Saturday, January 28, 2012

In The Service of A King

My grandfather and father
By Supriya Savkoor

Unlike my cohorts here on the blog, I don’t have any ancestors who sailed the Spanish Armada, no Viking blood or uncles who were Communist spies (that I know of), definitely no one who was around during the American Gold Rush partying with Calamity Jane. However, there was this one maharaja…

But let me start at the beginning. You see, I had a much beloved grandfather known to everyone as the family storyteller. His old yarns filled me in particular, since I grew up outside India, with awe. If nothing else, his memories of the past shaped as much of my insights into my Indian heritage as did my occasional childhood visits to the bustling metropolis known as Bombay where he lived.

Where does my grandfather’s story start? Or maybe I should ask, where does my story start? Because although he was one of four grandparents, through him, I know my lineage on his side the best.

My grandfather, named Gopal after one of Lord Krishna’s many names, was born in Bangalore during a historical renaissance in that region, generations before the South Indian city became the illustrious capital of call centers and outsourcing. Even then, in the early 1900s, Bangalore was a hotbed of progress, in part because of its distinction as a twin city.

On the Cantonment side lived and worked the British and the affluent Tamilians (whom the Brits called the “Tamils”), both groups associated in one way or another with British India’s military or government administration. On the other side of town, in “Bangalore City,” lived everyone else – including my then-young great grandfather, Devrao Nayal.

My great grandfather (Devrao)
Devrao had left his sleepy village on the state’s southwestern coast, where his father was a zaminder (landowner/landlord) and the only other profession was farming, to seek his fortune in what was then the big city. Thirty years later, his own restless son, my grandfather, would leave Bangalore to seek fame and fortune in the even bigger and certainly more glamorous city of Bombay. But when Devrao moved to Bangalore City in the early 1900s, it was still part of the princely kingdom of Mysore. Its monarch, Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV, lived a few hours away in the city of Mysore, but his dewan, or prime minister, oversaw the state's administration from Bangalore. And the lucky chap to become the dewan’s personal assistant? None other than Devrao himself.

Surprisingly, I don’t know much about what his job entailed or how often, if ever, he met the king, but Devrao’s life was a heady mix of old and new during a time of some serious history making. The city experienced a renaissance under the reign of Wodiyar IV, a benevolent philosopher-king. It became known as the Golden Age of Mysore, from roughly the end of  the 1800s into the first few decades of the 20th century, and during my great grandfather’s tenure.

Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV
Under Wodiyar, the state of Mysore became India’s most modern, progressive state. The young king blazed trails on all fronts  – the arts, education, agriculture, industry, you name it. He expanded the country’s first democratic legislative assembly and made it bicameral, with an upper and lower house, paving the way for India becoming the world’s largest democracy. Five years before my grandfather’s birth, Bangalore became the first Indian city to have electricity. The king established the country’s first hydroelectric plant and installed its first streetlights. He also established the first state-chartered universities, and historians say Wodiyar laid down the educational framework that paved the way for Bangalore to become the major technology hub it is today. His love of classical music led him to pipe the music through a public address system on the palace grounds so that the public could enjoy it too.

As a side note, the British, of course, brought change too. They paved roads, improved sanitation, built hospitals, and so on. Christian missionaries brought the first printing presses to print bibles in the local language of Kannada. Those changes mostly benefited the elite on the Cantonment side of town, but they also created a few opportunities for the city-dwellers. Kannada history books and literature flourished, for example, and many modern Kannada classics hail from this period. Devrao made his own contribution, albeit minor. He created Kannada shorthand and published a small manual on it for the state legislative assembly (the lower house).

But back to Wodiyar… under his reign, the list of accomplishments, political and cultural, goes on and on, and his legacy reflects it. One British lord called Mysore “the best-administered state in the world,” while that saint of all saints, Mahatma Gandhi, an occasional guest of the king, called his friend Rajarshi, “the saintly king.”

Karnataka High Court
Did my great grandfather know him? I don’t know for certain, but I imagine he had to have rubbed elbows with him from time to time. Although the king occasionally went to stay at the Bangalore Palace, which oddly falls within the Cantonment area, Devrao went to work each day at the regal, rust-colored building known as Attara Kacheri, “the eighteen offices,” on the city side of town. After Mysore state officially changed its name to Karnataka in 1973, Attara Kacheri became the state’s new High Court, sitting directly opposite that Legislative Assembly Wodiyar created. Only a few decades later, India would become an independent nation, and all the political machinations making that happen were in full swing in Devrao’s day.

Back in those heady early years of the 20th century, when he worked for a monarchy creating democratic institutions, pulling India into the modern era and hurtling toward Independence, what massive, whirlwind changes did he witness – possibly even participate in? Could any of the king’s accomplishments have been recommendations that came from the young, ambitious Devrao?

It gives me shivers just to imagine it and, frankly, I get the shivers every time I’m in Bangalore and pass that awe-inspiring High Court, the grand legislature across the street from it, the street itself lined with majestic Asoka and blooming Mayflower trees. Someday, I’ll make it inside and search for clues of my great grandfather’s own personal thumbprint on history.


  1. This post was certainly worth waiting for! I learn so much from my sister bloggers here. I know so little about Indian history (even my own native-American "Indian" history). Thanks for an enlightening post.

    1. Oh, and I forgot to say that the family photos are outstanding.

  2. I knew you'd pull out a maharaja! ;-) Nice blog. This period in history is so interesting.

  3. What an amazing family history you have, Supriya! With the zaminder ancestor and a great-grandfather who helped shaped Indian history, this makes you a kind of royalty as well! Love the family pictures. It has been so fascinating learning all about everyone's lineage this week!

  4. So interesting, Supriya! Wow, how wonderful you had a relative willing to share the family history so it could be passed on to others.