By Gouri Satya, Sr.Journalist
Killer plague had attacked Mysuru when ‘Saraswathi Vilasa Karnataka Nataka Sabha’ Drama Company was at its height
My previous article on the plague of 1896 published in these columns on April 1 ‘When Bubonic Plague hit Mysore State in 1896’ received an overwhelming response and was shared by many on the Facebook. They had appreciated the article as ‘timely and well documented.’ A few of them had added interesting points related to the deadly outbreak that took the lives in hundreds for three years.
The beating of a drum and warning people about the arrival of the “Maari”, which was the only means of communicating to the people about the attack of the dangerous diseases in those days, is still in vogue, mostly announcing some festival procession or mass feeding as part of it.
“Maari bandaite, hushaarappo”
Here is a picture showing a dangura man in a Tamil Nadu village announcing the lockdown that was brought into effect a few days ago in the country. Referring to my mention of drummers going around a village or a town shouting “Maari bandaite, hushaarappo”, the tweet added that a dangura man warning the people of the deadly outbreak may seem anachronistic, but still needed and effective in remote villages was posted as part of one of the comments by Vidya Murali.
The dangura man in the clip had a neem twig stuck on his hairs. During the outbreak of diseases, it was common to see women with children carrying Thambittu and twigs with neem leaves in a plate on their heads to the Maari temple praying to the folk deity to ward off the evil. This practice is still prevalent in towns or villages and one can come across women with Thambittu and neem leaves in a plate near a Mariyamma temple, even in Mysuru.
Here I remember my school days when home-made neem paste with turmeric powder was applied on the forearm where vaccination had been done at two places. As a precaution during summer when small-pox was occurring, care was being taken to vaccinate people, which would often cause a little swelling and puss formation for 2-3 days.
Another practice by some people were marking a ‘Naama’ on the door of their house and write below it in Kannada Naale Baa, asking the Maari not to come today. It would read the same every day — Don’t come today, but come tomorrow!
Picking up the thread on neem, Dinakar Konanur said, “Any Maari is warded off by neem. So they usually stick a twig in their hair and hang a bunch at the doorway. I remember an old ritual followed in our home earlier. Before packing for any long travel, a twig of neem was put in the empty suitcase first — Benediction to keep off illnesses!”
As we are aware, neem is being used traditionally to make medicine as it contains curative properties that could help kill bacteria and serve as a cure for many other ailments. Its medicinal qualities and uses are outlined in the earliest Sanskrit writings, like Kautilya’s Arthashastra of 4th century BC and ancient texts of Indian medicine like Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita. The tradition of tying neem twigs along with mango leaves at the entrance of a house during festivals is perhaps part of that belief.
Another interesting comment was related to the tradition of worshipping of Mari or Mariamma. It read, “It was really interesting to discover that like our Mariamma shrines, Chinese folk religion has the Wen Shen, a deity responsible for the plague and their rituals “promoted fasting, interrupted social commerce, and required people to stay at home and keep their doors fastened against entry by evil spirits.” The “rituals” seem to be similar to our “lockdown” rules.”
Referring to my article, it said: “The article was very useful since we have been asking: How were epidemics fought then, how did people make collective decisions during a crisis? Today, our cities do not have the severe, unhygienic conditions as in the past, and yet, we seem to be in the same state today as then.”
China’s Instant City
While searching in Google, he had found an interesting book: ‘The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City’ wherein it had been stated, “Only two sacred banyan trees believed to have been planted with instruction from Zheng. The trees were still adorned with red ribbons, fastened by local villages praying for Tianhou’s protection”. This was again an ancient ritual of worship of the sacred fig Aswatha or banyan tree.
Dinakar Konanur, whose forefathers have left behind some of the items they used during their days, had tagged me to his post in which he had attached a few images of old letters of 1899, 1902 and 1906, written to his great grandfather by his elder brother wherein mention is made of the deadly epidemic.
Letters during plague
One letter posted to Chikkamagalur dated 29.3.1899 said, “Unless plague leaves Mysore and its suburbs shortly, the poorer members of the bar [court] like myself will have to give up their profession for some time and take to some other service for their subsistence.”
Another letter of 1902 said, “The frequent outbreak of plague has largely unsettled my mind as also the profession.” A third letter posted on 30.11.1902 said, “We are camping out on account of the plague. There have been some fresh cases.”
These writings show how in those days people were worried about their jobs and earnings like today when the epidemic affected their lives and livelihood.
The birth of a composer
Taking up the same subject, Raja Chandra, son-in-law of Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, has posted an interesting episode relating to renowned composer Mysore M. Vasudevacharya under the caption “Bubonic plague and birth of a composer.” In one of his books, Vasudevacharya has recalled this incident and explained how a composer became in the early part of the last century.
During the great plague of 1905, most of the people who were within the Fort were shifted to temporary tents in what is known as Alanahalli, near Lalitha Mahal Palace. Vasudevacharya also found refuge there due to the proximity to an old Ursu gentleman, Gopala Raja Urs, who was contemporary of Vasudevacharya’s father.
Seeing the havoc caused by plague, Urs told him about the uncertainties of life and said it was better to leave something for posterity for which he will be remembered. To this, young Vasudevacharya said what was there to be left, when they were gone. Urs asked Vasudevacharya, whom he called Vasu, to stop joking and compose kirtanas in his name as he had experience in music and good knowledge in Sahitya. It was the duty of a scholar like him to follow the path set by the elders and make use of his learning to do something for posterity and justice to his knowledge. May be, Urs added his name will also be remembered with Vasu’s work.
This conversation left a deep impression on Vasudevacharya and the result was the composition, “Chintayeham Janakikantamsantatam.” The rest is history, recalls Raja Chandra, quoting from Vasudevacharya’s book.
Theatre movement in Mysuru
Another comment posted on Facebook recalled the tragic occurrence in the family, “It was during this plague the entire family of my father was wiped out except my grandfather who was working with MSM Railways. He resigned from the job and whatever he got he did sharaddha for the departed soul in Dharwad Shirahatti Wada which still exists.”
This comment brought to my mind a recorded tragic death of a famous dramatist in Mysuru during the days of Maharaja Chamaraja Wadiyar. Though the “Dashavatara Company” was staging dramas since 1814 in the Mysore Palace, it was Chamaraja Wadiyar who gave a big fillip to the theatre movement in Mysuru by establishing the Chamarajendra Karnataka Nataka Sabha in 1882.
Chamaraja Wadiyar’s contribution
After ascending the throne, he opened the doors for Marathi and Parsi theatre companies to stage dramas in the Palace. Some of the well-known Sanskrit plays were translated into Kannada. Chamaraja Wadiyar had such excellent knowledge of the theatre he could even pin-point the lapses in performance.
At that time, Rangacharya of Mandya was also holding dramas under the auspices of the ‘Saraswathi Vilasa Karnataka Nataka Sabha’ established by him in Mysuru. This Sabha was as good as the Palace Company in staging dramas, if not better. Rangacharya and his associate Narasimhaiah were popular in the roles of Raja and Rani.
Though he hailed from a priest family of the Palace, Narasimhaiah had taken a keen interest in theatre activity. Besides looking attractive, he had an excellent voice and was gifted with talent, including in reciting poems from Kumaravyasa and Lakshmisha’s works as a Gamaki, he aptly fitted into the role of a queen. Both of them brought fame to the Nataka Sabha capturing the minds of the spectators.
After a few years, Rangacharya left Mysuru and the task of running the drama company fell on the shoulders of Narasimhaiah, which he did not hesitate to shoulder. He further carried forward the Sabha, established by Rangacharya, playing both the characters of ‘Raja’ and ‘Rani’. The dramas staged by him became so popular his Sabha could even compete with the Palace Company, though lacking adequate funds. He took his team to Bengaluru and Bellary and the plays he staged there brought more laurels.
When plague attacked Mysuru
Though he was appearing in both the lead roles, Narasimhaiah was looking for a befitting person to fill in the place of Rangacharya. At this juncture, he saw A.V. Varadacharya, who became very popular in the later years, persuaded him to join his drama company and brought him to Mysuru. The very first play, “Shakunthala”, in which both of them appeared, became a hit. Varadacharya had played the role of the king, “Dushyanta”. However, after some time, Varadacharya returned to Bengaluru and Narasimhaiah had to take up the dual role again.
It was at this juncture, plague attacked Mysuru. While his drama company was at its height, the plague brought devastation in Mysuru, Bengaluru and other parts of Mysuru State. Narasimhaiah had no other option but to close his company. He went to Srirangapatna and began to recite Kumara Vyasa’s Bharata in the streets of that town for the sake of his livelihood. After persuasion by a relative, he came to Nanjangud and continued with Bharata Vachana, who became popular there also. However, dejection arose in life and began to wear the robes of Sanyasi. People began to address him ‘Yogishwara’.
Coming to know that plague had attacked Mysuru for the third successive year and people were dying in scores, he returned to his native city. He went to the assistance of the Government doctor, Achutha Rao, and began to serve the plague-affected. Seeing their hardship, he again took up to stage dramas and spent on the patients whatever he had earned. His dedicated service saved many lives and people admired Narasimhaiah for his selfless service.
On one such day of service, he became sick with the temperature rising. Those who had come out of plague because of the care by Narasimhaiah prayed for his survival. But fate had other intentions. Narasimhaiah became a victim of the plague a few days later. This renowned stage artiste and Gamaki was Gouri Narasimhaiah, one of the members of the Gouri Purohit family, who were priests in the Palace. He was my grandfather’s brother.