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Between the bang and the whimper
It was a grand concept: to commemorate the centenary of M S Subbbulakshmi, to set up a chair in her name at an American university and also to raise resources for expanding the charitable activities of Sankara Nethralaya. But poor execution landed this great institute with a huge deficit in funds targetted, raised and spent.

The music icon A R Rahman was presented as the second Indian music maestro to perform at the UN. He graciously offered to perform free of cost. But his omnibus orchestra cost the sponsors a huge bundle.

On 15 August, as part of the 70th Independence Day celebrations, AR Rahman and his orchestra performed at the United Nations’ sprawling auditorium. Thanks to the Indian Mission at the UN, around 1600 enjoyed the performance of this Oscar-winning musical icon of India. Sankara Nethralaya jointly presented the concert with the UN. Rahman rendered several of his popular songs from Tamil and Hindi films, his evocative Vande Mataram, Jai Ho and also a few sufi music tunes. The immortal compositions of the Kanchi Paramacharya, Maitreem Bajatha and of Rajaji’s Kurai Onrum Illai were rendered by the grand niece of Dr S S Badrinath, Chairman-Emeritus, Sankara Nethralaya.


Tribute to MS 100...


Badrinath conceived this grand programme to commemorate the centenary of music maestro M S Subbulakshmi (MS) as also her landmark concert at the UN 50 years ago in 1966.

In my visit to the US in June I heard impressive plans on this celebration. The Sankara Nethralaya Ophthalmic Mission Trust (SN OM Trust), headed by Dr K S Vasan and based in Houston had ambitious plans: to present, apart from Rahman, musicians Sudha Raghunathan and Bombay Jayashree for a series of concerts spread across six cities culminating at the UN on 02 October (Jayashree later withdrew) and Zubin Mehta with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the Lincoln Centre in New York on 05 November. (The UN would not present Sudha as a UN-sponsored concert).

The objective was to reach out to the prosperous Indian diaspora in the US, providing them soulful music as also to raise resources for SN. Letters were sent to prospective donors requesting sponsorships of eye surgeries at SN.

The good work of SN has been known in the US. SN OM Trust has already been raising resources from the NRIs.


The stark contrast...  


The prospect of a second musician from India presenting a concert at UN after 50 years was, of course, exciting. However, sadly, there was a stark contrast between the two.

For the MS concert, the initiative was taken by the then UN Chef de Cabinet, C V Narasimhan, ICS. It was sponsored by the UN with its full involvement. Narasimhan was well-versed in music, an ardent fan of MS and learnt it under maestros like Musiri Subramania Iyer and MS. He ensured the presence of UN Secretary General U Thant as also that of hundreds of other luminaries.

The Master marketeer T Sadasivam...

The other plus factor was the brilliant leadership of MS’ husband T Sadasivam in planning, publicising and presenting the concert with elan. With meticulous care TS-MS planned the concert with a rich repertoire of compositions. The Kanchi Paramacharya specially composed Maitreem Bajatha on world peace and Rajaji, Kurai Onrum Illai in praise of the Lord Balaji. Both became instant hits and became household songs in south. Rajaji composed yet another English song in western music set to tune by the famous Handel Manuel. There was a rich variety of compositions including those from the great composers of carnatic music – Thyagarajar, Muthuswami Dikshithar, Shyama Sastri Purandara Dasar, Swati Tirunal... as also a Meera Bhajan in Hindi.

The team at Kalki and musicologists worked diligently to produce rich background material on the compositions, their composers and on MS and her music accompanists, to the minutest detail.

Media in the US and in India provided extensive publicity to this landmark event. The concert was broadcast extensively and received wide acclaim.

Poor promotion...

I was struck by the stark contrast: Rahman’s concert was jointly presented by the UN and SN. There was the absence of senior bureaucrats from south India at the UN or the Indian Embassy, familiar with carnatic music or MS’ works. Syed Akbaruddin, Head of the Indian Mission at the UN, obviously had little background on these subjects and did little by way of promotion. As late as mid July when I was travelling in the US interacting with NRIs, I found little information on the concert or its objectives. At the later stage Badrinath deputed senior journalist Prakash Swamy from Chennai to assist in this effort. Prakash has worked in New York for two decades till last year. Sadly, however, I noticed little coordination among trustees scattered across Houston, Chicago and other cities and with Prakash at NY.


The prosperous diaspora had little information...


Relations with media were poor. Surprisingly, communications with the numerous Tamil Sangams, Telugu Associations and Kannada Koota were poor. Remember these south Indian communities are prosperous sections of the US society, educationally and culturally strong and their members occupy senior positions and leadership in industry, government, academe and professions. These form the creamy layers of American society. I have come across well-organised efforts on their part to learn, practise and render carnatic music in temples and other associations all across the US. Disappointingly, these had little information on or access to the Rahman concert.

The UN programme precluded pricing tickets for admission. The seating provided for 2000, half of these reserved for the UN. Rahman required a large stage, specially built with hi-tech gizmos that demanded extra space and huge cost. This devoured in the process some 400 seats. The 800 seats made available to SN should go to traditional donors which further curtailed the scope for fresh donations.

There were also poor attempts at getting sponsorships from large corporates and other institutions in the US. Some late efforts made in India got handsome contributions from Cognizant Technologies, Godrej, State Bank of India, TCS...


Huge expenditure on Rahman’s team...


Rahman graciously offered his services free. But there was heavy expenditure incurred on his 80 strong orchestra and singers. Cost on airfare, stay in star hotels for four nights, local transportation and food incurred on these is estimated to have cost a bundle. The large stage, lighting, acoustics and other paraphernalia demanded another large sum.

SN also missed out in getting the involvement of the dozens of leading lights of the Indian diaspora, heading large corporations in the US. There was the absence of prominent NRIs who are glittering business icons in the US, many of these from south India, familiar with MS and Rahman: Indira Nooyi, Chandrika Tandon, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella and scores of celebrities in academe and the medical profession were absent. Leaders like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton having vast interests in India, senators, congressmen, local governors and mayors could have lent their weight.  The UN Secretary General, Ban-ki-Moon was absent.

Union Minister of State for External Affairs, M J Akbar, specially flew to New York. Like Akbaruddin, he was equally little exposed to carnatic music or to the monumental work of MS.

The amount raised in the US is estimated to be a fraction of the cost incurred. Of this, a good chunk was spent on Rahman’s large contingent.

I have been an admirer of Badrinath for his ability to build Sankara Nethralaya from scratch and making it the premier eye-care institution in the country. With the blessings of the Kanchi Paramacharya, along with three other doctors, he set up SN at the Vijaya Hospital complex in 1978. By selfless efforts he has built it as a world class institution providing high quality eye care to thousands. Leading lights like Nani Palkhivala have bequeathed handsome sums to SN that has refined and re-refined eye care backed by frontier research in ophthalmology.

I also felt disappointed that a great opportunity to present Rahman to thousands of music lovers in and around New York should have been missed.  Since SN under-wrote the expenses incurred on Rahman’s troupe for four days, it could have arranged with Rahman to present him in another concert at a prominent pubic place like the Central Park in New York offering the concert for thousands of music lovers.  Akbar could have provided some references to enterprising Gujjus who made such a song and dance for Modi’s massive meetings at New York.

Another thought: I remember MS and Sadasivam providing hundreds of benefit performances to support a vast range of social causes. It used to be a standard feature in the Tamil weekly Kalki (promoted by Sadasivasm, MS and R Krishnamurthy) of notices mentioning MS udavum Sangeetha kutcheri (MS rendering benefit performance) to help raise fund for numerous social causes. Rahman can emulate MS in such a udavum Sangeetha kutcheri for SN.

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