Friday, October 8, 2010

The twin traditions in emceeing

A master of ceremonies cannot afford to be cynical; he has to have a handsome and ingratiating presence, a charming and cunningly modulated voice, and, more importantly, a seemingly optimistic outlook.  If you are intelligent, you can affect all the three.  But, intelligence of which, I believe, sensitivity is a part and hypocrisy don't go together.  Given that, at most gatherings, the emcee is expected to lavish praise on people who are unworthy of any praise, and to describe fatuous speeches as illuminating, a sensitive emcee -- an unusual collocation because sensitivity and emceeing can hardly go together -- is apt to get depressed and cynical and ends up putting on a lacklustre performance.

What set me reflecting on emceeing was a function I had attended recently.  The emcee not only lavished high-flown compliments on the chief guest, who proved equal to the situation by extravagantly affecting modesty of the exemplary kind, but adopted a declamatory style, liberally interlarded with quotations from classical Telugu poetry and outrageous hyperboles which sounded hilariously old-fashioned. 

This baloney is, however, flattery so thick that it doesn't do much harm.  In straightforward flattery of this kind, the emcee compares the rich man's generosity to, say, Karna's, his aesthetic talent to Viswanatha Satyanarayana's, and his patronage to Sri Krishnadevaraya's, and everyone concerned knows that the man being praised is far from being all those things, and that the emfy (master of flattery) is only following a tradition.  The virtue of this tradition is its apparent artificiality.

Blarney, however, is flattery so thin that it deceives people.  G K Chesterton describes it as the "most poisonous kind of eulogy" and explains how it operates.  The flatterer takes a rich man's superficial life, clothes, hobbies or love of dogs and then enormously exaggerates the value and importance of these natural qualities, so much so the rich man emerges as a prophet and a saviour.  While the eloquent emcee takes for granted that the guest of honour is an ordinary man and sets out to make him out extraordinary, the devious emcee takes for granted that the guest of honour is extraordinary and that, therefore, even the ordinary things about him are great!

Emceeing of these two kinds will thrive as long as people love the lies that save their pride.  The plain-spoken emcee has to wait until people start tolerating unflattering truths.

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