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Chembai - The Legend

Chembai was the most highly respected classical musician of his days. His professional career spanned 70 years, from 1904 to 1974, perhaps the longest of any musician. Chembai's entry to classical music can be compared to that of a fish taking to water. Born in a family of musicians, whose tryst with musicianship ran uninterruptedly over several generations, he had music in his blood.



A great grandson of Chakratana Subba Aiyar, who was a contemporary of the musical trinity, and son of Anantha Bhagavatar, young Vaidyanathan had music readymade for him. He once said "By the grace of God, I had no necessity arduously to tread the way from one guru to another. Music was readymade for me at my home.'' He had his early training under his father and equipped himself fully to give an independent performance even at the age of nine.

When a relative predicted at Chembai's birth that he would eventually become the King of Music ('Sangeetha Samrat'), it came as no surprise to his father. It seems that even as an infant, young Chembai was always to be found wherever his father was teaching music to his disciples and started learning music right from the day when he started talking. Chembai had his first 'paid' concert in 1904 at the 'Sri Krishnan Temple' at Olappamana, in Ottapalam accompanied by his father on the violin. To those assembled there to hear the young Bhagavatar sing, it soon became clear that his fame in due course was going to spread beyond their district. Though Anantha Bhagavatar had a lot of difficulty in making both ends meet, he would not charge anything from his disciples - so firm was his belief that music was beyond money. This same attitude was inherited by the young Vaidyanathan as he started a free music school in his village in his fifteenth year to help his father's cause.

Among the musicians of Kerala of the recent past, the most illustrious and revered musical personality is on all account Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar who, as a young vocalist has put it recently, "is the pride and joy of any self-respecting musician from Kerala." He was the only musician from Kerala to have found his place in the galaxy of the greats in that glorious period in the history of modern Karnataka music.

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was born in the village of Chembai in Palakkad on September 14, 1896 to Ananta Bhagavatar and Parvathy Ammal. He had a brother, Subramanyan and a sister. Born into a family of musical lineage, Vaidyanatha Iyer was initiated into music by his father at the age of three. His debut was in 1904 at the age of eight and the next year he made his first paid concert at a temple festival in Ottappalam. Around this time, the renowned harikatha exponent, Kaliakudi Natesa Sastrigal visited the village of Chembai and happened to hear the young boy, Vaidyanathan. Impressed by the boy's potential, Sastrigal took the boy along with him to accompany him on his concert tours. During this tour which lasted for an year, at Tiruvarur the boy was introduced to the eminent mridangam vidwan of the day, Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai. The senior vidwan took the young Vaidyanathan to the concerts of some of the maestros who were to be part of the history of modern Karnataka music, like Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar, Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar, 'Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Madurai Pushpavanam, Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, Malaikkottai Govindaswamy Pillai and others. After the formal initial training got from his father, this exposure to the styles of the established practitioners was to prove to be a major influence on the young Vaidyanathan, still in his formative period.

Of all these greats, Chembai would later in his life single out one for special mention and that is Palakkad Anantarama Bhagavatar. In an interview with the noted novelist Uroob, recorded for the Kozhikode station of the AIR, Chembai pays tribute to his senior artist, making a reference to his knowledge and his deep-throated and vigorous sarira. Anantarama Bhagavatar had been very appreciative of Chembai, too and encouraged him unreservedly. During his stay in Chennai, once he meets the pontiff of the Thiruvaduthurai mutt, Ambalavana Desikar and sings for him, after which the pleased saint arranges for a full-length concert by him the next day. At thirty, he was already an established musician who found his legitimate place among the front-ranking artists of the time, like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Kancheepuram Naina Pillai, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and so on.

He had cut his first disc in 1932 by Columbia for which he rendered the kriti "Orumaiyudan..." by Ramalingaswamy in ragamalika. Persuaded by Chowdiah, he appeared in the Kannada musical film of 1941, Vani, produced by the late K. Hirannaiah and in which Chowdiah plays the lead, to present the sequence of a kutcheri teamed up with Chowdiah and Palakkad Mani Iyer. The Madras Music Academy had conferred its prestigious title "Sangita Kalanidhi" on him in 1951 and the Central Sangeet Natak Akademy had honored him with its award in 1958. He was bestowed Padma Bhushan in 1973. Among his disciples are T.V. Gopalakrishnan, V.V. Subramaniam, K.J. Yesudas, the brothers K.G. Jayan and Vijayan, P.Leela, T.K.Govinda Rao, Kadayanallur Venkataraman, Sukumari Narendra Menon, his nephew Chembai Narayanan, Njeralathu Rama Poduval and Shoolapani Varier. Others whom he directly identified at an early age and thereafter encouraged include Mysore Chowdiah, T.N.Krishnan, M.S.Gopalakrishnan, Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramaniam Pillai, Srimushnam Raja Rao, L.Subramaniam, Kandadevi Alagirisamy, Sethuramiah, Vellore Ramabhadran, Umayalapuram Sivaraman, Palghat Raghu, Trichur Mohan, Mavelikkara Krishnankutty Nair, Trichur Narendran, Palghat Rajamani, V.V.Ravi, Lalgudi GJR Krishnan etc.

In 1952 happened an event in his life which left an indelible mark on his life, art and personality ever since. It was sometime in 1952, Chembai was concluding his recital before his patron deity, Guruvayurappan, with that kriti "Karuna cheyvanenthu thamasam..." that was always associated with him. Suddenly he felt choked and realized that his voice was failing him and that he could not sing. After a rigorous course of Ayurvedic treatment, coupled with pujas and prayers to his patron deity at Guruvayur, he regained his voice. But ever since the incident, he remained an ardent devotee of Guruvayur. So much so that in popular imagination his name that was and still is, an inextricable part of the folk lore of bhakti associated with the temple, assumes almost mythical proportions. For such a man who in his life and in his many-splendoured art, was a practitioner and exponent of the sentiment of bhakti (of a personal, non-scholastic, lay kind), it was an expression of all the higher values, ideals and goals in life. To complement this aspect of his personality, it should be remembered that Chembai had never been the beneficiary of any royal patronage and it seems that he was not very happy with the idea of a patron-protege relationship. The fact that he never felt at home in the ceremoniousness and regalia of courtly procedure and had expressed it so, is borne out by the incident in the Mysore palace when he expressed his inability to observe the dress regulations as part of the durbar protocol. The Tiruvitamkur royal family's relation with the greatest musician from Kerala of the time is known to have been sour and his name had never been associated with the Navaratri Mandapam concerts, the major annual music event in Tiruvananthapuram. Together with this should be seen how he was above caste and communal prejudices ruling the roost in contemporary music world, especially in his relation with his disciples, allowing any aspiring and talented youngster to learn from him. He has been remembered for the acts of kindness and encouragement he had always shown to his younger accompanists for whom accompanying him was an object lesson in the many aspects of concert practice.

His end too, had more than a touch of accidence in its manner of divine dispensation as befits the pattern of worldly events in a life in which music was redemptive in its spiritual yearnings. On October 16, 1974 he was slated to perform at the Parthasarathy temple at Kantallur in Palakkad. He was in peak form, surrounded by a host of disciples and listened to by discerning musical elites, he was perfectly relaxed, cracking jokes and addressing those known to him among the audience individually through the mike. After the concert he posed for photographers, surrounded by children and wished to be helped to the front of the shrine. He sat down to offer prayers for a while before returning to Olappamanna mana where he arrived from Chennai the previous day. After the evening ablutions at the mana, he settled down for the evening prayer and immediately after breathed his last. It was as if every thing was preordained, the series of events falling in place in a pattern that described a perfect circlethe inevitability of consummation and fulfillment.

The music of a man for whom the governing principle of his life was piety, compassion and humility expressed through the sentiment of personalized bhakti, is bound to be informed by it. This musical content of Chembai which is elemental in its simplicity of being true to itself and abiding in its meaning, is expressed through a style that does not cajole for easy appeal or call attention to itself in a `see-my-skill' fashion through self-consciously projected stylistic flourishes. Each swara expressed through his rugged and brazen voice, full-throated and stentorian in its sheer power and crystalline in akara but at the same time, a forthright speaking voice, is itself expressive of a certain incandescence of mind, the kind of incandescence of mind that Virginia Woolfe experiences in Shakespeare. His style may deceptively sound cumbersome and gross to those who cannot get an insight into the spiritual yearnings of his lofty musical ideal. The eminent violinist V.V. Subramaniam, also from Kerala, who has been groomed by Chembai, has stated how the master would teach him all gamakas and alankaras for which he himself has but little use as, according to him, he does not practise bhava sangeet. This conscious jettisoning of all embellishments and exuberance is quite in keeping with the austerity of his style of singing which was always at the service of devotion in which are subsumed all other affective states of the musical content on the level of a transpersonal experience. While adhering to discipline of expression and sensitivity to form in the traditional manner, his exposition eschews all pretences to facility and virtuosity, all over-refinement and rhetorics, for the sake of the higher reaches of artistic meaning, thereby achieving a certain lightness, a modesty combined with a certain unsubtle gravity which, if you miss the point, can be mistaken for awkwardness.

Raghav R. Menon, after describing Chembai as 'the greatest genius from south', goes on to say: "The voice that sang 'Sree Rama mantram' or 'Agre pasyami tejo' is not merely 'surreal'. It is not only that Chembai has a better voice than someone else. It is not a matter of being better or worse. Its resonance, its power are all things that can attract comparison. But there is a message that voice leaves in the listener's soul, a memory like the ubiquitous murmur of surf, long after the particular sangatis of his rendering have been forgotten. There is nothing more in his Mohanam that a reasonably well-trained student of his own could not have reproduced but of course there is also something in it which mere mechanical practice or mere instruction cannot produce. And that is of course the swara in his note. A presence within the single note that raises the kriti from an excellence of degree to the mute level of an experience."

When Chembai says that his music is not bhava sangeet (as told to V.V. Subramaniam), it should not be taken to mean that it is a prosaic exercise in scalar movement (as indeed many may tend to think) but that his musical content, musical ideas and musical bhava do not align themselves with the gross matter of sensuous experience nor are evocative of such ego-driven, self-directed states of mind. The kind of incandescence of mind mentioned earlier, reached after all the passions and conflicts are fired out and consumed, is what endows his music with the bhava that is close to the concept of santa as the ultimate rasa in Indian poetics. It may be noted that bhakti is a catch-all term which can mean anything at all and at the same time, nothing whatever in the running themes of the critical regimes of Karnataka music. While it is open season for bhakti as a value-laden term of reference not so much in musical practice as such, as in critical prescriptions where it is called upon as an operative term, its relation to contemporary musical experience has not received serious thought. The difference with Chembai is that in his case bhakti offers a term of reference for his musical ideas and the ideological underpinnings of his art such that the duality between the man and his art comes as close as could be.

One of his disciples, who was present at his very last concert, shortly after which he breathed his last, describes his recital that day: "There was no trace of infirmity about his bronzy sarira which was a blend of vigour and an unknown serenity. Wholesome tunefulness of sruti, rigorous rhythmic precision, though without denture, clear enunciation of the text, fervent and tempestuous swara prastara, undulating niraval, his own kathiri swara (split notes, literally, scissors-notes), as only he did, soulful evocation suffused with bhakti..."

Purist as he was, his stupendous stamina (once he sang for six hours in the Madras Music Academy), the metallic calibre and weightiness of his voice, its reach and volume, combined with an unimpeded and open-throated akara, all go to make a style that is individual but not individualistic. Over the decades his tempo had slowed down and his voice mellowed into something more ponderous and introspective. After he had recovered from the affliction that caused the loss of voice, when he started singing again, he had initially had trouble reaching the upper shadja in the druta kala (fast tempo) but he soon regained his earlier form.

At a time when including Malayalam compositions in one's repertoire was not considered very commendable, it was Chembai who sang and popularized kritis like "Karuna cheyvanendu thamasam..." by Irayimman Tampi. He would sing it without fail in every concert as one of the concluding pieces. This composition used to be sung traditionally in the raga Sree. Chembai changed it to Yadukula Kambhoji, with the last charanam rendered in the sopana style in Puranir. This change of raga is suggestive of an interpretation of the composition so as to invest it with a new personal meaning of its musical content. Chembai's innovation has come to stay and the composition is associated ever since with the raga in which he sang it. His music has imbibed in a latent manner such aspects of the essentially Kerala tradition of music as the sopana for which he had great admiration. Another interesting case in point is his distinctly different way of swara singing, in its rhythmic spacing and patterned phrasing which had been derived from, as he acknowledges, the drum playing in unison in the tayambaka ensemble between Panankurissi Govinda Poduval and Malokkavil Ravunni Poduval, of his own village.

It has often been said that Chembai's enunciation of the text and padanthara of the diction were at times improper with his pause and splitting of phrases not always in keeping with the literary undertones of the composition. It could be that Chembai would not have set much store by the semantic subtleties of the text for evocation (which arguably could still be a mimetic function of musical meaning-representation), as the words were themselves an accessory or adjunct to the swara passages from which the tonal figures and musical iconography body forth. One need only remember that such criticism in fact conceals prejudice in the name of value judgement and that there has always been the case of eminent musicians who had resorted to this and that it involves double talk between criticism and commendation, depending on the aesthetic parameters of the received cultural baggage that decide public taste of the given period. Similar is the allegation made about his rather limited repertoire of compositions. Once when asked about this by a researcher, Chembai in fact said that they were only thirty that formed his concert repertoire. Obviously, he knew much more indeed. The implications of this statement have to be understood in the context of a larger truth in relation to the creative equipment and disposition of an artist. What Chembai was saying was that these thirty kritis which he kept singing over and over again in his career were integral to his musical thinking and being, that it was no more a matter of 'knowing' them. The others, he may 'know'. A little like the Renaissance painters who were restricted to depict only a few set Biblical themes according to religious conventions, like Nativity, Annunciation, Lamentation, Crucifixion, The Magi, etc., but who got the better of this limitation through their ever so innovative interpretation of them. Sri T.V.Gopalakrishnan says that once you go to his home in the evenings, Chembai used to sing any number of rare krithis which the listener might not have heard before at all. It should be observed that he sometimes sang a lot of very rare krithis in his concerts too with all sangathis in such a pefect manner that would leave the listener wondering as to how many such krithis he knew and why he had not sung them more often before. Accounts and anecdotes about his large-heartedness, his very human empathy, his personal warmth and affection and above all, the grandeur of his musical aesthetics, are legion. There sure is something old-world about him for a present-day music enthusiast. For that, his musical equipment, musical personality and musicianship are a far cry from the self-consciously cultivated demeanour of the English-speaking, self-introducing, raga-announcing performers who are thriving on the oriental exotica still relished in the cross-cultural ambience of diplomatically sponsored musical fun fairs. In the words of Semmangudi: "Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar maintained his tradition and won great popularity, as well. His reverberating voice didn't need a mike, it needed a silencer! You could not make out the sahitya when he sang but he made you sit up and take note. And if anyone was distracted Chembai would say straight into the mike, 'You cannot enjoy my music. Don't talk, just go away'. No one could take liberties with him, he was so pure and upright. When I was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi title in 1947 by the Music Academy, I refused to accept it, saying that Chembai, a person who was in the status of my guru, was not yet awarded the title, and me accepting it first would be disrespectful to him. The matter was laid to rest, until Chembai himself came to me the next day, and persuaded me to accept it. Such a large hearted person is very difficult to find. When I faced a dearth of performing opportunities in 1929, it was Chembai who took me to his village and made me perform before Chembai Parthasarathy, the presiding deity of the village temple. He then assured me that I had a bright future and asked me to keep working on my music. His prophecy later came true, and here I am." Chembai's monumental vocalism that knew no constraints or compulsions of the trendy present stands as the splendour of a past that is at an archaeological distance from us.

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