Monday, May 24, 2010

Of Vishwanathan Anand, chess, chathurangam and Velliappan

41 year old Padma Vibhushan Vishwanathan Anand has brought so much glory to India with his exploits in chess. Whether his historic contribution is fully appreciated by his countrymen is doubtful. Four times World Champion, in the great mind game! Bravo Anand.

Chess, in its earlier form known as Chathurangam, is believed to have been born in India in the 6th century. Later it spread to West Asia and China. The Moors picked up the game during attacks on Persia and took it to Spain when they conquered that country. From there chess spread to other parts of Europe. Incidentally, Vishwanathan Anand lives in Madrid, Spain.

But till Anand came into the limelight, the only Indian who was internationally famous in the game was Punjab’s Mir Sultan Khan. He was the British Chess Champion in 1929, 1932 and 1933 and participated in three Chess Olympiads as the representative of Britain. Chess, which was also known as the ‘King’s Game’, was modernized in the 19c and the first tournament of the new version was held in London in 1851. But the old chathurangam mode continued at many places in India, including Olavipe, my village.

Velliappan ( my father’s elder cousin) was the patron of the game in our area. Two things he loved were Carnatic music and chess. For a long time there was a group of live in musicians in his house. The south-eastern portion of the ettukettu buildining was their domain. They would start tuning their instruments from early morning.

The south-western side of the building was chess area. An elderly Gowda Saraswath Brahmin who stayed not too far away, was in charge of that section. We used to call him Konkani. He would arrive at sunrise, make the chess pieces (I’ll come to that later), place them on the board, and wait.

This situation would continue till Velliappan decided, after breakfast, his pursuit for the day. If he hums a classic and the ‘tuk tuk’ sound of his methiadi (wooden sandals) on hard floor is heard on the eastern veranda, the Konkani could go home. Otherwise the musicians would pack up for the day.

The chess group included a man named Pylee. According to Velliappan, he was good enough for international level chess. It seems that in a Capablanca (World Champion 1921-1927) match in the 1920s the loser failed to gauge the impact that a move would have 23 turns later. When the position was laid out to Pylee, he said that there was some problem 20 moves later. Incredible. But Pylee died unknown except in our area.

I used to go to Velliappan’s house to play with his son Kuttappan who is about my age. One day Velliappan summoned me and ordered me to sit in front of the chess board. I was about ten years old then. Velliappan first explained to me chathurangam. All that I remember of it now is that most of the pieces had much less power than in chess. Then I, a not too interested student, was taught the basics of chess.

From then on I used steal into that house to escape Velliappan’s attention. But whenever he realized that I was there, it meant hours of chess. I did develop some interest in the game and learned a few of the techniques that helped me at college level games.

Velliappan and I played chess for years. I could never match his skills and he always won. Then one day, Velliappan who was quite old then, was taking much longer than usual to make a move. His face was flushed. Then a younger cousin of his walked in, studied the board and laughed. “Chetta, you have lost,” he said to Velliappan.

The old man swiped the pieces off the board angrily, got up and walked away to his room. It was then that I realized that I had, or would have, won. Velliappan and I never played chess again.

Now, about the Konkani and the chess pieces. The first thing that the man did after reaching Velliappan’s house was to cut a big leaf from a banana plant. He would shave off the green flexible part of the leaf and bring the thick middle rib into the house.

Then the ritual began. He would recite a sloka (poem) and start cutting according to it the mid rib of the leaf from the base. One by one the chess pieces would emerge. I think the first piece was the ‘white’ king and the next the ‘black’ king.

These pieces did not have colour of course. The differentiation of the two sets of chessmen was by size. The ‘white’ pieces were called vankaru (large piece) and the black cherukaru (small piece). Since cherukaru was always cut after the similar vankaru, it was always smaller.

It is a matter of regret to me that I never bothered to write down the sloka that the Konkani used for creating the chess pieces sixty years back.