On the day of the competition, we landed there with the full ‘jing bang’ crowd including parents, two sets of grand parents etc. As luck would have it one of the judges was TM Thiagarajan, a stickler for rules and the exact wrong guy who could excuse us. Even before the competition commenced, Shri TMT called out my name. I went up to him and he asked me why I had not included three Navarathri pieces. I confessed that I knew only two and he promptly disqualified me! A rather painful debut at the Academy competitions I should say.
The next year I was better prepared and managed to grab a few third places. The rumor was that judges like Shri TMT also encouraged male participants because of the sheer low number. We were only about 4 or 5 males compared to a 100 odd female participants! Indian ine Arts was a tougher competition. Though the number of songs required were lesser, one had to sing neraval and kalpana swarams for every piece. This was the best preparation one could make, because if one entered in about 4 or 5 competitions like say, Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Syama Sastri, Swati Tirunal and Papanasam Sivan, then we had to practice about 30 songs and be able to sing neraval and swarams for every piece. This was much better preparation for a student than say preparing for a single kutchery, where every aspect of manodharma could be memorised.
That was not all. On the day of the competition you could be put to further tests on the spot. Once during a Dikshitar kritis competition, I was singing Karikalabha mukham in Saveri. I had practiced neraval at the anupallavi Harihayaadhi. As soon as I started singing, Smt Vedavalli who was one of the judges asked me to perform neraval at the pallavi line itself! So I began this and managed a decent few avarthanams. I kept singing the neraval to the samam eduppu. As I began singing kalpana swarams, the judge stopped me again and asked me to sing at the 1/4 eduppu from the samam!
Once there was a competition at the East West cultural association in Bangalore. I saw an ad somewhere and found that there was a cash prize. So a few of us from here made the trip to Bangalore. Among us were Anuradha Sriram (the M.Anuradha and a disciple of S Kalyanaraman), KN Sashikiran, Dr Ganesh and some talented students from Bangalore including MS Vidya (the daughter of one of the Bellary brothers). In the final round we had to sing raga alapana and neraval swarams. The judge was Maharajapuram Santhanam. Anuradha went first and was asked to sing Saveri ragam. She sang quite superbly. Asked to do neraval, she promptly took up Sankari sankuru of Syama Sastri. I went in next and was asked to sing Reetigowla! As soon as I heard it I knew I was done for. I knew NO song in that ragam. But I had listened to a lot of alapanas from GNB as well as my grandfather and managed quite well. Then asked to do neraval swaram, I just told Shri Santhanam I knew no songs. He then sang the first line of the anupallavi of Paripalayam and asked me to continue doing neraval. I was so upset, because I did not know the song, hardly could get the words, it was a pressure situation and I don’t think Shri Santhanam himself had done neraval in that place! It was very unfair! I just managed to sing a bit and got away with a second prize.
Competitions really were an excellent breeding ground for us students and they demanded a lot of hard work and practice. We really built up a decent sized repertoire early on only because of this constant exposure. Another important thing with competitions were that they were excellent places for talent spotting. A number of sabha secretaries became aware of our names and how good we were from here. Indian Fine Arts, gave the Tyagaraja kritis winner a concert in their next season festival. Senior musicians noticed us and recommended us at important times.