British colonialists and Indian nationalists were agreed on one thing: the utter worthlessness of most of the Maharajas and Nawabs of princely India. These rulers were viewed as feckless and dissolute, over-fond of racing horses and unattached women and holidays in Europe. A British observer wrote in the early twentieth century that the States were ‘sinks of reaction and incompetence and unrestrained autocratic power sometimes exercised by vicious and deranged individuals’. This was also the view of the main nationalist party, the Congress. From the nineteen twenties, they pressed the Rulers to at least match the British in modernizing their institutions and in allowing a modicum of political representation. Under the Congress umbrella rested the All India States Peoples Conference, to which in turn were affiliated the individual Praja Mandals (or peoples’ societies) of the States.

Even in their heyday the Princes enjoyed a bad press. Both the Congress and the Raj thought that they cared too little for mundane matters of administration. This was mostly true, but there were exceptions. One was the state of Baroda, whose great Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad encouraged modern education and worked for the abolition of Untouchability (it was he who endowed a travelling scholarship to that gifted boy from a low-caste home, B. R. Ambedkar). A second, which is the subject of this column, was the state of Mysore, which had the good fortune to be ruled by a series of progressive Maharajas who recruited still more progressive Diwans.

The princely state of Mysore was never a democracy. Power was tightly controlled by the (generally overweight) Ruler and his (usually Brahmin) advisers. It was undoubtedly an autocracy, but, as autocracies go, a rather enlightened one. Between them, the Maharajas and their Dewans started modern industries (including a steel mill), ran efficient railways, built an impressive network of irrigation canals, patronized great musicians and artists, and created and nurtured first-rate colleges. In its pomp, which ran roughly from 1910 to 1945, the state of Mysore was a very interesting place indeed. In those years, if you were young, talented, and ambitious, and if you had the luck to be born in the State, you might go a very long way in this world.

As many young men in fact did. Some of them feature in the pages of the soon-to-be published memoirs of the photographer T. S. Satyan, which I have had the privilege of reading. Born in 1923, reared and educated in Mysore, Satyan’s boyhood friends included the likes of R. K. Narayan, the first of the now distinguished line of Indo-Anglian novelists; R. K. Laxman, one of the greatest cartoonists in the world; M. N. Srinivas, without question India’s most eminent social anthropologist; C. D. Narasimhaiah, the most celebrated English teacher and critic of his generation; and Doreswamy Iyengar, arguably the finest veena player of his generation. A little older than Satyan, but also from Mysore, was the pioneering librarian and historian of publishing, B. S. Kesavan. A little younger was A. K. Ramanujan, the great poet, folklorist, and translator, who did so much to bring the riches of classical Tamil and Kannada literature to the modern world.

While the fame of these men spread far beyond Mysore, they were all shaped by the town, by its culture and its teachers especially. Most of them studied at the Maharaja’s College, an institution known for the high quality of its instruction in the humanities. In the great Presidency towns, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, bright young men flocked to the study of the sciences. But in Mysore it seems the liberal arts were reckoned to be at least as attractive. Certainly the teachers were top-class. Not least in philosophy, where the faculty included, at various times, A. R. Wadia, M. Hiriyanna, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

In a culture more sensitive to history than ours, there would by now be a dozen books written on the Mysore of the early twentieth century. Even to the unprejudiced eye, the ‘Mysore Generation’ seems to be as variously gifted as the ‘Bloomsbury Group’—and yet there is a whole shelf of books on the latter, not one on the former.

This is a shocking state of affairs. Someone must soon address it—does anyone know of a young historian with enterprise and energy, and a command of Kannada? If such a candidate presents himself, I would advise him to buy a tape recorder and take it first to the Delhi home of H. Y. Sharada Prasad, the critic and columnist who is a Mysore man through and through. After he has recorded what Sharada Prasad has to say, he should proceed to the old home town itself, to seek the memories of Satyan and the imperishable CDN. En route he might stop in Poona, to pick the mind of R. K. Laxman. After this is done he can turn to the printed record, to the books, pamphlets, newspapers and letters which might shed more light on the Mysore of the years between the two World Wars.

Only a detailed cultural history of Mysore can answer the question—how come so many brilliant people emerged at roughly the same time from the same small town in Southern India? But it must also ask, and answer, a supplementary question—how come they were all men? For it seems to me that in this respect Mysore fell somewhat behind the other exceptional states in princely India, such as Baroda and Travancore, where women were more educated, and more emancipated. The first lady doctors in India came from Travancore. And the first woman Vice Chancellor in India, way back in the nineteen fifties, was Hansa Mehta of the M. S. University of Baroda. But why was it that the Mysore Generation included no women?

A history of Mysore must also explain how, and why, the city lost its place of cultural pre-eminence. Here my own home town, Bangalore, shall probably emerge in the role of a spoilsport. Once it was chosen as the capital of the new state of Mysore, it became a rival centre of patronage. The money and interest shifted to institutions in Bangalore. Mysore declined, but slowly. Through the fifties and sixties it remained a centre of Kannada literature. Teaching in the city then were three giants, K. V. Puttappa (Kuvempu) and Gopalkrishna Adiga, who were contemporaries, and U. R. Anantha Murty, who was much younger. But then in 1960, Kuvempu retired, and Adiga moved to Sagar. Finally, in the nineteen eighties, Anantha Murty also left Mysore, for Bangalore.

In recent years I have visited Mysore often. The weeds in the parks and the paint peeling off the buildings speak of a larger decline. This is no longer a centre of cultural life, indeed no longer a centre of anything. But perhaps one should not grieve too much. For this little town has contributed mightily to the life of the nation. The novels of Narayan, the cartoons of Laxman, the photographs of Satyan and his brother Nagarajan, the translations and essays of Ramanujan, the social anthropological studies of M. N. Srinivas, the poems and stories of Kuvempu—these, and more, are the bequest of the Mysore Generation to the consciouness of modern India. Their work has become our life.

Published in The Hindu, 25/4/2004