I was nine when the first presidential decorations were announced, but I remember the newspaper announcements of the conferment of the Bharat Ratna to the ‘Three Rs’ — Rajagopalachari, Radhakrishnan and CV Raman.
The times were gracious. No one thought, much less said, ‘Oh, all South Indians’, or ‘Look, all three Brahmins’. They were, undoubtedly Ratnas, all.
Some did wonder why Rajendra Prasad was excluded but quickly understood the difficulty of the conferrer honouring himself.
Pandit Nehru, a stickler for propriety, did not let his name be included in that inaugural list, despite President Prasad entreating him to do so. Maulana Azad said, tersely, that he was among those who decided the names of the recipients and could not give one to himself.
The Padma Vibhushan decorations of that inaugural year were no less heart-warming, the physicist Satyendranath Bose, the painter Nandalal Bose, the educationist and future President Zakir Husain, the one and only VK Krishna Menon.
The doughty Bhutan leader Jigme Dorji Wangchuk got the Vibhushan that year too, establishing Bhutan’s great importance to us and also, the point that these decorations could, in exceptional circumstances, be given to non-Indians.
The Bhushan category was illustrious as well, including the first musician to get any of the Padma awards, MS Subbulakshmi. She was to get the Vibhushan and then the Bharat Ratna itself.
I recall, as his secretary at the time, President KR Narayanan responding to a widespread sentiment for the highest decoration moving beyond statesmen and public figures to the arts.
MS’ name suggested itself for the first Bharat Ratna going to a musician. President Narayanan and Prime Minister Gujral settled on it after a discussion that lasted no more than five minutes.
The president then asked to be connected to MS over the phone to obtain her consent which took a few moments longer than it might have had that most tuneful of all Indians not been so un-attuned to affairs, including recognitions, of the State.
After having spoken to and congratulated MS, President Narayanan spoke to the chief minister “as a step in courtesy”, to inform him of the honour being done to a daughter of Tamil Nadu.
The chief minister was, not surprisingly, thrilled and, I gathered, rang MS directly thereafter to felicitate her, leaving the Nightingale of India even more perplexed by the sudden shower of attention on her. The nation was thrilled.
Ramachandra Guha, who had earlier written in one of his columns about MS being most deserving of a Bharat Ratna, has described an obscure Hindi newspaper in Madhya Pradesh celebrating the award to the modern Mirabai.
The investiture itself was a resplendent affair. Dressed in a green Conjeevaram, MS received the decoration from President Narayanan with humility but the confidence of true greatness. There was something in her demeanour which seemed to say ‘I am receiving this on behalf of Carnatic music’.
Pandit Ravi Shankar called on MS to felicitate her, the same evening. MS seemed to read his mind. “Ravi-ji,” she said, “Next time, you!”
In subsequent years other great Indian musicians have received the Bharat Ratna — Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar. It is five years now since a Bharat Ratna was conferred on any musician.
I would have been among countless others who would have celebrated its conferment on Kishori Amonkar. At 81, she is as senior as she is gifted. One lives in un-hope but hopes against hope, nonetheless.
Dr Balamurali Krishna, in the view of countless, deserves to move beyond the Padma Vibhushan which he received many years ago. Is classical music so voiceless in the circles that decide?
This year, seven sportspersons, bless them, have got either a Padma Bhushan or Padma Shri, nearly 20 from science and engineering and over a dozen persons from the world of literature and education. Over a dozen medical persons, no less, have been brought into the Padma fold.
But what of music, the very special skill of the Veenadharini Sarasvati seated on a padma? One Hindustani musician, the 104-year-old Abdul Rashid Khan has got a Padma Shri but not even one Carnatic musician has been given a Padma.
(The centenarian should have got this decoration at least 25 years ago, if its conferment were to not look like an acknowledgment of age as much as skill).
No one who attends the annual ‘season’ of Carnatic music in December in Chennai can fail to be impressed by the enormous talent and commitment that thrives in that niche which is a whole world in itself.
The compositions of the ‘Trinity’ of Tyagaraja, Muttusvami Diksitar and Syama Sastri, and of Purandaradasa and Svati Tirunal come rapturously alive during the ‘season’, with hugely gifted singers and instrumentalists rendering them to highly informed listeners.
No State sponsorship is involved. Chennai’s great sabhas, led by the Madras Music Academy, organise the festival. For the fruits of this fragrant and fecund tree of classicism to be wholly passed over by the Padma scheme is incomprehensible.
Likewise, Kalakshetra, the college for classical dance and music set up in Chennai by Rukmini Devi, with the blessings of Rabindranath Tagore, has had gurus teach the art to generations of students. Those nurturers of classicism seek no satisfaction other than the careful inculcation of classicism in their students.
Padma recognition of them is something we owe to ourselves. When one of them, richly deserving of a Padma award, rang me on seeing this year’s list I thought I would be hearing a complaint. But no. My caller was not thinking of himself.
He said, “Kanak Rele has got a Padma… She should have got this long ago… This time it should have been a Vibhushan…”
When India seats its men and women of science, its doctors, administrators, its sportspersons on the lotus podium it does what no one begrudges.
But when that happens with its musicians not being given as much as a petal-width of Padma space, the lotus begins to resemble its paper replicas. Or a new version in Olympic alloys.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal