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.

13 comments:

Ashvin said...

:-)

How I miss my father... need to come and sit and talk to you....

Abraham Tharakan said...

Most welcome, Ashvin.

Sukhdeepak said...

Very nice blog. I really enjoyed it.

Evergreen songs said...

good one

Anand Antony said...

Being world champion 4 times is a mammoth feat in itself. Add to this the fact that Anand was the first grandmaster India had ever produced. And also add the fact that India is just a 'minnow' in the sporting world of chess - Eastern Europe has churned out Grandmasters even in their 14's (Judith Polgar). We can then see that this achievement should be right among on the pinnacle of the whole spectrum of sporting achievements of any kind! As you said I don't think his country men have comprehended the enormity of this achievement. A comparable achievement would be India producing an Ussain Bolt or a Roger Federer. Now there are more Grandmasters in India and hopefully Anand's feat will cause a revival of chess in its birth place. Also I have heard people saying that apart from his mother, the Soviet consulate in Chennai also contributed a lot to the initial development of Anand. I am not sure if this is true.

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

I enjoyed reading that. I am intrigued by the information that a man could carve out chess pieces from the banana leaf rib.
Amazing what art lies in our people.

Viswanathan Anand is amazing, of course - and such modesty, too. We would do well to turn our attention to unsung heroes like him, rather than pander to our spoilt cricketers.

Sorcerer said...

:)
wow! that was such a nice read.
There are many many such talented people in our country who fade away without the world knowing them.

Chess..its something I loved to play during the school days.I mean..not many were into it.
Now..time changed and firstly I dont get time, secondly there are not many who would like to sit and think so hard.
Still my first win with my school mate and at one time with my dad remains so green in my memory!

Thank you again for such a wonderful readl

Vishwas Krishna said...

Super post. Enjoyed reading it.

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

I am so happy that this was published in The Mysore Mail.

Murali RamaVarma said...

Dear AT Sir,

Brilliant piece of writing! Very nostalgic too!

kind regards,

James Zacharias said...

Great post. In fact, one has to presume that chathurangam was a passion during those days. But among whom? Was it popular with the common man Or was it a game of the elite-namboothiris, christian and muslim upper class? The utter simplicity of the 'hardware' involved (a few lines on the ground and a banana leaf!)would have enabled anyone to play the game. But finding the extra time to play and the abundant requirement of the logical faculty would have deterred the subalterns from embracing the game.Subsistence itself would have been their primary concern.Sad that the sloka was lost in transit.

James Zacharias said...

Great post. In fact, one has to presume that chathurangam was a passion during those days. But among whom? Was it popular with the common man Or was it a game of the elite-namboothiris, christian and muslim upper class? The utter simplicity of the 'hardware' involved (a few lines on the ground and a banana leaf!)would have enabled anyone to play the game. But finding the extra time to play and the abundant requirement of the logical faculty would have deterred the subalterns from embracing the game.Subsistence itself would have been their primary concern.Sad that the sloka was lost in transit.

James Zacharias said...

Great post. In fact, one has to presume that chathurangam was a passion during those days. But among whom? Was it popular with the common man Or was it a game of the elite-namboothiris, christian and muslim upper class? The utter simplicity of the 'hardware' involved (a few lines on the ground and a banana leaf!)would have enabled anyone to play the game. But finding the extra time to play and the abundant requirement of the logical faculty would have deterred the subalterns from embracing the game.Subsistence itself would have been their primary concern.Sad that the sloka was lost in transit.