Cultural festivals are often seen as 'rowdy, skirt chasing, bunking classes and everything that is not for an honorable Indian student. As often in life that is generalized, too generalized and completely disregards so many other nice aspects of these culturals.
I've seen astounding creativity in cultural festivals, boys and girls whom we could not even imagine doing something would surprise you with talent. A shy and withdrawn girl would surprise by her poetry. An unassuming guy could write a poignant story in no time. One guy could populate an entire hall with carvings in soap. A photographer capturing the beauty of a girl's eyes. A girl as next-door looking as they come could take the breath away singing zoom-zoom-baba leaving you searching for her the next day amongst hundreds. A teenager with Beethoven in his name would play a multi-tiered keyboard catapulting his orchestra to a bumper win and mesmerising the crowd. Talent shows were fertile ground for mediocrity and soaring creativity too.
Of course the adolescent streak is dominant, to pretend otherwise is to insult the reader. A bunch of girls from Bangalore dancing in mini skirts on a raised stage would be a crowd puller in Coimbatore. The topics for most events like Poetry writing or painting or photography would have something to do with romance or girls or something titillating. When our team from Shanmugha (SCE in short) was prepping for those events my college lecturer, our team supervisor, asked for topics that we can kind of get prepared for. I gave a few, he replied "one track mind". I was on target though. A college cultural festival is not an academic festival and it is organised by teenagers for teenagers. Lets get that straight.
CIT (Coimbatore Institute of Technology) used to organize one of the biggest cultural festivals in TN. Well over 60 colleges would participate drawing the cream of participants. PSG Tech, PSG CAS (PSG College of Arts and sciences), Anna Uni, IIT's, REC's all would come. CIT's festival was called "Harmony". My first sojourn to Harmony in 1991 was a non-event, I fell sick and returned the second day, the only grace was I had bought Francis Bacon's "Essays" from a Higginbothams at Kovai. Hhmm does not saying Kovai sound so much better than anglicised Coimbatore. I marked out the Essays that Will Durant in his "Story of Philosophy" had specified as must read. The "Everyman" edition was elegant with the essays incorporating Latin proverbs and a neat glossary to explain each proverb.
I was back at Harmony in 1992. My team mate for debate contest was my good friend Raajesh Ganesan (he loves the extra 'a' in Raajesh). A very fine gentleman who later was the first guy in SCE to write GRE scoring 2100. He respected my skills a lot and we were a good team. He was no pushover either. Drawing lots the topic assigned to us was "Brain Drain". One member had to argue for and another against. Raajesh told me "Aravinda you make the pick where you can be the most forceful and eloquent". This topic was close to me heart. Having suffered the barbs of reservation and yearning to get out of India, which then was a very intellectually stifling country, I jumped at arguing for those who left the country.
We also decided that Raajesh would go first and speak against those who left India. He, incidentally a Brahmin who wanted to go to USA, despite his convictions, played his part. I took the stage next. To say I sizzled was an understatement. Thanks to my father I never subscribed to the typical craven way of opening speeches by addressing all and sundry, it was always "Good evening everybody". I opened by taking the audience to 1940's. Scientists, primarily Jews, were fleeing Nazi Europe to America, the land of liberty. The tide of scientific supremacy turned. Germany the cradle of Quantum physics fell behind while America, at the urging of Einstein and immigrant scientists raced to discover the atom bomb. The world was never the same again. I ended with a punch line "let the brains drain out of this country lest they go down the drain". We sailed into the finals.
Here came a quandary. The team we were up against had an IIT'ian and another guy. We were approached by the organisers that the IIT team was illegal because the competitors came from different colleges. Practically two guys had teamed up. If we lodged a protest they would be disqualified and we would compete against another team. The IIT'ian came up to me and said "hey lets compete, we are here only for the prize money, you can keep the certificate I'll arrange it". Now this IIT guy had just created a rave in a previous competition called JAM (Just a minute). In JAM a contestant has to talk fast with no big pauses in grammatically correct English. If anybody in the audience finds a mistake he/she would be stopped. Nobody could stop this guy. He was on a roll, he was nicely ribald too. Many girls loved the ribald part. [In fact that year CIT had a competition called 'latent talk' purely double entendre talk, it was a hit with girls. Girls love Harold Robbins or Mills & Boon while guys go for the unvarnished stuff]. I felt if my win had any meaning it would be to beat this guy. I said lets go for it.
The topic was "Foreign investment boon or bane". We drew lots and our team had to speak against investment. A sure loser side given the winds of change in 1992 and the dire economic climate of the country. I knew if we won it would not be based on arguments or evidence so the speech itself was lackluster. The question and answer round was where we had to play it. One of the panelists, a girl student, tried to push Raajesh into a corner by forcing him to say 'yes' or 'no' to an inconvenient question that could really trap us. Raajesh was hemming and hawing, the girl kept badgering "say yes or no". I took the podium and with an imperious wave of hand and a baritone voice that needed no microphone boomed "life is not always a yes or no, let him explain". More than the repartee the manner it was delivered brought cheers from the audience, the girl backed down. Meantime my college team that was scattered across competitions all flowed into the auditorium. This was new experience. SCE in the final round, about to win a big competition, lot of points at stake. Sheer satire and sarcasm flowed thereafter. We won in a thunderclap of applause and adulation. We had won big in a 60 college competition beating all other elite colleges. The college itself did not win any other big event, that too in first place.
When we came home to Tanjore we were feted. The college Secretary, now chancellor of SASTRA, brought out a press release to highlight the achievement.
Before I wind up here is a very interesting tit bit. In June 1991 I was selected, in the first place, to be part of Bharathidasan University's cultural team for debates/elocution. It was a first such win for SCE, it created a splash, that too was reported in the press. One day after all that hullabaloo the first year exam results came. Aravindan had failed in English. One one hand the university said I have to represent it for English elocution competitions and on another hand I was declared a failure to pass the exam. Of course we appealed for re-evaluation. My English professor as subject teacher gave a strong recommendation in the justification. Finally I was cleared with a 30 mark increase. I went on to be selected for Bharathidasan University for three years in a row. Unbeaten record till today.