By T.S. SATYAN: Once upon a time in our Mysore

Like many great photographers and artists, T.S. Satyan had a way with words. He wrote lovely prose with great care and economy, the simplicity of short words often disguising the enormous wisdom.

Like his images, Satyan’s words “captured the common man with uncommon honesty“.

Here is one of his trademark pieces for on Mysore, once upon a time, published in April 2006. A piece that reveals a razor-sharp memory, an eye for detail and a Mysore that used to be.


Like an unhurried hiker, I walked through the streets of Mysore which had been washed by a light rain the previous night.

My eyes feasted on the enchanting carpets of fallen flowers–the yellow tabebuia, purple jacaranda, pink and white acacia, besides other blooms.

The air was rich with the fragrance of floral bounty, accentuated by the aroma of jasmine and ‘sampige’ wafting from homes which also had bushes of croton, a guava tree and a coconut palm.

I could hear girls playing on the harmonium as they practised their music lessons while their mothers were busy washing the house-fronts with cow dung and decorating them with eye-catching rangoli designs.

Breakfast was already cooking in some homes and I could smell the oggarane––a seasoning of dried chilli and mustard seeds fried in oil, an essential ingredient of Mysore cuisine.

Small groups of people, some wearing the traditional Mysore turban, were enjoying their morning walk. I followed one which was heading for my favourite restaurant in town.

For many decades, its proprietor refrained from naming his establishment which became better known as ‘Nameless’, whose speciality continued to be the “set” which I ordered for myself.

The “set” served on a banana leaf was a pile of four soft dosas, free from oil and topped by coconut chutney, potatoes and two small pats of butter.

Some ‘Nameless’ regulars who were butter-addicts brought in their own larger stock from a nearby shop. They would splash the butter with ferocious fervour on the warm ‘sets’ whose softness seemed to resist the probe of their fingers.

All of us washed down our ‘sets’ by drinking the celebrated Mysore brew––the steaming filtered coffee.

To those with a low appetite or a lean purse, or wanting to share the “sets” and coffee, the restaurant ungrudgingly offered “one-by-two” and even one-by-three” service which is something very special to Mysore: Your right to eat the quantity you needed or to share it with another was recognised by the owner.

Mysore then was free from the impact of the broad gauge train and the jet plane.

It was famous not only for its cuisine but also for agarbathis (scented incense sticks), areca, betel, silk and sandal. One was struck by the vast variety and abundance of flowers in the markets and their regular use by every one in town. Jasmine––mallige–-was the people’s favourite.

Right opposite the restaurant where I ate, I saw many girls and women buying arm lengths of jasmine to adorn their plaits. The most popular book of modern Kannada poetry by K.S. Narasimha Swamy is named after the jasmine––Mysooru Mallige.

I returned home in an auto rickshaw which was also filled with jasmine scent. In front of the driver was a framed picture of Hanuman decorated with strings of mallige.

I complimented him on his good taste only to be told that he had to eat only half a ‘set’ at the restaurant so that he could buy the flowers.

Did not Saadi say that if he had two loaves, he would sell one and buy a narcissus?

Photograph: T.S. Satyan, then 85, shooting the kusti at the Mysore Dasara in October 2007 (Karnataka Photo News)

Visit T.S. Satyan’s Tasveer portfolio: here

T.S. Satyan’s last few interviews: The Hindu-I, Mint, The Hindu-II, Frontline Club, Time Out


Also read: T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. NARAYAN only I knew