Why is it that all Sabhas have a chief guest who is far removed from music, for their inaugural events? This question by the way is not mine but was asked by Kalki R Krishnamurthy in 1942. That was the year when the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society had a joint inauguration with Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao, Judge of the High Court of Madras officiating as Chief Guest. Much to Kalki’s delight, he began his speech stating that he was an ignoramus in music. ‘How can I translate this wonderful English word for my readers?’ wondered Kalki in his column in Ananda Vikatan. ‘A black mountain of ignorance, a hill of stupidity and a mada sambrani?’ he queried. (The last term unfortunately defies any English equivalent).

Having lived in Kolkata, Delhi and now Chennai, I can vouch for the fact that the situation is still the same in all Carnatic music festivals. In Bengal I have heard speakers wax eloquent about Tagoraz and other members of the Kornatok Trinity. In Delhi I have witnessed an event where M Balamuralikrishna and MS Gopalakrishnan being together on stage confused an IAS officer who had never had a posting south of the Vindhyas. He referred to them collectively as Balgopalkrishnaji. And then there was the unforgettable event when a North Indian sarod maestro spoke repeatedly of Semmangudi with the ‘n’ after the ‘u’. The Tamil audience was tickled pink. The critic Subbudu I am told had a favourite anecdote about a minister from the Hindi belt who came to inaugurate a Tyagaraja Aradhana and spoke in praise of MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar.

A few years ago we had a member of the higher levels of the judiciary inaugurating a music conference in Chennai. His speech had clearly been written by someone else and he was reading through it for the first time. He managed well till he came to the obligatory reference to the Carnatic Trinity. Tyagaraja was no problem but nobody had warned him about Muttuswami Dikshitar. He paused at the name but his mouth was reading on mechanically. ‘Mut,’ he said. ‘Mut…mut’ he kept repeating for a couple of seconds much to the mirth of some of us who had begun to laugh even at the risk of being charged with contempt of court. The man extricated himself from the mess by cleverly dropping the sentence and reading on. He has since moved to Balgopalkrishnaji land.

An erstwhile Governor of Tamil Nadu had one quote – Tyagaraja is the Mozart of India and Madras is its Vienna. During his tenure he inaugurated at least five festivals and duly repeated this everywhere. He would pause each time at the end of this sentence clearly indicating that the audience had to clap. This diminished over time.

In recent years some speakers have given us some brilliant speeches as well. Justice Ramasubramaniam spoke at the Music Academy a few years ago and dwelt on how much the legal fraternity was associated with music. Dr Raja Ramanna was yet another personality who had a lot of music in him. APJ Abdul Kalam was also one such public figure.

Tambrahm speak has a term for close ties – snAna prApthi – it basically indicates degree of closeness or familiarity. At a prosaic level it denotes a blood relationship that necessitates bathing on receipt of news that someone has kicked the bucket. What we need are Chief Guests who have snAna prApthi with music. Hopefully the art will live long.