The maharaja’s elephant that made me a lensman

T.S. NAGARAJAN writes: His size and stature did not deter us from touching and fondling him. We had no fear. Often, he would tie his trunk into an impossible knot and then unfurl it, just to impress, and end up by bowing his head and flapping his ears at us. He was a great performer.

Iravatha, Mysore’s celebrated elephant, was a friend of the family. On festival days, the mahout would bring him to our mohalla. The ding-dong sound of his bell, early in the morning, would wake us up from sleep.

We lost no time in rushing out and lining up in front of the elephant to receive his blessings. He would raise his trunk and softly touch our heads.

On some days, my mother would place a bucketful of water in front of him. He would draw the water from the bucket and spray it on my sister’s head, leaving her deeply shaken. My mother believed that this ritual would ward off her daughter’s problem of bed-wetting.

Every household on the street would feed the elephant generously with akki and bella (rice and jaggery). The children made it a point to save small coins to give him. He would deftly pick up the coins from the top of their heads and promptly transport them to his master above.

Iravatha was a gentleman known for his looks, loyalty and flawless conduct. He had everything to be classed among the best: a long trunk that touched the ground, ears which met when brought together on the face, a long and hairy tail, spots on the face and a graceful walk.

The Maharaja had named him after Indra’s mount, the legendary white elephant. Every year, on Vijayadashami day, he carried the Maharaja in a golden howdah in a procession watched by thousands of people.

In full regalia, Iravatha would walk in measured steps, gracefully waving his long trunk to the music of pipes and drums.

One day, while in college, news arrived that Iravatha was no more. It was impossible to believe that the city’s most loved one lay dead in the stables at the palace.

My friend and I bunked the class and peddled fast on our bicycles towards the palace where a huge crowd had already gathered. People vied with one another for a last look. Liveried men scurried around urging the crowd to keep away from the elephant.

Word went around that the maharaja would arrive to pay his last respects to Mysore’s much-loved citizen. The crowd continued to grow and began pushing us from behind. We decided leave to make way for others to see Iravatha, who lay stretched on the ground, grand and dignified.

Back home a lump in the throat made me speechless. I went to my friend’s room, where we used to do “combined study”, to spend the night.

I couldn’t sleep and so I decided to pour out my grief in words on a sheet of paper. My friend, who was good at writing, helped me with his ideas. The result: “A Mysore Gentleman Passes Away”, my first article ever written.

The following morning was spent in hunting for a picture of Iravatha to accompany the text. I went from studio to studio asking for one. No one was willing to help, perhaps thinking that I would make a fortune by publishing it.

Finally, the city’s then famous photographic studio “Raj Bothers” came to my rescue and helped me with an unsatisfactory picture of the elephant.

I mailed the article and the picture to the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India explaining my inability to provide a better photograph.

A few weeks later, the editor, an Irishman, sent me a copy of the magazine with my story, along with a cheque and a note urging me to take to the camera “if I had ambitions of making a success of my career as a journalist.”

I took to photography without a second thought. The years that followed proved in ample measure that the editor was right.

Also see: RAJAN (1993-2006)