Mysore Dasara Festivities: Re-connecting to Re-membering Cultural Histories

Etymologically, ‘autoethnography’ breaks down into ‘auto’-self, ‘ethno’-culture and ‘graphy’-writing. I am Dr. Rekha Datta, an academician from the department of English and a proactive researcher. In this article, I present an auto-ethnographic narration of the significance of Mysore Dasara Festivities organized as a representative festival of the state Karnataka, as cultural historiographies of everyday life realities from the perspective of a literary academician.
The month of October in India is synonymous with Navarathri (nine nights) observed in various ways across India. The manner of celebrating this important festival across India is different. There are minute differences in the Navarathri rituals performed and the performative folk genres that are part of the festival are richly vibrant. But, for a larger picture-to depict the common cultural historicity I have stated the majoritarian belief systems that pervade the different states. Eastern India celebrates it as Durga Pooja, Western India, especially Gujarat is well known for the traditional Garba dance and North India observes it as Ramlila-the burning of the effigy of Ravana as symbolic destruction of the ‘asura’ in the individual, the southern states celebrate Dasara as part of the destruction of the evil spirit by the Goddess Chamundeshwari in Karnataka. The festivals are an attempt to revitalize the socio-spiritual of the individual and the community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has halted most of the previous ways of the social life of the World. Physical distancing demands and has begun or revived new patterns of social behaviour. So the socially accepted norms of behaviour are changed inevitably and new norms of behaviour will soon be validated. A part of this new social norm is ‘social isolation’- the frequency of social visits to the neighbours, to the Temples, to resorts, and especially to carnivals, is curtailed. And this certainly has affected the community life of people who lived through the festivals.
I was born and brought up in Mysore, popularly recognised as the cultural centre of the state of Karnataka, India. The Indian months, specifically, the months of Shravana (July-August) to Margashira (November-December) are celebratory. Each of these festivals that are celebrated has rich personal-spiritual and socio-cultural contexts—be it worshipping the Jyothirbhimeshwara Vrata (mud-lamp) as representing Lord Shiva, one of the Triumvirates responsible for destroying the evil, on the night of the Amavasya (the New Moon) in the month of Shravana; celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna in the same month on the eighth day; the celebratory sending off of the celestial Mother Gowri to Kailasa-her celestial abode with her son Vinayaka on the first three days of the Full Moon in the month of Bhadrapada (August-September) or the Navarathri celebratory worshipping of the feminine in nine different forms as they are believed to destroy the evil in the month of Ashwayuja (October-November) and the final day of victory, Vijaya Dashami, and this series of festivals wind up with Deepavali (Diwali in northern states of India), the festival of the return of King Bali to meet his People. These major festivals celebrated in the Hindu homes are women-centric. However, each of these festivals is meant to build the neighbourhood through the socio-cultural camaraderie. Of course, each caste performs the rituals of each of these festivals in their unique manner; but the attribute of each festival is to strengthen the community and even today, in the much modernized, globalised situations, the festivals do play that invigorating role.

My focus in the article is to present the cultural historicity of the Dasara Festival held during October. This celebration was begun by the Vijayanagara Empire in the 15th Century. But with the disintegration of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 15th Century, many allied and vassal states declared their independence to become independent rulers. One such vassal state was the Kingdom of Mysore. Under the Kingship of Narasaraja Wodeyar I in 1638 and Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar in 1773, the Mysore Kingdom expanded to be recognised as the Princely State of Mysore. Though political independence was achieved, the Wodeyars wanted to continue to commemorate their connection with the Vijayanagara Empire. Of course, this part of the information is available in history books. Essays on Indian History and Culture by H V Sreenivasa Murthy et al, Mysore Royal Dasara by Swami Shivapriyananda are two important works that provide important information on both history and culture. The latter book especially provides extensive information on the rituals that are an integral part of the festival in the Royal household. Prabuddha Karnataka, a print journal also has a detailed and authentic description of the Dasara procession in Mysore. The information is well supported by the photographs of the royalty performing the rituals in the inner courtyard of the palace. Navarathri celebrations have several cultural expressions.

The Royal Dasara procession, as it was organised in the 1980s and 1990s is what I have personally witnessed. The procession was organised on the final day of the Navarathri , on Vijaya Dashami. The procession begins with the king (SreekanthaDatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar was the representative of the kingship in democratic India) worshipping the royal weapons; the royal elephant and the royal Horse then would be brought to the king. After this, the folk artists, followed by tableaus thematically chosen by each region of Karnataka would travel out toward Banni Mantapa (the place of Banni tree – symbolic of the victory of the good) that was about 5 kilometres. The artists-on foot and in the tableau-would repeat their performance with untiring religious fervour. (In fact, a beautiful description of the Navarathri is available in Bharathesha Vaibhava, an epic poem by the Kannad poet Ratnakaravarni, a 16th century Jain poet.) My parents and my paternal aunts, uncles and cousins of my age would be excited to witness this procession. We would occupy our seats on the footpath near Banni Mantapa much in advance. It is still a cherished collective cultural memory in the family. The shared memory of childhood and collective participation in the cultural event is certainly one of the threads that keep us, cousins, together. For the ten days of the festival, the palace would be illuminated every evening for an hour, adding to the grandeur of the celebration.

Traditionally, the procession was a way in which the Kings established political relationships by inviting neighbouring, allied/state vassals to the festival. The invitation to participate in the festival as a mark of political amnesty extended by the king. The 10th day of the festival is designed for the entertainment of the king. The Palace would be decorated beautifully and illuminated in the evening. Artists and performers would come from across India to showcase their talent. Classical musicians would be invited to the Durbar by the king. It was considered to be an honour to sing for the king and his court during the festival. An exhibition ground was allotted for the traders to put their temporary shops and sell products they bought from their distant lands. It was as much a matter of trade as it was a matter of pride to display their artistic endeavours, be it the decorative pots, glassware or attires from across India. Even today, traders from across India come here for business. Thus, the Dasara Festival evolved from its socio-political-religious contexts to creative and trading purposes.

As time changed, the festival acquired different socio-religious and cultural connotations. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Government took over the Dasara organization, the nine days would see the Mysore Palace transform to a musical centre. Renowned musicians like M S Subbulakshmi, Balamurali Krishna, Madurai Somasundaram, Pattammal, Mallikaruna Mansur, Bhimsen Joshi, Lalgudi Srinivasan, would perform for the audience in the palace. The concert was open for an audience who could purchase the ticket to sit inside the palace or sit in the open air to listen to the melodious, soulful music. The effect was magical. My interest in Indian Classical music is rooted in these performances. Reflecting on the festival makes me recognise that these cultural celebrations, arising out of historical context, influences the personality of the individual and strengthens the relationship of the individual to the society.

Apart from these meta-celebrations, many homes celebrate the Navarathri with Gombe Habba (festival of dolls) This was initiated by Raja Wadiyar in the 16th C. A large part of the Palace-Gombe Thotti (pavilion for dolls) is assigned for this. Here, the royal women used to arrange the dolls and worship the ‘Pattada Bombe’ (the royal doll). The Pattada Bombe is made of Sandalwood and bought from Tirupathi, made by specialized artisans. This festival of dolls was celebrated in most Hindu homes. Women and children arrange their collection of dolls creatively. Women and children in the neighbourhood would be invited as guests and given sweets and other gifts. The gifts are a mark of respect for the children who are believed to be representing the Goddess Durga as a child. This was another occasion that I distinctly remember. The visit to neighbours and relatives as a young girl was especially exciting as I used to feel important and pampered. This feeling of importance would translate itself into confidence. The respect and affection that we received as children during these days have left a deep sense of security that converts into strength as one enters adulthood.

And just as we were looking towards reclaiming these indigenous epistemologies that were archived due to colonial influences, sadly, the pandemic has put on hold these visions that rooted an individual in the cultural context and claimed socio-political pride in belonging to a community. Just as we have found new ways of survival, cultural epistemologies too will find new expressions that will have a similar positive influence on the individual and the society.

-Dr. Rekha Datta (Associate Professor and HOD, Department of English, The National College, Basavanagudi


References: / Shutterstock

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