The dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan, half hidden by the hill on which it was originally supposed to stand, has always felt to me like the setting sun of empire. I’ve often seen the presidential palace from afar, but on Tuesday entered its premises for the first time as a guest for this year’s Sangeet Natak Akademi awards presentation. Each winner was allowed one escort, and the winners’ and escorts’ buses left for the venue together. The winners went inside for a full rehearsal in the Durbar Hall, while the escorts were kept in their vehicle for 90 minutes.

The large invitation card said no cell phones or bags would be allowed, and we left ours in the hotel room, only to find those who had disregarded instructions being accommodated. Why not tell people they could keep their phones at security, rather than provide one more example of bad behaviour being rewarded? In the event, it became a lesson in how dependent we have grown on those little devices when we tried to make our way around town afterwards.

Expecting a long-drawn ceremony, with speeches and biographical citations and over 40 awards to be presented, all guests headed for the washrooms after reserving seats for themselves. The toilet for the male guests and media persons had just one urinal and one stall. The women were, as usual, worse off, having to make do with a single stall. I was reminded of Versailles that grandest of palaces, which contained so few toilets that attendants, and even occasionally noblemen and women, relieved themselves in corners of empty rooms, giving the Sun King’s residence a reputation of being the smelliest palace in Europe. Nobody went that far in Rashtrapati Bhavan, as far as I could tell, but I felt particularly sorry for the female award winners dressed in elaborate traditional costume.

The Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma walked in around 6 pm, and not long after that the President entered the hall, heralded by a flourish of trumpets. If one has to be kicked upstairs, one would want to be Pranab Mukherjee kicked upstairs by Sonia Gandhi. He has done well by Rashtrapati Bhavan, opening up rooms shuttered for decades, restoring sections that had been tastelessly redecorated, inviting writers and artist for residencies. He shares very little with his disappointing predecessor Pratibha Patil aside from his literal stature. As he walked in and we stood on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of the man, I wondered again why we keep nominating midgets to this ceremonial post where they spend so much of their time in photo-ops with people who tower over them.

Breaking free

The President stepped up to his throne placed before an enormous crimson canopy and a Gupta era statue of the Buddha. A short announcement later, the award ceremony got under way. As each name was called out, the awardee would walk from the side of the hall to a spot about 20 feet before the President, greet him with a namaste or adab, receive the plaque standing on the penultimate step so as to match his height in photographs, smile at the cameras, and return to his or her seat. No touching of feet or other deferential gesture was permitted, but the ritual struggled to break free of its imperial roots. Among the awardees were people who had difficulty walking, and in such cases Mukherjee held up his hand halting them in their slow tracks and climbed down to present the award. Each time he did this, the crowd clapped thunderously, for it felt like an emperor had deigned to descend to the level of commoners.

The ceremony was remarkably efficient, with a rapid turnover of awards and no speeches. It took barely more than half an hour, and as the announcer ran through the roster of names, the achievement of a democratic nation began to assert itself over whatever feudal and imperial associations had built up previously. Can you think of the name of any ancient Indian puppeteer? How many folk singers are enshrined in our long history? Which female dancer from our glorious past do we look upon as a great artist without moralising, or even with it? Each type of performance being celebrated at Rashtrapati Bhavan had a centuries’ old lineage but no pantheon of excellence going back to its origin. No wonder, considering that performers were for the most part excluded from traditional society’s elite.

On Tuesday, however, as Khuman Lal Sao, a folk musician from Chattisgarh, Gangmei Aluna Kabuini, promoter of Manipur’s traditional dance, Chhaya and Maya Khutegaonkar, lavani exponents from Maharashtra, and Parmjit Singh Sidhu, folk singer from Punjab, took their place alongside the sarod player Brij Narayan, the composer Hridaynath Mangeshkar, the Chhau dancer Sadashiva Pradhan, the playwright Shafaat Khan, and over two dozen other masters of folk, classical and contemporary forms of performing art, it felt like the only hierarchy that mattered was one of excellence, and the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan came to feel like the big tent that the Indian republic is at its best.

And then it was over, and Pranab Mukherjee immediately left the building, or at least retired to his rooms within it, and we were directed to a banquet room whose walls were lined with portraits of past presidents, where we sipped tea and ate samosas, paneer puffs and gulab jamuns.