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Updated: December 20, 2011 09:39 IST

A rags to riches story

B. Kolappan
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Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar.
The Hindu Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar.

While Chembai earned much during his career, he gave a lot away to charity

His rags to riches story with ups and downs has all the ingredients of a feature film.  He lost his voice, not once, but twice — once as an adolescent and later at the peak of his career. He made a miraculous comeback on both occasions and only few singers made the kind of money Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar earned. He, however, lost all his land when the communist government led by E.M.S Namboothiripad brought in land reforms. He continued to make money, but adopted a self-imposed spartan life, donating all the revenues to the Guruvayur temple. He died at the same venue where he gave his first concert.

When historian V. Sriram gave a presentation on Chembai at the TAG Centre, peppered with anecdotes, audio and video clippings, the audience was left with the surrealistic feeling that the singer was sitting before them giving a concert.

Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, born into a family of musicians, also inherited the large-heartedness of his ancestors.

“His great-grandfather Subbaiyar was a recipient of the ‘Ghana Chakratanam', and a golden toda for his singing tanam. He gave the toda to a poor man and it was brought to the notice of the king who gave the present. When asked, Subbaiyar said the poor man needed it more than himself. The king gave him another toda and sent him home with escorts to ensure that he did not give away the prize yet again to anyone,” Sriram said. Chembai gave his first concert at Ottapalam Krishnan temple in 1905 and his talent was spotted by Kaliakudi Natesa Sastry, who brought him to Tanjavur and trained him.

“Subsequently three Pillais — Pudukottai Dashinamurthy Pillai, Kumbakonam Azhagiya Nambia Pillai and Malaikottai Govindasamy Pillai. The three, of course, had one agenda: to promote someone against Kancheepuram Naina Pillai, who was not a Tanjorean. They also strongly believed that Palghat Brahmins originally belonged to Tanjavur and migrated to Palghat,” he said.

Later, Chembai himself had promoted many young musicians including Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, T.V. Gopalakrishnan and K.J. Jesudas. It was he who ensured that the left-handed mridangam artiste Palani Subrmania Pillai rose from obscurity and got worldwide recognition.

“He had violinist Chowdaiah change his position from the left side of the main artiste to the right to accommodate Palani. Chowdaiah was reluctant at the beginning, but acknowledged Palani's talents and swapped sides,” Sriram said.

When All India Radio refused to announce the name of T.V. Gopalakrishnan who accompanied him on mridangam on the grounds that he was not a graded artiste, Chembai, in the middle of the concert announced, “mridangam vaasikarathu gopalakrishnanaakum” [It is Gopalakrishnan who is playing the mridangam].

Chembai also acted in a movie ‘Vaani', made by Chowdaiah, giving a performance along with the violinist and Palghat Mani Iyer. The movie was a flop, but Chembai wanted the money as promised by Chowdaiah. “But he refused to touch the money and used it to buy a necklace for the local deity,” Sriram said. He even replaced all the thatched houses in his village with roof tiles at his own expense and acquired a tile-manufacturing unit for the purpose.

According to him, Chembai's singing style completely changed after he recovered his voice for the second time. “He gave up all the tough and intricate aspects of his singing and his music was laden with bhakti,” he added.

His last concert was also held at the Ottapalam Krishnan temple.

The temple priest told him that he would live a 120 years. Chembai responded saying that there was a kanakku between him and Lord Krishna and the priest could not predict it. Then he did his sandhya vandanam. His head slid to one side and he was gone.

In his tribute, Palghat Mani Iyer said, “Ariyakudi sang till he had his peychu [speech]. Chembai sang till his last moochu [breath]”.

Chembai was a great devotee of Lord Guruvayurappan. The esteemed writer has given a Detailed account of the music maestro and this writer is narrating this to show that he Surrendered to the lord of guruvayur, when his voice failed a second time. It seems that Bhagavathar could not regain his voice by medical treatment and than he went to guruvayur, believing in the concept of Saranagathi to the Lord and did bhajan at GuruvAyur for complete recovery. After the bhajan lasting several days, he regained the voice, and several rasikas have expressed the views, that there was more divinity in his voice, than before. This is another case, like the recovery of Meppathur, the author of the famous NARAYANEEYAM. The annual Chembai concert at Guruvayur attract musicians from many States in India as well.C.P.Chandra Das, AIRLINGTON, Memphis, America.

from:  C.p.Chandra das
Posted on: Jan 6, 2012 at 02:09 IST

I had the rare privilege to attend the music concert of Chembai Vaidya natha Bhagavathar With his sishya Yesudas together at the Music academy, Radhakrishna Salai, madras. I was told that this was their first public concert together at a public function in the city. The Auditorium was packed. The sishya, showing respect to his great master, sat slightly behind The maestro, but very near and I can never forget that incident in my life. I am a nonentity In the music field, but apart from enjoying the heavenly bliss, I learnt lot of lessons on Guru-sishya bandham on that memorable day. Throughout the programme, the great master, slightly turning to the left, to embrace his sishya, when the sishya's alapana was at It's top form and the entire musical fraternity roared to the delight of the two singers. The Bhakthi shown by the sishya was also at it's zenith. I have also watched Chembai several Times praying at the Kapaleeswar shrine,madras.

from:  C.p.Chandra das
Posted on: Dec 20, 2011 at 15:55 IST

Truly a great musician-compasstionate human being. Belonged to a different generation that deeply believed in the spirit and philosophy embedded in the ancient Carnatic Music. His life offers a path to all celebrated and upcoming musicians and rasikas to follow. The way he breathed his lost is an indication of his closeness to God.
We are much indebted to Sri V. Sriram.

from:  Sampath Chakraverthy Mallur
Posted on: Dec 20, 2011 at 06:33 IST
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