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Vol. XXVIII No. 18, January 1-15, 2019

Hits and misses during the Season

Sriram V

Page 7_1P. Unnikrishnan.
Page 7_2

Come December and there was one violinist who made it to the news. This artiste, who is brilliant when it comes to mastery over the fiddle, has a problem, or maybe I should say problems. Each December there would be talk of how he commited to more than one artiste on certain days and then invariably dumped one for the other. But such is the quality of violin play that artistes would give anything to have this bow-person. Still, that such a gifted artiste could be so prone to making errors in accepting engagements is something of a mystery. Maybe geniuses are like that.

A few years ago, P. Unnikrishnan was the chosen victim. The venue was Chennayil Thiruvaiyaru. Now Unni, is always a tad distracted as a person and on days of a concert is even more so. What happened next is best described in his own words:

“I reached the venue on time and right from then till I sat on stage I had this lingering feeling that something was missing. I just could not place what it was. It was just before the curtains went up that I realised there was no violinist.”

There was a desperate scramble to find someone else. Unni called Raghavendra Rao over the phone and though he had just returned from a performance, he gamely agreed to stand in (or should I say sit in?). A happy outcome is that, ever since, Unni has had Raghavendra Rao accompany him each year for Chennayil Thiruvaiyaru.

* * *

It’s P. Unnikrishnan again. In the whole of the Carnatic music world you cannot find a gentler soul. This concert was in the early 2000s, at the Narada Gana Sabha (but I am not so sure). The hall was packed to the rafters. The main piece was coming to an end and soon the tani Avartanam would begin. The tambura artiste was fidgeting considerably as though in anticipation. When the percussion interlude began, he indicated to Unni that he had to go offstage. R.K. Shriramkumar the violinist offered to take over the tambura and strum it. The tambura man waddled off and RKS kept the drone.

All this was very well, but even the longest of tanis have to come to a close sometime and sure enough this one too was showing signs of getting over. Soon it would be time for RKS to pick up the violin. Of the tambura man however there was no sign. The tani was building up to the usual crescendo before ending and both RKS and Unni began looking beseechingly at the audience to see if someone could help out. Fortunately, the mother of violinist Charumati Raghuraman was in the audience and she gamely stepped forward. She took the tambura from RKS who in turn got on with the fiddle just as Unni resumed singing.

The tambura man never did come back. There was much speculation over what happened to him. Many days later I mentioned this episode to a senior lady artiste. She asked for a description of the tambura man and when I did she simply smiled and made the sign of drinking from a bottle. That was a man you never paid before a concert, she said. Only after. But Unni being the gentleman that he is, would have forked out up-front.

* * *

It was sometime in 2005 or so. There was a sudden rediscovery of D.K. Pattammal. The grand old lady, though wheelchair-bound, was fit enough to come to sabhas and receive awards and titles. This was in sharp contrast to T. Muktha, who was bedridden. Pattammal made it to a few sabhas, wheeled in by husband Iswaran.

On this occasion, Pattammal was to receive yet another award. The chief guest was His Holiness, a Jeer Swamigal of one of the Vaishnavite mutts. He too was of a venerable vintage. The awards function began. The usual welcome address, the other inanities like shawling, garlanding, mementoing etc. were all gone through and then it was time for His Holiness the Jeer’s anugraha vacanam.

He took the mic and spoke at length. Eventually he made it to the point where he had to felicitate Pattammal. Having praised her music in general terms, he then paused. Turning to an aide he spoke in what he assumed was a whisper but was thundered out by the PA system.

“It is Sundaramba, isn’t it?,” he bellowed. “The same one who sang GnAnapazhatthaippizhindu? Haanh? What was that you said? Sundaramba right? That is what I also said. Yes, yes to be sure it is Sundaramba.”

Embarrassed organisers then whispered into the pontifical ear the correct name. His Holiness did not turn a hair. He went onto praise Pattammal in fulsome terms and duly handed her the award.

The last word was however Pattammal’s. In her acceptance speech she said that she had the greatest respect for the Jeer and that he had all her blessings! What she had intended to say was of course that she sought his blessings. The Iyengars in the audience bristled but there was nothing that could be done. Touché, I believe, is the customary expression.

* * *

The Music Academy’s annual music Season had wound to a close. It was January 1st and the Sadas was to take place that evening. All the committee members had, as is the custom, turned up in Indian attire. The prize-winning artistes had been contacted over the phone and those that could make it had landed up. Of course, the principal awardees – the Kalanidhi, the Kala Acharyas, the TTK Awardees and the Musicologist of the year – were present. The Chief Guest presently rolled up and as per custom was duly introduced to the Committee Members by the President. Everyone then went in and took their seats on stage. The audience was already in the auditorium.

Even as the prize-winning artistes filed on to the stage and took their seats, there was some confusion. The artistes outnumbered the seats by two. This was rather unusual as in the Academy such details were taken care of very well. Anyway, as time was short,two extra chairs were brought in and everyone was seated.

Up in the balcony there was a buzz. The aerial view from there enabled people to note that the shortage of seats on stage was caused by a duo from upcountry. Nobody knew how or why they were seated on stage when they were not due to receive any prize. By that process of osmosis that is a feature in any audience this matter soon percolated to the ground floor and even the stiffs in the patron rows were smiling. The info somehow reached the stage and one of the hardworking secretaries went up to the duo and whispered into their ear. By then the prayer had been sung and the event was well in progress. But the duo did manage to sneak out, not before the balcony had burst into evil mirth.

Later enquiries revealed that the duo had never sat anywhere in the Academy other than on stage and so had decided to sit there during the Sadas as well. This was surprising as the duo were not newcomers to the Academy and had performed there several times before. A wag suggested that they had done so in the hope that if they sat there long enough someone would have handed them an award anyway. The incident has gone down as one of those unfathomable mysteries of all time, on the lines of the Man in the Iron Mask,the Zamindar of Bhawal and Jack the Ripper.

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