In a glittering opening ceremony dominated by powerful men, the real stars were two frail beings.
One arrived in a wheelchair, the other walked to the stage with assistance. One was 82, the other 86.
It was a celebration of India's prodigal, and the government had pulled out all stops in hosting its Pravasi Bharatiyas, the Indian Diaspora. They were feted by the country's best, and the two frail men -- Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar, masters of their craft for more than 60 years -- were there on stage to welcome them.
They saluted each other in that endearing manner of Indian classical artistes, bowed to the already applauding audience and sat down. The seven accompanists formed a semicircle around the sitar and shehanai maestros, who began a rendition composed specially for the event.
The jugalbandi was perfect. The Ustad and the Pandit -- performing together for the first time; incredible given they have been artistes since the 1930s -- complimented each other at the end of each individual piece.
"Ustadji is the oldest classical artist from northern India," Panditji said before the performance, "At 82, I am the second one after him. I wish he will continue to play for many, many years."
Nazim Khan, Ustadji's youngest son, accompanied the masters on the tabla along with Bikram Ghosh. Dressed in a kurta-pyjama, the spiral-haired musician said this performance would always be memorable.
"Ustadji had instructed us to keenly follow Panditji. He said we were used to playing with him [Ustad Bismillah Khan], so we should watch Panditji, with whom we had not played before."
Sitting behind Panditji, playing the tanpura, was his granddaughter Kaveri Shankar, his late son Shubhendra's child. A professional Bharat Natyam dancer who will perform at the FICCI auditorium on January 24, Kaveri said the troupe only had a couple of rehearsals before the show.
A few weeks before the event, Bikram Ghosh was informed about the recital. An accompanist with Panditji for the last 10 years, Ghosh said the troupe's final rehearsal lasted only 20 minutes.
"I wish we could have done a longer performance," said tanpura accompanist Kinji Ota.
A student of Panditji and disciple of Indian music, Ota moved to Los Angeles from Japan. This was his third performance with Panditji.
But for Ajay Sharma, it was an association that ran into five decades. Hailing from a family of musical instrument-makers, his family has supplied instruments to Ravi Shankar since the time his father was the sitar legend's student in Old Delhi.
"I was so excited about this performance," he said. "How the minutes flew past!"
Under the flutter of pigeons that often criss-crossed the auditorium, the audience was unaware the invocation had overshot its stipulated time.
"We extended it by 10 minutes, I think," Panditji later said in the green room, flanked by wife Sukanya and Kaveri, as he waited for his car.
Glancing at the dignitaries and the huge audience, Ustad Bismillah Khan surmised the recital in one short sentence: "You all have enjoyed the performance, this has gladdened our hearts."
Sharing the dais with him and Panditji were the power centres of the Indian government -- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his deputy L K Advani, Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha. And sitting in the VIP rows of the auditorium were more of the famous, from politics and business, and also prominent Indians who had earned great name and wealth abroad.
All of them that morning looked utterly small. Dwarfed by the unquestionable genius of two frail legends.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh