CHEMBAI Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was one of the renowned Carnatic musicians of India. He is known to the music world as Chembai, though it is the name of his hometown. With his vibrant voice and a ringing tone, his music had a direct appeal to his listeners. His creative ability as a performer was marvellous. He has a tonal clarity and flawless articulation with undiluted rhythmic content. His abiding sympathy for his accompanists was remarkable. He was taught music as part of Vedic instruction. Chembai gave his first performance in 1915, along with his brother, at the annual Tyagaraja Music Festival in Ernakulam organised by TA Duraiswamy lyer, a prominent lawyer.
Chembai was born on September 14, 1896 in a family of musicians which has an uninterrupted music tradition of over 200 years! He was the great grandson of Chakratana Subba Aiyar, a contemporary of Saint Tyagaraja and son of Chembai Ananta Bhagavatar under whom he had his early training which helped him to give an independent performance at the tender age of nine! This prompted many parents to send their children to receive training in music. When the number of students swelled, Ananta Bhagavatar assigned his son the task of tutoring some of them. When Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was only 16 years of age, he formally took on the role of a music tutor and this passion for teaching was displayed throughout his life.
Chembai established a school to impart music training for boys and girls free of cost within the framework of the gurukula system in 1923 in his hometown which is functioning even today. He taught music or specific songs to people of diverse backgrounds for decades. He did not teach in order to earn money. Manku Thampuran, a princess of the Cochin royal family was his first disciple to mount the katcheri platform. He has remarked: “Bhagavatar did not pursue his career as teacher to make money. His aim was to create a good number of talented disciples without expecting any return in kind or cash. Though he received token guru dakshina, he often used to extol the virtues of vidya daanam or the gifting of knowledge.”
Chembai would not only teach anyone who cared to learn, but also give lessons at all times of the day and anywhere he found it convenient to do so. It is said that he even conducted a class for his disciples while they were waiting for a delayed train at a railway platform! He never considered infra dig to teach even newcomers, beginning with the rudiments of music.
Chembai was the recipient of several honours from the government as well as from eminent personalities. He was the recipient of Padmabhushan from President of India, the Sangita Kalanidhi title, Central Natak Akadami Award and, the Gayana Gandharva title. Swami Sivananda Maharaj conferred on him the title of Sangita Samrat. Honours were also bestowed on him by the rulers of Cochin, Mysore, Baroda, Vijayanagaram and Jaipur.
Chembai lived the life of a savant and passed away on October 16, 1974. Even after his demise, Chembai continues to inspire countless musicians who participate in the concerts organised in his memory by his disciples and admirers throughout India and abroad.
Chembai was one of the leading practitioners of Carnatic music during its ‘Golden Era’. Chembai along with Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer formed the ‘Modern Trinity of Carnatic Music’. The trio were responsible for keeping up the concert tradition in the beginning of the 20th century before the entry of the bright young stars such as Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GN Balasubramanian, Madurai Mani Iyer and the female-trio comprising of MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and ML Vasanthakumari.
During the span of over 70 years of performance, Chembai took audience to rapturous delights. His voice earned him the fame of ‘Bell Metal Voiced Bhagavatar’ with his majestic and majesty yet sweet and melodious voice. He attributed all his success to Lord Guruvayurappan.
Chembai’s music had a direct appeal to his listeners. According to BVK Sastri, renowned musicologist, “the deep solid tone seeming to illuminate such model figure in his singing and the joy of the pure nada when he held on to single notes are something not easily forgotten.’’ To Chembai, “the main factors that contributed to the development of a musical personality were the intuition of the musician, his sound knowledge of ragas and swaras and firm control of sruti and laya and the capacity to evolve an individual style of expression suited to one’s voice and aptitude and ideas distilled through the variegated experience behind him”.
Chembai trained numerous disciples but, according to one of them, they were all dwarfed by his own tall stature. A list of his more prominent disciples includes Manku Thampuran and her sister Kunjikavu Thampuran, OM Vasudevan Namboodiripad, Mani Bhagavatar of Coimbatore, Vangeri Krishnan Namboodiripad, Raman Namboodiripad of Poomulli Mana, Parameswaran Namboodiri (Babu), Jayan and Vijayan, the twins. R Subbaraju (guru of Mandolin U Srinivas), Chembai Narayanan, Guruvayur Ponnammal and Sukumari Narendra Menon.
Kadayanallur Venkataraman, violinist VV Subramaniam and TV Gopalakrislinan also consider him their guru. TK Govinda Rao and VR Krishnan had their initial training under Chembai. Popular playback singers P Leela and TV Rathnam learnt songs from him, as did Dr KJ Yesudas, who for a few years also provided vocal support to Chembai.
At a concert at Shanmuga-nanda Hall in Mumbai, a member of the audience asked Chembai if he could sing a song on Bombay. Chembai, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, said he could. He went on to sing Aadu paambae, vilayadu paambae.