Grasshopper Chronicle: Chapter XIII
The Mini Function
It was a large gathering. The function started exactly at 5.30 pm. It was a tall stage, small but well decorated with lights and cloth screens as the background screen, on the floor they laid a thick, long colourful cloth. It was called the Mini Function. The person who was supposed to control the sound arrangements was constantly saying over the mike, ‘Hello mike testing, 1234, Hello mike testing, 1234’. As soon as he would end, there would be terrible and sharp screeching noise from the long Ahuja horns. People would start screaming at him, ‘Hey turn it off, ‘Adjust the sound’. The mike man would frenetically twirl the volume knobs and again say, ‘Hello mike testing 1234’. There would again be the same noise and people would react with similar shouts. It took quite some time to set the whole thing in order. Then, as the actual programme was yet to begin, there were periodic announcements that very soon the programme would start though nothing of that sort was happening on stage.
That day most of the important people associated with the programme wore punjabi, pajama, or dhoti — all white with half Jawahar coats or shawls. Women were on their fabulous formals. Our teachers of music college were quite busy with their respective musical instruments —tabla, tanpura, harmonium. The inaugural song was by the students where all of us were asked to stand. We stood on one side and all the girls on the other. It was a Jyoti Sangeet. Then there was another inaugural song. It was a Ravindra Sangeet. We all sang both the songs. Then the programme gradually unfolded- almost all the students were supposed to perform on stage. First, the juniors, followed by the seniors, and finally the performance of the teachers. The tabla group played the basic talas accompanied by harmonium played by the tabla teachers. Then came the vocal performances. For vocal, the names of some of the girl students from our group were announced first. So, they went up on the stage, sat on the floor and sang, accompanied by tabla, tanpura and also the harmonium.
It was quite an uncommon function unlike those other similar programmes, where the artists would sing the popular and mostly the hit film songs. In the function singers were singing songs but the audience could hardly make out even a single word. Though the songs were mostly in Hindustani, they were singing in such a manner that the words were of hardly any consequence, the main focus was to sing with intricate tunes and typical classical style and the people were listening to such songs, one after another with curiosity and also confusion. Among the audience, the most enthusiastic and engrossed were the guardians and siblings of the young artists sitting on the front rows and watching their kids performing on stage and were animatedly clapping after each performance. When they were going to the stage one by one as their names were being announced, our names were not taken even for once. Since the wait was turning into eternity, Kamal got exasperated and complained:
- ‘See, they are not announcing our names’
- ‘I think they would call our names soon.’
- ‘If it’s too late, I won’t sing. What’s the point, there would hardly be any audience left. As it is, they have already been bored enough with these incessant items of only classical songs one after the other. But you know what? They have gathered here to enjoy some hit Hindi songs, instead, they are listening only all these classical vocals and bhajans.’
Then came the turn of Sonti, my cousin, and their group, to play the tabla. He was too young to carry his tabla and dugi when the rest carried their own. They were five of them, some of them were quite senior to him in terms of age but in terms of the course, they were in the same tabla class. When Sonti sat behind the tabla, just his head was visible across his instruments as almost the whole of his tiny frame was covered by the tabla set. Jatin sir played the harmonium against which they were to play the taals. As he would play the harmonium, he would instruct them to play a particular taal in particular count of beats, laya — ekatal, treetal, drut, and the like. They first began with the elementary tere kete tako tako…then gradually moved from treetal to drut. As the crescendo of their playing got higher and higher with faster counts with all the tablas playing in unison, it created a mesmerising effect all around. Gradually the rhythm of the taal increased and then all of a sudden the sound of the tablas changed. Something unusual was happening on stage. The audience was silent and was intently looking at the stage with awe and disbelief.
When Sonti came up on stage and sat with the other boys, he looked like an odd pet of the big boys. Some of them from the audience also laughed looking at the small tabla artist, for they knew that the young boy was there on stage just as part of encouragement and not at all serious performer who looked as tall as his tabla set on the floor. As he made the first sharp noise on the ridge of the tabla, between the maidan and kinaar, with his right index finger and created a groovy sound on the edge of the siyahi, the black circle of the dugi, with his left middle finger, people clapped just as a gesture to encourage and cheer up the young tablist. But as the performance proceeded and the laya, the beats, reached from the vilambit to the madhyalaya, the entire area was filled with the captivating sound of the tablas and it turned quite magical when it reached drut laya and the beats were really fast and then that unusual thing happened. As the beats got faster and faster, Jatin sir was fully engrossed with his harmonium playing on the reeds of the harmonium with the swift movement of his fingers leaning over and swinging his head against the fast tabla beats, and Sonti was playing the tabla with unbelievable pace, the other boys went motionless. They stopped playing their tablas as they could hardly keep pace with the maddening pace of Sonti’s tabla. He was playing the tabla with his head straight, his two small arms fixed with the elbows forming triangular shapes over the tabla, and his fingers hardly visible, they were playing over the leather of his instrument with lightning speed. The audience, who had earlier clapped in the beginning out of sheer amusement looking at the young tablist, have forgotten to move their hands now. Some even went near the stage to look closely at the small tablist and his teacher both of whom were absolutely oblivious of their surrounding; did not even realise that the other tablists on stage, instead of being co-performers, became mute audiences. Some of the audience even stood on their feet to have a better look at the young tablist. After a while, Sonti and his teacher gradually decreased the tempo, repeated the last bol on the tabla thrice, Jatin sir swung his head thrice along the beats and abruptly closed to the recital. People erupted with a long spell of applause. Some even ran to the stage and excitedly held him up in their arms. They said that one day the young boy would be a great tabla ustad. Jatin sir was still sitting on the floor with his harmonium and looking at Sonti with the smile of a successful guru.
When our turn came, suddenly the feeling was entirely different. Moments before, when we were restless to be on stage and sing our song, but as soon as the names were announced a strange fear overtaken both of us, we could not even drink water, as if the stomach was shrinking, a strange fear was pounding our hearts. Kamal got nervous and said, ‘See, you have to sing the whole song, I shall just accompany you.’.
As we stood on stage, contrary to what we thought, it was quite different. The lights of the stage that were focusing on us were so blinding that we could hardly make out who were the people sitting in front. For the first time in life, we were supposed to sing a classical song with tabla, harmonium, and also the tanpura. As the tanpura strings were played by one of the senior girls, the first initial beats were played on the tabla and when we were about to sing the song, that unexpected thing happened— both of us forgot the song completely which we had practiced no less than fifty times before this big moment.
One of our teachers, Braja Karmakar sir was playing the harmonium and indicating us to begin the song, but we went absolutely blank, a sort of a total blackout. Looking at the disastrous situation, it was sir who sang the first few words of that famous song in raag Yaman- ‘saba guni jana…’
Soon the whole song came back to us. We both began the song, our first and the biggest performance on stage ever—
Saba guni jana gaye raaga yamana… (All wise people sing raaga yamana)