On Friday last, I attended a play school event organised by Arka Kids, which is a chain that my wife runs. The kids aged three and below performed. As is to be expected, most followed the instructions to a T, a few others clearly wished they were elsewhere and yet others did their own thing. None cried. In fact, all the children displayed confidence. That brought back memories of my debut performance.
It was the year 1969. Yours truly had just joined Vidya Mandir and was in LKG Section A. VM was one of those schools that could have actually been set up in Calcutta and embraced by the whole population, no questions asked. That was because extra-curricular, as opposed to curricular, was what the school existed for, rather like the city of Calcutta. The whole year round, we prepared for the school day and some of us thought the school existed only for that. This was just like old Cal preparing for Durga Puja the year round. And so it was in 1969, the school was en fete, preparing for school day. What was more, there was no question of being/not being selected for school day if you were in KG. Everyone got on to stage. LKG A had to perform some nursery rhyme, with old Leela Sampathkumar on the piano, singing by the Misses Saraswathi (she would dance and sway as she sang) and Alamelu, with the deep bass being brought up by the Misses Rukmini and Gomathi. We were practised like some race horses for months on end.
The great day dawned and I was dropped off at school by early afternoon. There was make up by Vimala Miss and after having had rose milk and something else, we were all ushered on to stage. I, along with others, for the first time, saw so many people assembled in one space. There was my grandmother, all diamonds and nine yards in the front row, and just behind her my parents. Grandmother beamed and pointed me out to some of those seated next to her. LSK struck the opening chords, the singing misses cleared their throats and those around me pranced and leaped about. I had to be different and so I burst into tears. I continued bawling uncontrollably right through the performance and gave out the final sniff only when LSK with gritted teeth and baleful look finished the piece and the voices of the songstresses faded away. We were ushered backstage and that was that. Parents rushed to collect their kids and the excitement was palpable. The rest of the class was on a high.
A grim duo, namely grandmother and dad came to fetch me from there and then we joined mom in the car journey back home. Mom, for whom I could do no wrong did not say anything but I can still recall snatches of what dad and grandmother had to say in some kind of a relay.
“Imagine making an ass of yourself like…”
“…some kind of an idiot. You were really outstanding…”
“…in your stupidity. Why did you have to…”
“Cry? When there were all the others…”
“…jumping about…I have never been…”
“…so embarrassed in my entire life. To think that you sing …”
“… all the time at home…”
Fortunately we did not live very far off, traffic was thin and so the journey was short. Thus ended my debut performance. In a family full of accomplished public speakers, and one in which everyone was a bit of a prima donna with theatrical airs, this was an unmitigated disaster.
Thereafter, two things happened. Grandmother, bless her, decided that something had to be done with this lump of clay she had been blessed with. And she began a series of one-woman acts entirely for my benefit. She would tell me stories, act out the roles herself, sing the appropriate songs and even, as I have written somewhere else, cry on demand. Theatre became fun. The next was her impromptu hints on stage behaviour – “LOOK AT THE AUDIENCE…SPEAK CLEARLY…AND NEVER ALLOW INTEREST TO FLAG. PREPARE…PRACTICE…AND PRAY” Years later, I have heard the great Alyque Padamsee say the same at Lintas and I wondered how grandmother, who had never had the kind of stage exposure he had, knew all of this. Of course, in her time she had moved in high society and had also performed a couple of Carnatic concerts but that could hardly account for her uncanny knowledge of the stage and public speaking. There was an occasion when at some Bhagavd Gita recitationI won a prize (Tales from Vikramaditya published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan) and had to receive it from Rukmini Devi Arundale. Grandmother coached me even for that – how to walk (don’t shuffle), how to greet the lady (don’t look down, do a proper namaste), how to receive the book (don’t drop it) and how to to walk back (don’t trip and fall).
The second was Vidya Mandir – the teachers kept relentlessly pushing us on to stage. Our talents were identified and recognised. If we could sing we were made to sing in public. If we were good in speaking, we were encouraged. It was an amazing institution. Listening to me sing Vara Veena all to myself, Geetha Miss (she taught for just a year in 1971), took me to the staff room, hoisted me on to a desk and made me sing to all the teachers. Where was the question of stage fright after that?
There were a couple of things that just would not go- I had what I learnt later was a nervous stomach. And so, I ‘had to go’ before any stage performance, or test, or sports class (I was downright pathetic in sports). The VM loos were terrible but there was no other way. I carried my nervous stomach to Calcutta and then Delhi. At the College of Engineering, we had tests every Monday and Thursday, first thing in the morning. How many visits could a stomach stand? I was miraculously cured.
The other was butterflies in the stomach. I have let them remain. Over the years they have multiplied and even now I suffer from nervousness before a speech or a recording or whatever else. I also get a fit of yawns before a talk. I have let that be as well – it is far better than having the audience yawn at you.