Saturday 21 November 2009

His Excellency!



















I landed in Delhi for a concert on the day Dr. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam was sworn in as President of India.The streets of Delhi were decorated with hoardings announcing in colourful letters-"SALAM KALAM!" I liked the sound of it! Like the rest of the country, I was tremendously drawn towards his intellectual personality. His informal and simple behaviour was an added attraction, not to mention his vegetarianism! I have this soft corner for anybody who is a vegetarian, more so when it is chosen as an option. His knowledge of Hindu scriptures touched me further. As though all that was not enough he also knew how to play the veena!!!!!!!!!!! I told myself, now this is somebody I've gotta meet!!
I was glued to the TV in my hotel room in Delhi, watching the swearing-in ceremony. To my delight, the President quoted "Endaro Mahanubhavulu..."(the famous pancharathnam of Sri Thyagaraja Swami). I was swept off my feet!
It so happened that in the same year I had received Sangeet Natak Akademi award from His Excellency!!
I wondered if our paths would ever cross again, and YES, they did! Rashtrapathi Bhavan called me to perform for the President on International Women's day in March 2003. I was ecstatic that I would be meeting Dr. Kalam finally!
At some point I had to ring up Rashtrapathi Bhavan to inform them of our travel arrangements, and while my call was being connected to the concerned person, I was taken aback to listen to my own veena playing on the phone. Later, as requested by the concerned officials in Rashtrapathi Bhavan, I had presented all my latest CDs.
Sri Madirimangalam Swaminathan (mridangam), late Sri. Kovai Viswnathan (ghatam) and I arrived in Delhi a day prior to the concert. We were accomodated in Rashtrapathi Bhavan itself. We were taken around the Bhavan. We also toured the Moghul Gardens and within the identical wing of the President's living quarters. We were impressed by the size of the rooms and the grandeur of the place.
As per our appointment the three of us reached the President's office next morning. After a short wait we were shown inside the office. To our utter shock and delight, the President of India himself walked all the way from his chair to the doorway to welcome us, his personal security following him closely. The three of us felt a little flustered by his gesture. He spoke in chaste tamil and put us at ease. His courteous and humble manners swept us off our feet.
He gently asked Sri. Swaminathan, "Where do you stay in Chennai?"
"Tiruvanmiyur"
The President was keen to know where in Tiruvanmiyur.
"Near the bus terminus Sir."
President looked very interested, "Is your house anywhere near Hotel Bharani?"
Sri. Swaminathan was clearly flustered, "Yes Sir."
His Excellency went on to tell us that he used to frequent Hotel Bharani on Lattice Bridge Road, Adyar while was teaching in Anna University. He said he liked the tiffin there.
His Excellency asked me about my family and when I told him that my second daughter, Haritha was doing her Electrical and Electronic Engineering (she was in second year of the course in 2003) in Anna University, he looked very happy and spoke very highly of Anna University.
I presented him a copy of my work on veena and he promised to go through it. While we were conversing, he abruptly got up from his chair, saying, "Please come with me". The three of us got up uncertainly. He turned and walked towards the wooden (or was it glass?)wall lining behind his table. He pushed at a panel which opened slowly to reveal a garden. We almost gasped, not realising all the while that it was a door, and that too a private access to the Moghul Gardens!
"Please come", the President repeated and we moved behind him slowly. The security man inside the office leapt into attention, quickly picking up his walkie talkie or whatever, issuing crisp orders in hushed tones, all the while pinning us with his sharp gaze. Obviously the security never expected the President to lead us into the garden as casually as though we were all sashaying out for some fresh air! Since the garden was open to public view, we could even spot many tourists at a little distance. We were flabbergasted and terribly concerned that His Excellency was walking nonchalantly into the gardens !
In no time atleast 20 or 25 armed guards rushed to surround us, walking cautiously and closely behind us. The three of us felt uneasy, but we walked respectfully behind the President. After a reasonably long walk, he stopped near a jasmine creeper and described how he had stamped it accidentally during his morning walk. His Excellency narrated a poem (which he had written on the creeper). I was not sure if Sri.Swaminathan and late Sri. Viswanathan were able concentrate on the poem, as for me, I was totally keyed up by the situation and by the presence of alert security men surrounding us. I felt a great sense of relief as we walked back towards the President's office.
While taking leave of His Excellency, I told him that my mother was a great admirer of his, but that she could not come as she was not keeping well. What he said took my breath away, "No, no, don't worry, I myself will go to her house to see her."
On our way out I ran into the President's private musicians (most of them spoke malayalam). They were a friendly lot. They played their musical instruments to show us a song composed by the President.
Instantly it struck me that I should learn the song and present it in my evening concert. I sat with the musicians and learnt the entire song. In the evening, I started my concert with "Endaro Mahanubhavulu" as it happens to be the President's favourite pancharathnam ( I am sure by now the President would've got an earful of " Endaro Mahanubhavulu" from all the artists from South who were invited to perform in his presence!).
The President looked very relaxed and happy, enjoying our music by shaking his head. Towards the end when I announced and played the song composed by him, he lifted his eyebrows, a look of surprise and delight on his face. The song was a roaring success and the audience gave a long ovation, to show their appreciation of His Excellency's composition.
After the concert, a surprised President asked me in tamil,"When did you manage to learn it ?" In the buffet, His Excellency mingled with us like one of us and strongly recommended the masala vadai,"I told them how to do it!"
The President enquired casually,"Can I find a good veena teacher in Delhi?" I almost choked on my masala vadai not believing it was the President of India who was enquiring about a veena teacher!
The entire day had a surreal quality to it. A rare treat indeed, to be in the company of simplicity capsuled in aristocracy!



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