Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 5, June 16-30, 2023

Short ‘N’ Snappy


The Long and Short on the Sengol

The Man from Madras Musings was in far-off lands and deep in slumber when the phone rang. He answered it groggily and was immediately hit by what seemed a ton of bricks. On brushing off the last vestiges of sleep he was able to think with greater clarity and realised it was a North Indian TV anchor babbling all excited about sengal, which in MMMM (mind of the Man from Madras Musings) was a brick. Had she been hit by one asked MMM.

No, certainly not came the answer – and, added the voice, good that it had not for no human can survive a whack with the sengal – long as it is and covered with gold, and with a knob at one end. It was MMM’s turn to wonder if he was dreaming it all. How could a sengal be long, with a knob and be encased in gold he asked. He had heard of the proverbial gold brick but had never seen any. The voice was getting impatient. Had not MMM seen the news it asked. MMM explained that he was abroad, and it was the middle of the night where he was then roosting and he did not check on news every hour, no matter how breaking it might be. Then better check it all out commanded the voice and said it would be back in an hour to get MMM’s views on the matter of the sengal.

MMM then got on with checking the latest developments and even as he proceeded with it, there were other calls, asking his views variously on the Sen Gal (Sushmita?), the Senegal and something called Songl of which MMM is yet to make sense. Rather cleverly none of them attempted Tiruvavaduturai, the village that houses the religious establishment that gifted the sengol to India’s first PM. Rather than conduct a tutorial on any of this, MMM chose to switch off his phone and go back to bed. When he woke up, sure enough, there were no calls, for the anchors had gone off after other news. Sengol was clearly old hat. But since then, MMM has not switched off on the subject and has been following the way the story has developed and acquired narratives of many layers.

To put it briefly, MMM does not doubt that there was a sengol and that it was presented to our first PM at his residence. Similarly, MMM has no complaint about the sengol being taken to the new parliament. But what he objects to (and not that his views matter) is the myth being spun around it. The tale of the last British Viceroy accepting it with reverence and of Ganges water being sprinkled on it (no doubt to wash off his polluting touch) and of Nehru accepting it as a token of transfer of power was all just hogwash. Of the same variety was the story of old C Rajagopalachari being the mastermind behind this ceremony. Interestingly, CR’s family too cleaved along political lines. The eldest among the descendants flatly refused to believe the story while one of the youngest, now ensconced in the ranks of the party in power said it was all true.

Of all the stakeholders in this narrative, the head of the Tiruvavaduturai Math was the vaguest. In the beginning he said that his establishment had photographs of the actual ceremony held in the Parliament building at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, and that he would soon bring it all out. It is interesting that not one publication of the time had such visuals. Now, after the sengol story has become stale news he says that he could locate none and that they are all lost. It reminded MMM of a scholar and historian at the Music Academy who always floated tall tales on music and claimed the proof was in a loft at his house. He never revealed any of it as long as he was a member of the Experts Committee of that august body. But such is the gullibility of people that they were willing to buy everything he said. The same goes for this sengol. It may well be a gold brick.

How (not) to organise

There is something about most Carnatic Music events that fills the Man from Madras Musings with a nameless dread. Chaos is usually a given, and so are platitudes. There also will be a certain false narrative comprising hagiographic speeches, especially if the event is in connection with a departed worthy. Myth making also goes on unabated, which is anyway part of our glorious Indian tradition.

All of this and more was brought home to MMM once again when he attended a concert a few days ago. The programme was held as an adjunct to a tribute to a departed preceptor and as the performance proper was to begin at 6.45 pm MMM, in the tow of his good lady, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed, decided to reach there just at around that time, so that he could miss the preceding speeches. But then he was denied that piece of luck, for the first part of the event, namely verbal tributes, was still in progress and what was more, showed no sign of ending, despite the clock now having moved well past 6.45 pm when the music ought to have started.

Each speaker praised all those who spoke before him and all those whom he rightly guessed were scheduled to speak after him, if there was an after that is, for no speech showed any sign of ending. But then even the dullest of events must (thank heavens) draw to a close and this too did, with all speakers shuffling off stage. MMM sat up for the music only to see around a hundred people charge to the dais. The MC announced that these were all students who belonged to the lineage of the man whose memory was being celebrated and that they would all now pay their respects to the preceptor. As to why the act of obeisance had to be done on stage in front of a full audience beats MMM but it was done. The disciples, the grand disciples and the great-grand disciples formed a line that snaked to the end of the auditorium. Each man (there were no women), approached the picture, prostrated before it, placed some flowers at its base and then sashayed off. All of this took some doing, especially as many could not fall flat and needed help. This having concluded, it was time for the music to start.

The artistes arranged themselves on a stage that was clearly too small for them and eventually it was found that there was no space for the man who strums the tambura and therefore maintains the pitch. He was given a plastic chair behind stage and played the instrument from there. Surely the organisers, being performers themselves, could have thought of all this aforehand? But no. All the arrangements had to be made in front of the audience. The music performance began. But it was not the end of the story. Some of the organisers armed with cameras climbed on to stage and kept walking behind the artistes in order to ‘shoot’ the audience from there. MMM by this stage would have gladly shot them all dead.

There were more horrors to come. The sound equipment was controlled from a side room of sorts, and this was evidently some kind of a meeting place for all and sundry judging by the number of people going in and coming out. Coffee arrived by way of special delivery, and this was supplied to the artistes with loud queries about sugar, number of spoons, etc. The same was then extended to some of the organisers in the front row. The concert went on amid all this chaos. And then, after an interminable percussion interlude, one of the organisers bounded to the microphone.

“It is not correct to speak in the middle of the concert,” he said. “But I need to say a few words.”

MMM and Good Lady fled.

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  1. Pingback: The Chaos in Carnatic Concerts - Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music

  2. Mayuram G Swaminathan says:

    You have brought out the chaos in the Carnatic concert in a very apt expression!

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