Bhawana Somaaya on Meeting the President & Winning the Padma Shri

Ever since the Padma Awards have been announced on 26 January 2017, everyone I met was curious to know how I felt and more importantly, when I would be visiting the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The ceremony is held in March/ April, depending on mid-term elections and usually in a single group. This time, the 100-plus awardees were divided into two groups - the first group felicitated in March-end and the second in mid-April.

The Ministry office mailed us the schedule weeks in advance and requested us to arrive in the capital a night prior to the rehearsals. Most of us did and were expertly briefed on the flow of event.

All the awardees, irrespective of their titles ( Padma Shri/ Padma Bhushan/ Padma Vibhushan) were put up in the same hotel and it was interesting to walk down the long corridor greeting, chatting and sometimes, dining with other awardees from different fields and states.

Next morning, it was only as we were on our way to the venue that the enormity of the moment hit me. As my driver Darshan Singh swerved into the VIP enclave and displayed the car pass to gate number 37, my mind unwittingly flash-backed to R Balki’s Paa, where MP Abhishek Bachchan seeks special permission to take Auro (Amitabh Bachchan) to visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Unlike Auro though, I made sure I walked down the long passage slowly and quietly, soaking in every bit of the ambiance and the experience.

Bhawana Somaaya received the Padma Shri from the President. (Photo courtesy: Bhawana Somaaya)

The first thing that strikes you about the place is its magnitude - the gardens with their colorful flowers, the multiple pillars and the red carpet covering the stone steps. Inside, it is the architecture, the high ceiling, innumerable chandeliers and the sheer magnificence of the room.

As an assistant helps each of us to get seated in our respective chairs (marked with our names), another briefs us on the flow of the event. But a million thoughts flood my mind. This is the room that has recorded national history since pre-Independence days. It has witnessed so many charismatic leaders and swearing-in ceremonies of so many Presidents. The bright and shining chandeliers, the peaceful Buddha idol and all the podiums - all have so many stories to tell.

After a near-perfect mock rehearsal, we walk back through the historic corridor, admiring the murals on the walls and the ceilings. We are unhappy that we cannot take any pictures but there is no protesting security.

And finally, the day we have all been waiting for…

At 11 am, when I come down to the hotel lobby, I can sense excitement all around me. Most of the awardees and their companions are ready before time and clicking pictures before setting off to the venue. The hotel staff is as excited and joins in the fanfare and wishes us good luck.

Outside, the Delhi temperature is rising but inside Rashtrapati Bhavan, the energy is indescribable. It is a wonderful to watch ADCs go about their jobs flawlessly. Everything moves with clockwork precision.

Ministers Rajnath Singh, LK Advani and others arrive punctually. Then just a few minutes before 12 noon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finally President, Pranab Mukherji arrive. A row of flags, national anthem on the drums and the ceremony officially begins.

In show business, actors believe that the best rehearsal can never match the final take and this proves true for the civilian awards today.

Post ceremony and pictures, we proceed for the refreshments in the adjoining room and we are in for a surprise as the President, hands folded and escorted by his guards, walks down the corridor so he can greet all the assembled guests. A few minutes later, the Prime Minister follows the same exercise and I am privileged to chat with him for a few moments.

Before the ceremony, every time I was asked about how I felt to be singled out for a Padma honour, I used to blush and shy away from the attention. Now, with the awesome scroll and the medal in my bag, I want to say, ‘It is a privilege to be honored by my country!’

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 13 books. Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)

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