The Academy’s 83rd Conference and Concerts got underway last evening. Despite the terrific rains a good crowd gathered for the inauguration. Metal detectors placed at all entrances to the building are a new addition. When the Sangita Kalanidhi designate Valayapatti walked through the one at the VIP entrance, it went into overdrive and kept wailing and wailing. The artiste had so many medals on his person. And mobbed as he was at the entrance by photographers and fans, he continued standing under the detector for a long period of time.

Valayapatti brings in an atmosphere of informality to the Academy. His way of greeting people is a pat on the cheek. Everyone received it last evening, from Viswanathan Anand downwards. This reminded me of the story of Dr S Radhakrishnan patting Stalin’s (the Soviet one) cheek.

The speeches were very good. N Murali traced the new developments at the Academy and the amount of time, effort and money being spent on the infrastructure is truly monumental. The Academy is truly working hard to remain primus inter pares among Sabhas.

Valayapatti’s speech veered off the typed text he brought with him. It was humorous and also pertinent. Some examples:

– I dont know the tavil as well as it knows me

– There are some cells in the brain that can be stimulated for a few minutes by ice cream, for a few hours by alcohol, but only music stimulates them forever

– My instrument is beyond language. For instance when I play in Kerala I dont play in Malayalam

– An ambitious mother brought her daughter to me so that I could assess the child’s music. At the end of the performance I said that girl must imbibe layam. A week later the child came once again, this time with a sore throat. I asked the mother for the reason. She said, “why sir, it was you who said that she must have lime and so I have been feeding her with lime juice every hour”

He revealed a couple of points I did not know of:

1. The nagaswaram is made of accha maram or the devadaru tree’s wood and this is the same wood which is used for constructing the balalayam to house the spirit of the deity when a temple undergoes renovation.

2. The veena, the mridangam and the tavil are all made from the same wood – palamaram. The tavil and the mridangam are covered with calf/cow or goat’s hide as these animals are vegetarians. It honours the concept of meat not entering temples.

Valayapatti spoke in Tamil and this apparently was not to the liking of two foreign consuls who right in the middle of the speech got up and left. And we always thought that walking out in the middle of a speech or song is an Indian custom! Or is it that these men are now Indianised? But it made me wonder if the same walkout could be done in their home countries even if the speech was in swahili.

Viswanathan Anand made a beautiful speech. Short and in polished English. He traced the similarities between chess and music.

– Both are taught from early childhood

– Interest of a child in either field is noticed when the child watches elder siblings or family members perform.

– The transition from amateur to a potential maestro is sudden or may never happen

– In both fields you need hours of preparation and yet when the curtains part, there is a moment of complete blanking out. Then your brain takes over.

– Both are seemingly passive arts but inside each are volumes of mathematics, permutations, strategies and innovations

– Both music and chess have embraced modern technology and also adapted their format to suit changing times

– If one has eight pieces, the other has seven notes

– In both, no matter how well you are prepared, you are judged after each performance

The master said that he relaxed by listening to music and wondered if musicians relaxed by playing chess.

It was a speech completely devoid of all banalities and the usual cliches about Bharata, Matanga, Sarngadeva etc. Also no Sanskrit quotes which each Chief Guest till now has thought is mandatory at the Academy. These appealed at best to the patron rows.

As always the event began on time and ended on time. The sound system is very good but it showed its true colours when N Ramani proposed Valayapatti’s name for the Kalanidhi. “Digadougdigadougdigadougdigadoug” was what we got. But the audience, quite used to the format, clapped dutifully. You should have seen TN Seshagopalan’s face when he heard the sounds emanating as Ramani spoke. After all his concert was next and he had every right to be worried. Mercifully, the system righted itself when he seconded Valayapatti’s name.

The tradition of proposing and seconding is a unique one at the Academy and pertains to the days when the choice of the President of the Conference (synonymous with the Sangita Kalanidhi) was made on the floor of the house. It is now a quaint ritual rather like the calling of the graces at a University Convocation.

Audience dutifully clapped at the end of TNS’ one line too! We are well trained.

The VIP felt covered door is even better than the glass door. Now there is an element of suspense and each time it opens, every eye in the auditorium turns right to see who has come. “Eyes right” as they would say in march pasts. From Varugalamo Ayya, we have moved on to Yaaro, Ivar Yaaro.