“If the stage could write its own autobiography, it would have amazing stories to tell,” says V Shankar, President, Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha.
Started in 1963, the Sabha will host its 15,000th performance on May 11. A troupe from Chennai will perform classical and folk dances that day. “Even if you don’t count the eight years when we didn’t have a stage (it burnt down in 1990 and was rebuilt only by 1998), it averages out to one performance per day,” explains Shankar. The officials have already written to the Limca Book of Records and the Guinness World Records about their feat.
The Sabha’s auditorium has hosted classical Indian and Western singers and dancers, award functions, Stephen Hawking, physically and mentally challenged performers, ballet artistes from France, Russia and the US, orchestras from all over the world and even a Scottish hypnotist in its 60 years of existence. The whole world has been on this stage (to paraphrase William Shakespeare) and it has several stories to tell:
>> In 1958, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Mumbai (then Bombay) and lamented that the city did not have an auditorium for people to come together and exchange ideas. A few South Indians who heard him decided to build an auditorium. It took them five years to raise the funds and construct the building at a cost of around R35 lakh.
>> The legend, as the members of the Sabha like to narrate, goes that Vijayalakshmi Pandit praised the hall and its facilities to Nehru so much that he decided to hold the annual meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) of 1963 at Shanmukhananda. It was spacious enough to accommodate 4,000 plus members for the three days of the function. Unfortunately, the hall was not yet air-conditioned. The Sabha trustees ordered 4,000 metric tonnes of ice, filled the vents with it, and made their own makeshift AC. The AICC session was a success and the Congress leaders were so impressed with the efforts of the Shanmukhananda Sabha officials, that they cut them a cheque of R25,000.
>> In 1963, there were four types of membership to the Sabha. A Patron membership cost R5,000, a lifetime membership cost R1,000, a First Class member had to pay R1 per month while a Second Class member paid 75 paise per month. The demand for membership was very high and once the numbers crossed 5,000, the officials stopped accepting more members. The seating capacity in the old days was around 3,000, but the audience numbers were closer to 6,000. Hence, every artiste performed once on two consecutive days so that all the members would be able to enjoy the performances.
>> In 1978, T S Palghat Mani Iyer, a mridangam player, was scheduled to perform alongside other artistes. Midway through his performance on the first day, he sprained his neck and was unable to continue. The programme was stopped and the next day, Yella Venkateswara Rao took his place. Iyer was so upset that he was unable to perform that he refused to accept his fee of R500. The then president of the Sabha, Prof T V Ramanujam had to personally urge him to accept his payment.
>> Sharad Pawar, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, visited the auditorium after it burnt down on February 28, 1990. The situation was so bad that the officials couldn’t even offer him a cup of tea. One of them then ran to the neighbouring building to a member’s home and brought a cup of tea for the Chief Minister. Pawar later sanctioned R1,75,00,000 towards rebuilding the auditorium. The total cost amounted to R13 crore and was raised through donations from government and private bodies.
>> In the 1980s, an educational institution organised an event featuring a prominent singer. The plan was that after a formal function of 30 minutes, the singer would perform. But midway through the formal function, the singer, known for her temperament as much as for her music, got irritated with the plan. Sabha officials recall her claiming, ‘Have they come here for the function or for my performance?’ She then walked out without performing.
>> Another famous dramatist in the 80s was once slated to stage a performance with his theatre company. At the last minute, the lead actress fell ill. The troupe managed to get a replacement, but she was unable to perform adequately. During the performance, the dramatist began taunting the replacement from the wings, and he was audible to the audience. It went on for 20 minutes or so when finally, the audience members sitting in the front row shouted at the dramatist to stop. They stated that he either cancel the play and refund their money or let the actress continue. The dramatist, known for his fiery temperament, actually apologised to the audience.
>> In another play, there was a scene where a character was supposed to sip coffee from a cup and exclaim that it is excellent coffee. As the actor was performing the scene, an audience member got up and claimed he too wanted excellent coffee. The man actually climbed on to the dais to drink the coffee, only to find that the cup was actually empty. He then declared to everyone present that there was no coffee. After that incident, whenever any character sips any beverage on stage - be it tea, coffee or a soft drink - the officials see to it that the cup or glass is full.
The 15,000th performance will take place on May 11, 2013 in three sessions at the Sri Shanmukhananda Chandrasekarendra Saraswati Auditorium:
10:00 am to 12 noon: Students’ Special.
1:00 pm to 3:00 pm: Entertainment programme for differently abled and shelterless children.
6:00 pm: Bharata Kalanjali.
Entry to all the performances is free and open to all.