A few months ago , I got an invite from one my friends, who is into event management, to attend a programme of dance and music by a well-known Odissi exponent and a classical singer, who has made her own niche in the world of contemporary music, together with a strong background of Hindustani classical music. The venue was the Stein auditorium, in India Habitat Centre, in the heart of the city, New Delhi.
We arrived early, me and my friend’s mother . The first row would obviously be reserved for the chief guest and other VIPs, so we strolled down to occupy seats somewhere in the second or third rows, as they were all vacant then. No, we were told by a gentleman , who had placed himself prominently there, who went on to apologetically explain to anyone who approached the front seats, that the Prime Minister’s wife was also attending the programme and they didn’t know how many would turn up along with her, so, could we please seat ourselves elsewhere?
She did arrive soon afterwards with quite a few in tow, most of them security personnel in civvies, it appeared . She herself looked unassuming and not given to any proclivity for making her presence felt. She sat there, enjoying the programme, but we who were sitting close by, were somehow constantly aware of her retinue because of their fidgety movements and surveying glances around from time to time.
The crowd in the auditorium belonged to the cultural elite, so to speak , the conversation that fleeted around before the programme started, being about trips abroad and who met who at which party and so on. The performance of the artist was no doubt superb, the grace and rhythm in her movements, flowing along with the accompanying music, to hold the audience captive. The singer’s powerful voice was no less a delight.
Returning home, reminiscences of a bygone time, kept flooding my mind, when the annual stage presentation of the local theatre group, used to be one of the “happening events”, in our part of the world.
Our local barber lived in one of the small, two- roomed houses, just across the road. Chandrettan, as we called him, was a man of the arts. We went to sleep every night , to the lilting notes of his flute. It is not that we consciously listened to it or appreciated it. It was just that Chandrettan’s flute playing, was an integral part of our day or rather the end of our day.
A month or two before Onam, Chandrettan’s younger son, Satyan, a youth of around twenty years, a school dropout , who had no permanent employment that I knew of, would set into motion, the daily rehearsals , in one of the rooms of his house, which was to culminate in the annual play that was staged a day or two before the festival. Whenever we could, we kids would troop in, to watch the drama unfold in bits and pieces, never quite getting the hang of the whole tale, which was just as well, as the suspense added to the excitement of the final day, when it would be staged.
The venue used to be an open ground nearby. It is really quite difficult to express now, the thrill we kids experienced , watching the preparations for the big evening. The stage was built, festoons and banners hung up between the trunks of the coconut trees, chairs borrowed from the nearby houses (including ours, which kind of gave us the exultant feeling of being part of the inner circle), for the chief guest and a few other local VIPs. My brother and I would pester our father for permission to stay throughout the programme, which invariably meant he whole of the night and once that formality was through, we would be in a kind of delirious excitement for the rest of the day. We would keep running back and forth from the houses of our friends in the same age group and make plans about what to carry with us for munching purposes, which could be anything ranging from pickled mango pieces , jaggery cubes , tamarind balls etc. We would also calculate how much money we had between us for the ice candy and roasted groundnuts etc. which was to be bought from the vendors who would be found walking in between the crowd, selling their wares. It was a big day for them too, as they would sell, way beyond their normal profits.
The evening always began with an auction of an assortment of small and big items donated by well-wishers, ranging from cups and tumblers to wooden stools or a transistor or a not so new wristwatch. Each item was put up, with an accompanying message from the donor . It was a huge opportunity for expression of budding romances and the person behind the microphone became the swan of the Nala- Damayanti story , conveying messages of love back and forth. The sender and the recipient remained incognito ,as the real names were never revealed, or it would have caused a local scandal. Nevertheless , from the replies and counter replies that accompanied each bit of fresh item that came up for auction, the general public understood , that the concerned heroes and heroines recognized and understood each other. There was a lot of humour in some of the other messages , all adding up to the general feeling of bonhomie all around. The auction would continue well into the night , the organizers stretching it to the possible limits with their constant coaxing to the audience to pitch in , the money from it being the main source of funding for the whole venture. Of course , they would also have gone around to all the houses earlier on in the last week or two, preceding the day of the drama, seeking contributions.
By midnight , many of the mothers in the audience, would have rocked their babies to sleep and would be sitting around, their legs stretched out on the sand, completely relaxed and ready for the drama to begin. There was gender segregation, in the seating arrangements, the demarcation in place, with a rope that went throughout the length of the ground , tied on to bamboo poles dug into the ground at regular intervals. The local Romeos would station themselves at vantage points and the lissome young ladies would pretend not to look their way, although they would be dressed in their best, complete with coloured bangles, bindis on their forehead, flowers in their long black hair and sparkling eyes accentuated with kajal. Flirting carried a lot of sweet innocence in those days .
And then the play would begin. Almost always it would be a sad tale with a lot of melodrama, but it always ended on a happy note. The harmonium would screech throughout, with the background score and there would be a few songs thrown in for good measure. Most of the younger kids would be fast asleep , sprawled out on the sand, even before the drama began and the oldies in the crowd would follow suit soon after. Every now and then, a small ruckus would erupt in the crowd , on the male side, the reason being anything from a drunken brawl to an attempt to pick pockets or just a fight for a better view obstructed by some of the onlookers standing in front.
Then , just before the break of dawn, the curtain would fall finally and we would go back home , tired and eyes heavy with sleep , but blissfully happy.