On the highway from Bangalore to Mysore, one scarcely noticed the sign for Srirangapatanam. Mandya — one of the centres of unrest over the decision of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal — was given much more attention by the driver who was at pains to explain that the town was waiting tensely for the judgment. It came as no surprise, then, when a day later, on February 6, agitations started in the town by a population angered at what it deems to be a raw deal for Karnataka. However, Srirangapatanam, or Seringapatnam in the Anglicized version, has no reason to be forgotten. It was here that Tipu Sultan died in 1799 while defending his capital in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. Earlier, he helped his father Haidar Ali defeat the British in the Second Mysore War, and negotiated the Treaty of Mangalore with them. Little more than rocks, a few battlements of the fort — and the notorious dungeons — remain to commemorate the man who cocked a snook at the British on more than one occasion, and amused himself with an automated tiger mauling a prostrate white man.
Soon after Tipu’s death, the focus of power moved back to the Wodeyar family and to Mysore, which soon developed into a lovely city. As it became a great centre for the arts under Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1799-1866), artists, musicians and sculptors moved to the city. Portraiture developed as an art form with the Maharaja’s commissioning of portraits of eminent citizens including poets, athletes, musicians, scholars, and artists. In music, both the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions flourished in Mysore that now encouraged artists of various backgrounds to meet, perform and share. Towards the end of the 19th century, it even became a major centre for the Ashtanga school of yoga.
It was not surprising then that in her quest for a life of independence, Sarala Debi Ghoshal (later Chaudhurani) decided to try her luck in this city of many cultures, identities and professions. In any event, an upbringing in the Jorasanko household of the Tagores had made her somewhat of an eclectic, one who could combine an evening’s Rabindrasangeet with a discussion of Jane Austen’s prose style. She decided to join the Maharani Girls School (photograph) in distant Mysore. At the time, the first girls’ school started by missionaries in Bangalore had been in existence for over fifty years. Most schools in Mysore state — the majority were run by private individuals or organizations — were for boys as it was not easy for girls to be educated in a society where child marriage was the norm. The Imperial Gazetteer of India for Mysore and Coorg of 1908 recorded that in Mysore state, of 1,000 married girls, 54 were less than five years old. Though a regulation of 1894 prohibited the marriage of girls under the age of eight, and that of girls under 14 to men over 50, schooling for unmarried girls after the primary classes was not easy.
Not unexpectedly, then, far more boys (over 50,000) were in school compared to a mere 3,548 girls. Apart from missionary and Christian endeavours, it was the Maharani Girls School that was able to attract upper-caste girls for a few years of education. The Gazetteer commented that the school’s “influential patronage overcame all objections, and it presented an acceptable compromise between Western and Eastern views as to the appropriate subjects of female education”. It went on to note approvingly that for some years, lady superintendents educated at Newnham and Girton were appointed, and in 1902, the institution became a college affiliated to the University of Madras. When Sarala Debi joined as assistant superintendent, Mysore’s gracious buildings and gardens were an ideal complement to an ambience of syncretism. It was a delightful place to live in.
Founded in 1868 by Ambil Narasimha Iyengar, Durbar Bakshi at the Palace, and a Mr Venkatakrishnaiah, a strong advocate of women’s education, Maharani Girls School was named after Maharani Kempa Nanjammani Vani Vilasa Sannidhana Avaru, wife of Maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar IX. The Maharani became Regent in 1894 when her ten-year-old son, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, ascended the throne. To set an example, Venkatakrishnaiah sent his child-wife to the school. In Jibaner Jhara Pata (Life’s Fallen Leaves), Sarala Debi’s all-too-brief description of life at the school noted that most students were married and some were even mothers. Classes ran in two shifts and for the afternoon shift, girls returned in Mysore silk saris and most wore a silver if not gold belt (vaddyanam) around their waists. Sarala observed that while not too many were bejewelled, all wore glass bangles, “the equivalent of our loha (iron bangle symbolising marriage)”. If at all, widows could wear only gold bangles. Women and girls would visit temples on festival days — “the Hindus had 13 festivals in 12 months as well as many other ritual days” — but never would men cast even a glance at them as they walked past. Bearing prasad, on every ritual day, either a senior student or a teacher would visit Sarala Debi. Sometimes, a group of two or three would arrive with a veena and perform for her. She conversed with the students in English — “as I did not speak Telugu nor did they know Hindi”.
Sarala joined veena classes — “should one have given up such a great opportunity'” — and was soon introduced to literate Mysore society by a proud Ambil Narasimha Iyengar. He was at heart a reformer and, with permission from the Maharaja, took Sarala to recite from the Upanishads (in Sanskrit) before the learned pundits of the Sanskrit College for men: Sarala commented triumphantly that “the south Indian Brahmin teachers were astounded. Firstly, their fortress-like teaching abode was breached by a woman — on top of that, recitation from the Vedas and Upanishads flowed from her lips!” Her pronunciation too, she added, was like that of pundits from the South and Benares as, some years ago, she had persuaded her grandfather, Debendranath Tagore, to allow her to learn from visiting pundits. He permitted this — but only after the boys had finished their lessons.
Whatever the teachers in Mysore may have felt about such un-Brahminical practices, they had little option but to engage with the erudite Sarala Debi in a discussion — after all, she was a protégé of the all-powerful Durbar Bakshi. Apart from her school work, Sarala was also, for a time, private secretary to the Maharani, by now the state’s Regent. However, her autobiography is significantly silent on this exciting aspect of her life — no doubt she felt that propriety demanded a certain discretion.
Sensitive to her situation, Sarala Debi felt an outsider — despite the warmth of the students and her colleagues: “The Hindu world of Mysore was a new experience for me, a world of the past, one of poetry and art — I was a charmed observer only, not integrated into it as a human being.” Expectedly, she gravitated to other cosmopolitan families. She befriended the wife and daughter of the director of public instruction, a Parsi by the name of Mr Bhabha. His beautiful daughter, Meherbai, was later to marry Dorab Tata, eldest son of Sir Jamshetji. Her other friend was the Bengali wife of the deputy collector of Bangalore, Mrs Sujatali. But friendship was not enough to keep her from missing Jorasanko — and an attack of malaria decided matters. Initially, Sarala had obviously felt that she could deal with a completely different culture; what she did not realize was that she was too much of a Brahmo to adjust to an atmosphere suffused with Hindu tradition, and when, within a year, she found its symbolism and endless paraphernalia of rituals near-stifling, it was clearly time to go home.