It must have happened in 2001 or it could be 2002, 2003 or 2004. Maybe 2005. I know it was within those years because I was still running Sangeetham.com with Sanjay Subrahmanyan. That year he was to perform at the Music Academy as usual in the evening slot. And accompanying him was this senior mridangam artiste, a Sangita Kalanidhi to boot. I would happily reveal that maestro’s name here but for the fact that these are sensitive times and you never know what can get blown out of proportion.
It was a packed hall as usual and the curtain went up on the dot.The artistes were all on stage and the concert began. It was very good (do I need to say that) but for one aspect – all was clearly not well with the mridangam artiste. He occasionally tapped the mridangam even while alapanas were in progress and while accompanying it appeared that his hand slipped every once in a while. This was most surprising given that he was a veteran of many decades.
An hour into the concert, KN Shashikiran, who was seated next to me, suggested that we go to the canteen for a coffee. And so he, Sarada and I stole out. I can still recall that I had a rava dosa. We finished our tiffin and came back only find the audience streaming out in utter chaos. “The mridangam artiste just passed away,” said a senior artiste holding my hand. “What an honour. He died with his boots on so to speak. Imagine departing this world from the very stage where you got the highest accolade for your art.” There was a tinge of envy in this as well, for this senior artiste, the second one that is, had not got the highest accolade.
The truth as it turned out was not so dramatic but only slightly less so. Some time shortly after we left for the canteen, the mridangam artiste, who had steadily been building up towards a stroke, could take it no longer and lay down flat on stage. Sanjay with remarkable presence of mind, sang the Mangalam and rang down the curtain. The ailing artiste was taken to hospital within the proverbial golden hour and made a full recovery, going on to accompany several performers in their concerts. He is still around.
The irony is that the second artiste, the one who declared the mridangam artiste dead, passed away a few years ago.