By Rama Varma, UK.
He had travelled most of the day and now the car had broken down. They were still about a hundred kilometres from the city. For a while, he breathed in the final, lingering coolness of the AC. The award ceremony was later tonight; Sangita Kalanidhi, Sangeeta Samrat, he couldn’t remember what exactly the title was. He would probably give away the shawl, unless it was really expensive – he had a cupboard full of them. It wasn’t like the early days when he made a note of him like a batsman making a note of his every hundred. He would get his driver to buy all the newspapers the following day. If one of them had relegated it to the tail end of the Arts section, he would note the name of the newspaper and the next time they asked for an interview he would put it off on one pretext or the other.
Once the Illustrated Weekly had done a full-length supplement with his photo not only on the cover, but several pages within, in various Kutcheri poses, his face contorted in birth-agony, gnashing swaras and contemptuously spewing them out, while the violinist and the mridangist looked on in awe. The many bhavas of Srinivasa, the author had called it. The reference to the Lord of the hill secretly pleased him. In his younger days, he was called Srinivasa. It was only after some complicated numerological consultations that he had adopted the name Senkottai Krishna Iyer after his grandfather; a three-part name, of course was a prerequisite for any Carnatic Musician of repute.
He had bought twenty copies of the magazine and kept them for a long time, until his wife, in a sudden cleaning spree had given them along with numerous press cuttings and articles to a street vendor in exchange for a pressure cooker. Senseless woman! He still felt a twinge of pain when he remembered the day he walked into his room to find it bare, with only the Tambura and the mat on which he had explored for over fifty years the intricacies of Todi and Bhairavi.
The slight scratch in his throat worried him. He had to sing that evening, although not a full concert and that too, only to some VIPs and Ministers; most likely none of whom could not tell Hindolam from Pantuvarali. A fast varnam, a few brisk kritis and some rapid-fire swaras, followed by one of his old film numbers should satisfy them. A man in a starched white dhoti and kurta, with the occasional black strand showing through his greying hair was briskly approaching the car. He was saying something to a slightly hunched, younger man who obsequiously followed him with an umbrella, rapidly nodding his head.
Senkottai Krishna Iyer, or SKI (he never tired of the pun, Sabhash, what a performance – SKI is the limit) lowered the window and the man in the dhoti saluted him.
“I am the village headman. Your driver has gone to the next town in search of a mechanic. Our local one is out on business in Arakkonam. We have all heard your music, Ayya. We would be grateful if you would accept some coffee and snacks that we have prepared at the Murugan Temple.”
“We play your devotional cassettes in our temple every day, Ayya,” said Pannaiyar, revealing his betel-stained teeth, “Oru dinam, en manadile nee, O Muruga…”
SKI flashed the brief, condescending smile he reserved for fans. There was never a concert where someone did not pass him a piece of paper with a number of “request songs” and Oru Dinam was invariably one. Whether he was tired of singing it or not, the audience certainly wasn’t. And yet, he admitted to himself as he walked past the cow-dung pasted huts and the urchins standing curiously beside the wattle fences and thickets of straggly bushes that spread out into the horizon, he had, of late, begun to doubt himself.
Critics were always in violent agreement that he had carried on the strict traditionalism of his late guru, who passed away over three decades ago. He was a living embodiment of a way of life that went back to the Trinity itself. The only cloud on SKI’s firmament was TKS. About his own age, TKS had never achieved his success and acclaim and still lived in his small two-bedroom house in Mambalam teaching a handful of pathetic students and making vitriolic comments about his music. TKS, he knew was driven by that age-old malady that affects every artist. But in his heart of hearts he was troubled by the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, TKS knew what he was talking about.
They were now passing the village pond, where an unkempt youth wearing an old T-shirt and shorts that had been awkwardly cut-off from a pair of full-length trousers, was angling.
“Hey, Vetrivel, what are you doing here letting that bullock of yours stray into the fields?”
“Shh…you will disturb the fish,” he said, not even turning around.
“Rascal,” said Pannaiyar, “don’t you know you addressing the headman?”
“But I had nearly caught one, he said, turning from the reed bed, rather piqued. “And Murugan is grazing near the temple.”
“You are supposed to watch him.”
“Pannaiyaraiyya, he won’t go on the rampage again,” he winked. “I know why he did it last time.”
“I don’t want to hear your explanations. Now go and tie him up. And check with Subbamma if the snacks and coffee are ready.”
Sulkily he put his rod away and walked towards the village.
The temple was on a slight rise overlooking the thatched roofs and dish antennas of the village. The slope was carpeted by green grass. A big banyan tree stood to one side of it and its leaves now danced in the breeze. SKI had to admit that sitting in the mandapam of the temple with the evening breeze ruffling his hair was much better than being stewed in the car. He settled down on the dais and put his electronic sruti box beside him. He might forget his wallet, but not his sruti box, which he carried even if he were just going to the corner shop for a betel leaf. He had finished his coffee, which was slightly too sweet for his taste and the piping hot lentil vadas that were too spicy and induced a fit of coughing. But Subbamma, who had stood quietly by the side of the mandapam, making sure the preparations for their guest was not found lacking in any department, looked on anxiously and poured him a glass of water from a stainless steel flask. He took it gratefully and cleared his throat.
At a recent concert, after finishing a long elaboration of Raga Kalyani, he had scanned the faces of the audience at the front row, mostly consisting of senior vidwans for clues as to how they had taken it. There was all the customary applause. He had taken great care not to introduce any elements of Yaman that was almost the norm now, but was anathema to the SKI bani as they were now beginning to call it.
When a critic called it traditional, he wondered if he was subtly saying it was a bit jaded. He was considered the master of that raga, but was he now repeating himself? Perhaps after the US tour in the summer, where he was performing 16 concerts at various cities and teaching at the Pittsburgh temple, he should take a break from concerts. There was also a 3-day stop at London on the way back a concert at the Bhavan and one at Wembley, organised by some association or the other, which were again, not too taxing, but greatly beneficial to the wallet, with all those CDs to be lapped up at London prices. His presence alone should be a big thing for those adoring NRIs starving for music. And then maybe he should withdraw into himself for a few weeks, away from the hordes of adoring fans, to come up with new ideas to wow the critics at the Music Season.
A few yards away, Vetrivel was tying Murugan, a big, strong creature, with two splendid horns, to the banyan tree. The rope seemed woefully inadequate, but Murugan appeared meek as a two-year old child. He let Vetrivel tie him up to the tree and appreciatively licked his face as he patted his head. He turned to them and smiled.
“See, gentle as a goat. He likes being around the temple, Ayya. In fact, I have great difficulty dragging him away in the evenings. It is only when…”
“That’s enough, Vetrivel,” said Pannaiyar. “Ayya is not here to listen to your stories. His is a great singer.” Then he turned to SKI. “Ayya, Subbamma has a request.”
“Don’t hesitate to ask, Subbamma,” he said like the kings of yore, pleased at someone’s service, “I haven’t had vadas like these in years. The blushing Subbamma attempted to dissolve into the pillar.
“She would like to hear you sing, Ayya.”
SKI smiled. Perhaps he should humour these simple village folk. What did he have to lose? It would be a good warm-up for tonight.
“We even have a mike system which the headman bought at the last village festival. Wait, let me set it up.”
By then the headman had sent someone around to spread mats on the floor and he and the other important dignitaries of the village were beginning to approach in groups of twos and threes. SKI was surprised at the turn out.
The headman saluted him and began a speech, saying he needed no introduction and then proceeding to introduce at length the legendary singer and remind them how fortunate they were to have him. SKI was beaming. Nonetheless he did not forget to glance at his watch. Pannaiyar had assured him his driver would be back in an hour, just enough time for him to sing some of his most popular devotional numbers. He switched on the sruti and hummed.
The speaker system was perfect. No echo, no unwanted screeching. He finished the first piece with aplomb and was mid-way into the second one when he heard a noise. His ear was tuned so well to the sruti that the slighted off-key note disturbed him. He continued regardless and when he finished the piece, he realised it was the buffalo, Murugan, lowing.
The hitherto placid animal had perked up his ears and was looking at his direction in a decidedly unfriendly manner.
He ignored it and started the next one, Oru Dinam, often hailed as his masterpiece, dedicated to the Lord Murugan of Palani. The bit where the composer beseeches the Lord not to delay his coming was a particularly poignant line that one notable critic had said seemed to have been composed especially for SKI. His speciality was to stop the accompaniments at a certain point and call out passionately to the Lord thrice, once in each octave. He did not get to the third call. A tornado seemed to have burst in their midst. The men in the audience had pulled up their dhotis and broken into a run. Women and children hid behind pillars. SKI alone sat petrified on the dais. A furious black form had toppled the speakers and was now raking them with its horns. After it had completely wrecked the sound system, the buffalo slowly approached the dais and fixed SKI with a look of severe reprimand. For some reason it reminded him of TKS. He could the next day’s headlines in him mind’s eye. “Legendary singer’s final call to Murugan…”
To his great relief, Vetrivel suddenly appeared. Murugan turned to him in annoyance, but something about his presence seemed to soothe the animal.
SKI sat at the dais, mopping his brow. Never had his concerts been so rudely interrupted. The headman and Pannaiyar emerged apologising profusely, hoping nothing had happened to him. He looked around like a martyr, lapping up all the attention. He wondered loudly how much longer the driver would be and emphasised how important the evening’s function was.
The headman sent a man running to look for another man whom he had sent to look for the driver.
Vetrivel was brought to the temple and duly told off. He merely stood there grinning.
“But I was going to tell you earlier, Pannaiyarayya. Why did you play that cassette?”
“You mean SKI Sir singing?”
Vetrivel burst out into uncontrollable peals of laughter.
“So you are the man who sings that song. I had always wanted to see you. You see, I normally find it so difficult to drag Murugan away from this temple. But on the couple of occasions Pannaiyaraiyya has played your cassettes he has invariably run away and caused mayhem in the village. Very sensitive animal, you see…”
Later, in the car, SKI sat glumly staring out of the window. When the driver finally arrived, SKI ordered him to turn round.
“Where are we going, Ayya?”
“Back home, where else?”
SKI had quite a temper. The driver did not dare point out that it would take most of the night.
“But the award, Sir?” he asked in disbelief.
SKI did not seem to hear the question.