Chembai - The Composer

Chembai performing with T.K.Ramachandran and T.V.Gopalakrishnan

Pann Raga

Once, while demonstrating the raga Puraneer in a concert, Chembai mentioned that it was a malayala raga, and it was not to be found even in the Sangeeta Ratnakara or in the sangeeta shastras. One of his disciples mentions that it is a 'Pann Raga'. Chembai says "Panno manno, adhellam enakku theriyadu" [Pann or mann (mud), all that I don't know].

Microphone Wire

In another concert, Chembai wanted the organizers to keep the microphone nearer. Finding that the microphone cable (wire) was too short, he said "Namma Vayaru than perisa irukku" [Only my vayaru (belly) is big].

Rama Ninne (Useni)

Chembai was singing a Thyagaraja Kriti in Useni which went "Rama Ninne Nammi Nanu Nijamuka Sita..... Rama Ninne...". His accompanists for the day were Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin and Umayalapuram Sivaraman on the mridangam. In a flash Chembai substituted the word "Sita" with "Jaya" and repeated the line again with "Siva", thus Jayaraman and Sivaraman had their names mentioned. The predominantly malayali audience were highly amused when they realized the import of the whole sentence ("Jayarama and Sivarama, I depend on you").

Extracts from an article in The Hindu Newspaper:

No one could have had a greater sense of humour than Chembai. His concerts were lively with his interjections, "Vasidaa Vilvaadri" etc. Once, when he sang a Tamil viruttam "Orumaiyodu Ninadu Thiruvadi" in Hamsanandi, he pointed to Chowdiah, who was accompanying him, as he sang "Unnai maravaadirukka Vendum".

His rendering of Tamil songs had traces of a Malayalam accent. There was a Tamil number in Mohanam he used to sing often. It went "Idhiname Shuba dinam" and Chembai sang it as "Ee diname Shuba dinam". Once, one of his disciples, keen on the right pronunciation, sang "Idhiname..." almost chewing and spitting out the first few letters, hoping his guru would notice and render the song with the right pronunciation. Chembai must have noticed, for he decided to have some fun. The more the sishya emphasised the first few letters, the more Chembai drew out his "Eee diname". The Malayalam versus Tamil match continued for almost three minutes much to the delight of the audience.

At a concert at Shanmugananda Hall in Bombay, 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".

Memorable Life Incidents
The following tales true were recounted by long-time friend P.A.Raman

The Sage & The Singer

Once Chembai sang in Kanchipuram after the Paramacharya, then the pontiff of the Math, had performed the long Chandramouleeswara pooja. The sage asked him whether he was not tired. Chembai replied: "No, not at all. How can anyone be fatigued watching your Holiness performing the pooja?" The pontiff presented him with a bracelet, a rudraksha necklace, a ponnadai [shawl] and prasada.

Like A Bhagavatar

We were speeding towards Kollam [Quilon] when our car got held up at a railway crossing. A young boy who was tending cattle nearby came up to the car and asked Chembai who he was. Always playful, Chembai asked him:

"What do I look like?" The boy replied smartly: "Like a bhagavatar." When Chembai conceded he was one, the boy asked: "Are you going to sing at Vadayattu Kottai? The concert will be a roaring one, eh?" Chembai had a hearty laugh and said that possibly Guruvayurappan himself had come to bless him.

Sixth Sense

There was an overflowing audience for the concert at Vadayattu Kotai. Chembai was in fine form. There was an intermission during which a curious thing happened. He took a letter from his pocket, waved it at a member of the audience and asked: "You wrote this anonymous letter, didn't you?" The man shamefacedly admitted he had done so, whereupon Chembai admonished him not to write anonymous letters ever again.

Miracle Rain

I was present at the concert given by Chembai at the wedding of the daughter of Postmaster Viswanatha lyer of Kalpathy which took place in Sekharipuram, Palakkad. This was around the time S.G.Kittappa, K.B.Sundarambal and their drama troupe was giving performances in Palakkad and the song Evarani rendered by Kittappa with terrific impact was on everybody's lips. Some of the listeners at the wedding concert requested Chembai to sing this song which is in the Devamritavarshini raga. Chembai replied that although it was summer and it was as dry as it could be, it would rain if he sang any song in that raga. Probably no one believed it because the listeners persisted with the request. Chembai then rendered the song and, miracle of miracles, when he concluded, dark clouds appeared in the sky and there was a downpour.

Question Of Seniority

Chembai and I were travelling by the Mangalore Mail in a posh old-time second class compartment, from Madras to Palakkad. It was very late at night when the train stopped at Erode. I heard someone knocking on the door and since there was an upper berth vacant, I opened it and there was Ariyakudi Ramanuja lyengar. We invited him in gladly. He was also going to Palakkad, to sing at the marriage of one of my relatives. Chembai began talking to Ariyakudi and, after a while, asked: "I know you are older than me, but which of us is senior in terms of performing experience?" lyengar admitted Chembai was, for he too remembered that even when he was giving only vocal support to his guru Poochi Srinivasa lyengar, Chembai was accompanying the latter on the violin. The exact words he spoke to Chembai, in broken English, which I remember vividly were: "You were fiddling then." All of us laughed.


It was a time when the Railways used to issue "Travel As You Like" tickets costing seven and half rupees which could be used for three months throughout the entire railway network in the South.

On or about June 1940, Chembai and I were at the Shoranur railway station platform, waiting to board the Mangalore-Madras Mail. Desamangalam Namboodiripad, an advocate of Madras and a Member of the then Madras Legislative Council, hove into view with members of his family. Desamangalam is close to Shoranur.

Namboodiripad spoke to Chembai:

"Bhagavatar, why are you sitting here? Only the third class compartments will be coming to where you are sitting. The first class and second class compartments will not come here. You will have to go still further up." Bhagavatar replied that he was travelling by third class only and he showed him the special season ticket. The advocate-admirer was greatly surprised and asked: "My dear Bhagavatar, you are a very popular musician with several engagements all over the country and in the sphere of music you are an uncrowned king. Is it not below your stature to travel in third class?"

Chembai replied: "My father and my grandfather used to travel by foot and give concerts but I have given up the usual family practice and travel by train. I really feel, though, that I too should go walking to the places where I give concerts."

Desamangalam Nambudiripad had a hearty laugh at the insouciant reply of the great musician.

Deference To Elder

When the Bharatiya Music and Arts Society was founded in Bombay in 1953, I requested Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar to give the inaugural concert. But Chembai replied that it would be more appropriate to give the honour to Palakkad Rama Bhagavatar, who was senior to him. We took his advice; but were glad Chembai also gave a concert later.

Saareeram Sareeram

Parveen Sultana's first concert in Madras was another occasion for a quip. Chembai, who was asked to preside on the occasion and "speak a few words", made just this observation: "I don't know much about Hindustani music. But this I know: I have a good saareeram and the lady here has both good saareeram and sareeram." The second was a reference to Parveen's attractive appearance.

He would tell a joke at the expense of his dear wife too, in the presence of others even. Meenakshi Ammal was her name but everyone at home called her Ammalu. One day he told me, as we were all chatting: "Rama lyer, she is the only daughter of Vasudeva Sastrigal, a rich man of my village. My father fixed our marriage without telling me. When I came to know of it, I resisted a little but my father gave me a slap on my face and made me agree. Anyway, she is beautiful and dutiful! [Turning to his wife] Aren't you, Ammalu?"

At The Academy

  • 'This happened during a Chembai concert at the Music Academy of Madras many years ago. The programme look place in a pandal in the compound of the P.S. High School in Mylapore. As Bhagavatar was belting out a piece, he saw four other leading vidwans of the day entering and taking their seats. Stopping in mid-song momentarily, he recited a Sanskrit sloka of which the substance of which was that it is rare for four musicians to come together as it is for four dogs, and then added he considered himself most fortunate that four great vidwans had come together to attend his concert. (Source: P.N. SUNDARESAN)
  • And this happened at another Academy concert. Chembai saw Musiri Subramania lyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa lyer, their heads covered possibly to hide their identities, slinking away quietly. He quipped, with that openness for which he was noted: "Oi, Sangeeta Kalanidhi's! You're welcome to go. There is no need to cover your heads!" (Source: T. SANKARAN)

Mistaken Identity

Chembai was singing in the Sree Ramanavami series of the Asthika Samajam in Madras. This was towards the end of his career when he sang 'topless', that is without wearing a shirt. Sporting, as he was, a tuft, stripes of vibhooti on his forehead, chest and arms, and a rudraksha necklace, he could be easily mistaken for a kalakshepam expert or a religious discourser, especially at the Samajam which was known for its presentation of religious programmes. And he was.

A couple of artisans, who had been engaged in construction work nearby, came into the hall and sat down. At that time, the violinist was playing a raga alapana. When Chembai started singing the composition after the violin essay, one of the workers turned to a listener sitting next to him and asked what the 'periyavar' [the respected person] on the stage was doing. When the listener explained the obvious, the worker turned to his mate and said: "It seems he is singing." Then the first worker asked the rasika another question: "When will he start talking?" When it was explained to him that Chembai would not be talking as the programme was a music kutcheri, the man turned to his mate again and exclaimed: "It is a kutcheri, it seems. Let's go." Promptly they got up and left. (Source: P.C. SUBRAMANIAN)

The following have been translated by P.Orr from anecdotes recorded in Chembai Selvam,
the biography of Bhagavatar written by ELLARVI [L.R. Viswaaatha Sarma].

Summons [1907]

 When Chembai was 11, he and his brother first sang at the Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayur on Ekadasi day (on the 11th day of the lunar cycle). When, shortly afterwards, the father and the sons were coming out of the temple, a couple of policemen met them and said they were wanted by the inspector. Chembai asked what wrong they had committed and why they should accompany the policemen. The latter replied they did not know why. At that point, Ananta Bhagavatar said there should be no harm in going with the policemen and finding out what it was all about. In the event, the Inspector welcomed them with respect and speaking with affection, told the father: "On Sunday, your boy must sing here!" The concert took place and Chembai received 115 rupees for it" the highest yet. At his father's suggestion, he earmarked the money received for conducting worship at the temple every year.

 A Bitter Experience [1913]

Chembai Vaitha and his brother Subrahmaniam, still in their twenties, were glad to have the opportunity of listening to this musician of maturity. Captivated by a particular kriti they heard him sing, Chembai memorised the pallavi and anupallavi even as he listened but the lyric of the charanam did not register well. This was frustrating but he had no chance to ask the performer.

Some days later, when the vidwan was due to perform again in that area, Chembai called on him before the concert and, after a while, asked him for the text of the charanam. The vidwan pretended not to know which song the youngster was talking about. Chembai thought this was a genuine case of puzzlement. So he sang the pallavi and anupallavi of the song but now, while congratulating him, the vidwan said he could not remember the charanam. He then excused himself.

A surprise was in store for Chembai when, later during the performance, the vidwan started singing the song he had said he could not remember fully. Innocent yet, Chembai was worried that the vidwan was going to stumble when he reached the charanam. But Chembai need not have worried. The vidwan sang the charanam all right and this time Chembai quickly grasped the words. But, he realised too that vidwan had not levelled with him earlier. Then and there he took a vow he would never refuse to teach anyone what he knew.

Conflict In Chettinad [1936]

The place - Kottaiyur in Chettinad. The occasion - a wedding. Chembai was giving a performance with Mysore T. Chowdiah (violin), Palakkad Mani lyer (mridanga) and Pudukkotai Dakshinamurthy Pillai (kanjeera) as his sidemen. When there was a pause in the proceedings, a prominent person stood up and said the guests assembled desired to hear Chowdiah play solo. The violinist could not find any reaction on Chembai's face. He continued to sing and the sidemen performed with him.

There was another interruption soon. Now there was a chorus demanding a solo performance from the Mysorean. Chembai and his cohorts continued to ignore the clamour. In the event, there was confusion and many of the guests began leaving, while some came near the platform and shouted.

Chembai now stopped singing and, with an air of insouciance, asked: "What is it you want, please?" The common response was: "We want Chowdiah to play the English Note!"

Whereupon, Chembai said: "That's all! Okay, I will conclude my concert in a few minutes and after that you can ask him to play for you what you want".

The chorus sang: "No! we want him to play now!"

Chembai spoke again now, quietly but firmly. He explained the tradition followed in music concerts and said that it was not the done thing for an accompanist to play a piece which the main musician had not taken up.

The angry audience was not mollified; if anything, the lecture seemed to have irritated them further. Some said other musicians had heeded similar requests made by them.

Chembai said that he could not oblige simply because others had done so. "I will now conclude the concert by singing the mangalam. You can then do what you want."

An angry man shouted Chembai would not ever again be invited to perform in the town. Chembai replied that he was not born to sing only for the people of Kottaiyur and that he was not very earnest to perform there.

The news spread Chembai had antagonised the people of Chettinad.

But, when tempers cooled, good sense prevailed. Members of the community soon decided to invite Chembai to sing at another function in the town. Bhagavatar again performed with the same set. It had ended well; and all was well.

A Matter Of Priorities [1937]

It was the tradition of the Mysore court to honour prominent artists by inviting them to give performances in the royal presence and to accept the title of asthana vidwan. In 1937 Maharaja Krishnarajendra Wodeyar extended an invitation to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar to perform. Chembai accepted the invitation and gave a performance which was hailed as excellent by the king as well as by his courtiers. Next day Wodeyar presented the vidwan with a ponnadai (shawl) and other tokens of appreciation. Leading court musician Muthiah Bhagavatar also honoured Chembai and a photograph showing the two bhagavatars together is still on display at the Mysore palace.

The maharaja then expressed his wish to have Chembai enlisted as an asthana vidwan. Chembai was pleased to learn this but responded by saying that he would not be able to discharge the obligations of a court musician which would require his attendance at the court frequently and especially during Dussera. The vidwan was already committed, since many years before, to perform Navaratri pooja privately at home and therefore he was not available for any public engagements during that holiday period. His sense of priorities was such that he did not wish to break this commitment. Accordingly he explained his inability to accept the royal invitation to serve as the asthana vidwan of the Mysore court.

Far from being upset, the maharaja appreciated Chembai's sense of priorities. The courtiers too were struck by the character of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar.

In subsequent years, Chembai gave performances at the court several times at the invitation of the maharaja.

Power of Faith [1939]

Chembai was about to start a performance at the palace in Kallikotai. Suddenly he discovered that his voice was 'frozen'. He was puzzled since he had no problem of any kind earlier that day. The sound of the tambura sruti seemed to gain in volume as Chembai pondered the reason. Suddenly, a question arose in his mind. He asked someone seated nearby whether it was 'sukla paksham', after the new moon. This was the month of Kartika and it was Chembai's practice to offer musical prayers at the Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayur on tlie Ekadasi day of the 'sukla paksham' in the month of Kartika every year.

When a reference to an almanac confirmed that it was 'sukla paksham' Ekadasi, Chembai explained the matter to the host and requested permission and help to go to Guruvayur and fulfill his commitment. The host obliged. Chembai speeded to Guruvayur in a car, offered his apologies and prayers to Sree Krishna.

He had no problem singing; he had recovered his voice fully. He sang many songs and long until he was satisfied that the Lord had forgiven his lapse.

He sang at Kallikkotai the next evening, without any problem.

A Blow For Equality [1941]

Chembai was due to give a performance at the Singaravelan temple in Nagapattinam, as part of the Kanda Shashthi festivities. It was past the time when the concert was to start and still none had come from the office of the temple's trustees to fetch him. Unwilling to wait any longer, he proceeded to the temple, accompanied by his sidemen. As he reached the temple, he realised there was some galatta or noisy disturbance going on. When he inquired about it, he was told that common people had occupied seats reserved for VIPs in the mandapa where the concert was to take place; that a representative of the trustees had more than once asked them to clear out of the space but in vain; that the representative had said the trustees would rather shift the venue of the concert to some place else than allow their stipulations to be transgressed; and that this had precipitated the galatta.

Chembai arrived at the mandapam, pacified the crowd and said that, as far as he was concerned, all were equal before god and music. He also explained he attached more importance to performing in the temple's precincts than to pleasing the organisers by singing elsewhere. "I was invited to perform at the sannidhi [presence] of the deity and that is what I propose to do, even if I am not paid" he added.

Then he proceeded to give the performance without waiting for the trustees and other VIPs 

A Tribute In Diamond [1942]

Chembai was returning by train to Madras from Karaikudi where he had given a concert. During the journey, he got acquainted with a fellow passenger, a wealthy, middle-aged businessman named Valliappa Chettiar. Noticing that Chettiar was undergoing some kind of stress, he openly asked the latter what was bothering him. Chettiar was taken aback by the directness of the query but responded nonetheless by disclosing the source of his worry. Chembai then told him that the deity of the Parthasarathy temple in Chembai would help solve the problem if Chettiar would pray to him and, if the problem were solved, Chettiar could show his gratitude to the Lord in some way.

Chettiar agreed to abide by the suggestion and then saw a smile playing on the lips of Bhagavatar. "What are you smiling about?", he asked and Chembai said that the act of gratitude should not be like fulfilment of a trade transaction and that he should in advance decide what offering he would make, in line with his capacity. In the conversation that followed, he explained he had already provided the temple with a gold kavacham [ornamental covering] for the deity and it would be nice if Chettiar could take a vow to present a namam [Vaishnavite mark] made of diamonds. Chettiar agreed to do so.

Subsequently, Chettiar came to the village of Chembai, his problem solved, and made his offering to Lord Parthasarathy. None could have been more pleased than Chembai.

On The Razor's Edge [1952]

One morning when Chembai was standing in the verandah of his house in Santhome, Madras, lost in thought, a barber carrying his equipment made his appearance and saluted him. Chembai had never seen him before nor had he the need for a shave. Yet, using sign language, he invited him to sit down and himself sat down to have a shave.

The barber, an elderly fellow, spoke volubly as he passed the razor back and forth on Chembai's face. He let it be known that he was not fond of barbering and that his real vocation was healing the sick, like it had been the vocation of his forefathers.

Bhagavatar did not respond in any manner to any of this talk. The barber thereupon sought to provoke him by asking questions.

Chembai finally blurted out that he was unable to speak. It was obvious he had a very bad throat, the way he croaked out the words.

The barber said he was very sorry to notice the difficulty Chembai was experiencing, especially since he had heard his golden voice many a time while passing his house. And he asked how long the vidwan had been suffering this.

Chembai stuck out a single finger to indicate 'one month'.

The barber asked: "Haven't you been receiving any treatment?"

Chembai conveyed by signs that the treatment had been in vain.

The barber finished his job and received payment. Then he said he would bring a herbal medicine if Chembai would trust him to treat his ailment.

Speaking with difficulty, Chembai said he had been offered a concert engagement a week hence and asked if he could rely on the barber's treatment and accept it.

"Praise the Lord and accept it," replied the man with the razor. And then he left.

Next evening, the barber brought the medicine and gave instructions to Bhagavatar on how he should take it. Chembai paid him two rupees and promised to pay a total of 20 if the treatment proved to be successful.

The treatment worked, Chembai regained his voice and the concert he had accepted was a grand success.

What had cured him? The medicine? Faith?  A combination of both? Whatever, Chembai, try as he might to find the barber and repay his debt, never saw the barber-physician again.