of such mutual importance would continue to haunt me for life!

(The writer is a Bangalore-based historian, who has authored among other books the definitive account of the Wodeyar dynasty Splendours of Royal Mysore: the untold story of the Wodeyars)

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