If only speeches by sabha officials were shorter and less cliche-ridden

Two years ago, I accompanied my teacher at his concert at a sabha whose secretary was known for his oratorical skills. I was told that a lot of the audience comes to the sabha just to listen to him. The first time I heard one of his speeches, I was quite astounded by his perfect recollection of concerts he had attended decades ago, his ability to make connections and comparisons, the flair with which he delivered his lines, peppered with puns, and the way he marshalled all his stories to present, in ten exhilarating minutes, a fantastic tour of seventy years of Carnatic music.

 On the way to the sabha, my teacher decided he would play Keeravani. He said to me, “Just watch. In his speech after the concert, the secretary will talk about Rajaratnam Pillai’s Keeravani in 1948, and remark how this Keeravani was just like that.” The Keeravani that came was torrential and haunting. Indeed, the secretary started his post-tani avartanam speech with, “In the 1940s, Rajaratnam Pillai played a Keeravani near the Mylapore tank...”  My teacher turned around to me and giggled. I laughed uncontrollably and hid my face behind the tambura for the remainder of the speech.

 I don’t know how far back the tradition of speech-making in Carnatic music circles goes; this tributary of the art is barely chronicled. I wonder, often, who the Ariyakudi of speech-making is — who laid down the structural format for this art — for the format is well-set.

Honorifics and platitudes

First, shower cyclonic hyperbole on the main artiste. If it is an upcoming artiste, tell her she is worthy of being in the top rung. If it is a musician at the height of her powers, tell her she has proved today why she is there. A “doyen” must be spoken of with the necessary honorifics and references to their experience and mastery. The accompanists are usually spoken of in comparisons to the legends of the past. For instance, if you tell a mridangam player that he sounds like Palghat Mani Iyer, you can never go wrong. Reminiscing is a bonus, precise reminiscing — in such-and-such year, so-and-so's concert with so-and-so as accompanists at such-and-such venue — makes you a Jedi of the art form. In most concerts, you can start a speech with a reference to ‘Inta sowkhyamaniand you can mention ‘Sogasuga mridanga talamu’ to describe most mridangam vidwan-s. Sadly, the Trinity didn’t compose kriti-s on violinists. If the musicians are from Andhra, quote Bharatiyar, Sundara telunginil paatu isaittu...” If the musicians are NRIs, talk about how culture has been preserved so far away from our land. I am sure the secretary can give these speeches even before the concert begins.

Then, there are the speeches given at award functions. So many titles are given out each year by sabha-s that senior musicians might have to get a sahasranaamam composed to remember all of them. I heard of a recent instance where a sabha forgot that it had already awarded a musician a particular title, and sought to award it to him again. Even the musician realised only much later and the sabha hastily anointed another vidwan in his place

Students of Sanskrit literature should attend award functions to understand the alankara of atishayokti — the device of exaggeration. In fact, exaggeration is not just a device or ornament, it is an end it itself. Such a phantasmagorical picture of the awardee is painted that it becomes difficult to look past them (only until the next award function, of course). Various references to nadopasana, nadabrahma are made, and the musician is almost always referred to as a nadayogi. The longest speeches are made here. After stating that the musician needs no introduction, lengthy, soporific introductions are read out.

Then, a clueless chief guest, usually a corporate executive or a businessman, makes a speech whose contents can all be gathered from the Wikipedia page of the artiste. Then, a phalanx of “guests of honour” run variations on the same facts already laid out by the previous speakers.

Finally, the awardee talks about himself for a while, saying, again, the same things already spoken. He thanks the sabha for recognising his achievements, and thanks his gurus, his parents, his well-wishers and a host of sabha secretaries. And the whole thing is brought to an end by a vote of thanks that thanks every speaker for saying the same thing.

Speechmaking is inevitable, I know, especially when conferring a title on someone. But I’m certain that I’m not alone in wishing speeches were shorter, less cliche-ridden, less repetitive and more objective. Perhaps the Ariyakudi of speechmaking is yet to come.

(The author is a flautist, writer and a practising lawyer)