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]”.