Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (Malayalam ചെമ്പൈ വൈദ്യനാഥ ഭാഗവതര്) was an Indian Carnatic music singer from the state of Kerala. Usually known by his village name Chembai, or simply as Bhagavatar, he was born to Anantha Bhagavatar and Parvati Ammal in 1895. Chembai was noted for his powerful voice and majestic style of singing. His first public performance was in 1904, when he was nine. He was a recipient of several titles and honours in his performing career of 70 years (1904-1974). He was known for his encouragement of upcoming musicians, and also for his ability to spot new talent. He was responsible for popularizing compositions like Rakshamam, Pavana Guru, among others. The music critic 'Aeolus' describes him as "the musician who has meant the most to Carnatic Music in the first fifty years of the 20th century Some of his prominent disciples include Yesudas, T.V.Gopalakrishnan, V.V.Subramaniam, P.Leela, among others. Many memorial music festivals are held in his honour annually since his death in 1974, the most important being the annually celebrated Chembai Sangeetholsavam.
The family's tryst with classical music had spanned about five centuries. Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's great-grandfather Subbier, had been the recipient of the title "Ghana Chakratanam" from a local Maharaja indicating his mastery of a special style of singing tanam
. Chembai's father Anantha Bhagavatar was a vocalist and violinist
. Chembai learnt music
from his own father, from his third year, in the customary guru
tradition, as a part of overall Vedic
Some of the noteworthy early events that helped shape Chembai's career as a Carnatic Musician are:
- His arangetram (debut concert) in Ottapalam (1904)
- Vaikom & Guruvayur Performances (1907)
- A year with Kaliakudi Natesa Sastry (1909)
- Accolades from Palghat Anantharama Bhagavatar (1911)
- Violin and Flute training (1912)
- Karur Concert (1913)
- Pondicherry Concert (1915)
- Ernakulam Concert (1915)
- Thiruvavaduthurai Concert (1915)
- Palakkad Ramanavami Concert (1916)
- First concert in Madras (1918)
- First concert with Chowdiah and Palghat Mani Iyer (1924)
- Inaugural concert at the Madras Music Academy (1927)
Release of recordings
Between 1932 and 1946, Chembai's music was captured on several phonograph
discs. Those were the days before the advent of the microphone
in concerts and a singer was entirely dependent on the timbre and reach of his voice for a successful concert. Chembai was uniquely blessed in this respect, for his voice which had great depth, was a special attraction.
Lalita Dasar Kritis (1945)
Chembai had an old friend called T.G.Krishna Iyer in Tripunithura
, who had by this time settled in Madras
) and offered a house to Chembai on Palace Road near Santhome
, in a locality called 'Lalita Nagar' he had himself developed. He had composed some 155 kritis
under the mudra
' and requested Chembai to set them to music and popularise them. Chembai accepted the invitation and set the kritis to classical music, and got them published under the name Lalita Dasar Keertanaigal
. He made it a practice to sing these kritis in most of his concerts. The kriti Pavana Guru in the raga Hamsanandi is one that is now famous. He also released a record containing selected kritis from Lalita Dasar's kritis like Evariki Telusunamma (Dhanyasi
), Ennil Kaninda (Shankarabharanam
), Pavana Guru (Hamsanandi
), Varijadala Lochani (Arabhi
), among others.
Loss and regain of voice
In 1952, Chembai was singing in a concert at the temple town of Suchindram. In the middle of the concert, his voice chords snapped and he could not sing thereafter. The concert ended in confusion. Here is an account (in his own words) of how his faith in God had brought back his voice:
“On January 7, 1952, I was giving a concert at holy Suchindram. An hour had elapsed and I was at the peak of my performance. All of a sudden, my vocal cords got stuck up, as it were, and my voiced totally failed me. The concert broke up in confusion. Many rushed up to the dais to render help. Doctors tried their best with pills and potions but to no avail.
I went through life without any hope and no ray of hope seemed to come anywhere. In this state of desperation, in 1954, on the great Ekadasi Day in Guruvayoor, I stood before the Lord and wrung out my heart to Him. I could not give vocal utterance to my anguish. Memories of the glorious days when I had sung His praises surged forward.
O Lord, I cried out, will Thou not let me sing Thy praises? Will Thou let my heart break, for without this outward expression of my heart's agony, I can hardly live? Had Not Thou in the past not given the gift of speech to the great Muka Kavi? Had he not sung Thy praises in enchanting Sanskrit verses known so well as the Muka Panchasati Stotras?
In my agony and mute supplication to the Lord, I had not noticed a Namboothiri standing at a distance of some fifty feet from me. He divined my trouble and came to me. He had evidently heard my inarticulate prayer. He promised to rid me of my trouble, Guruvayoorappan willing.
The Lord had sent his minister to help me and I regained my voice. In keeping with my promise I have since then been singing the praises of Bhagavan. Every year, I have the 'Udayastamana' puja performed at the temple fo Guruvayoor and the sum of Rs. 5,000 need for it comes from the concerts that Guruvayoorappan himself arranged.”
Performing ability and style
He could do a niraval and swaraprastara from any given point (a view attested by his disciples), which bespoke of mental alertness in a concert. His empathy for his accompanists and disciples was noteworthy and he would go to great lengths to encourage them.
Chembai's music had a direct appeal to his listeners. According to Mr. B.V.K.Sastri, 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 śruti 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.
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. His disciples and others who consider him their guru, include noted musicians like L. Subramaniam
, Guruvayur Dorai
, Palghat Mani Iyer
, Palani Subramaniam Pillai
, P.Leela, Coimbatore Mani Bhagavatar
, Trivandrum Mani Bhagavatar
Raman Namboodiri, O.M.Vasudevan
, Njeralath Rama Pothuval
, T.V.Gopalakrishnan, V.V.Subramanian
, L. Shankar
, K. J. Yesudas
Awards and Honours
Chembai received various awards in his long career.
He performed his last concert on 16 October 1974
, at a temple in Ottapalam
, which had been the venue of his first concert. He had finished his concert with his favourite song "Karunai Cheivan Endu Thamasam Krishna" (Why is there so much delay in conferring your bliss, Krishna?
) and passed away shortly thereafter. Even after his demise, Chembai continues to inspire many musicians who participate in his memorial concerts
At Chembai village
Chembai had been conducting a music festival in his native village right from 1924 onwards. This is now continued by his disciples and others in his memory. The concerts are called Chembai Smaraka Concerts and held annually in February-March in the same village.
Another memorial music festival is conducted by Chembai Memorial Trust at Trivandrum
in his honour in September every year.
Chembai had also been conducting a Sangeetholsavam (Music Festival) on Guruvayur Ekadasi
Day (mid November) at Guruvayur every year. This festival, now called Chembai Sangeetholsavam
in his honour, is now being conducted officially by the Guruvayur temple Devaswom
Chembai memorial music festival is conducted by Chembai Smruthi Gana Sabha [Mumbai] in his honour every year.
Chembai has many recordings to his credit. The following are the album-covers of a few of the recordings of Chembai commercially published:
More information about these is available at Chembai discography
Book on Chembai
Chembai Smruthi Gana Sabha, Mumbai is released a book on Chembai - "Pavanaguru
" - showcasing different facets of Chembai's Music and life.
- Sarma, L.R.Viswanatha (1954), 'Chembai Selvam', Amudha Nilayam Ltd.
- Aeolus, Shankar's Weekly (Journal), Dec 12, 1963.
- 'Sruti' Issue 98, Nov 1992
- Social History of Music in Kerala
- Discography of Chembai