Chembai - The Smiling Buddha
By Sangeetha Kalarathna B,V.K,Sastry


FDC and stamp released on Chembai's Birth Centenary

The world of Karnatik music is celebrating this year the birth centenary of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar one of the greatest vocalists of the century.

Sangeetha  Kalarathna B.V.K. Sastry musicologist of national repute who had close association with Chembai had interviewed the great master on  several occasions apart from listening to a large number  of his concerts. In  this interview he had with him  about three  decades ago Sri. Sastry had been able to elicit the views of the maestro on various aspects of music and this has been an invaluable documentation.

Added to this is Sri. Sastrys superb presentation of Chembai - the Man and his Music - which takes us to the haunting memories of the inimitable voice and  music par excellence of Chembai.


During one of the early conferences of the Madras Music Academy. The late Pandit Vishnu Digambar who was a frequent participant accosted young Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and asked him "You are an exponent of Karnatak Music a system great in history, rich in heritage and tradition and above all possessing a large following. Do you feel that today it has all those elements that contribute to a full enjoyment of its beauty or if the contrary what features do you consider are necessary to create absolute happiness?" "What is wanted is a good sense of sruti and undoubtedly good voices" replied the enthusiastic Chembai "Wanted with perhaps one exception" Vishnu Digambar is reported to have replied with a smile.

Evidently the exception meant  was Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar himself for the Bhagavatar had already been a reputed singer on the scene for nearly two decades. His was a rich vibrant voice with a ringing tone  which dispensed with any necessity for amplifiers. It had wafted his name from a far corner of Kerala and drawn him to other parts of the land where Karnatak music was cultivated in all its fullness. Renowned as he was as a singer with a golden voice his concerts were always packed with music-lovers who could regale and comfort themselves with that pure nada   and its supreme enjoyment. His joviality, which removed any element of tension from the atmosphere, lent all the more lustre to his recitals, which  were enjoyable to connoisseur and common man alike. His rich tone lending depth and steadiness to all he treated, Chembai's musical appeal was direct and immersed in its rich flow, an audience would not bother about subtleties or intricacies of technique. The effect of this splendid tone blending beautifully with the sruti was as heartening as it was haunting.

How did Chembai come to develop his rich, reverberating voice? "It has all come by the grace of God," he will say, raising his hands to the heavens. Chambai is a deeply religious man. His very lineaments bespeak his religiosity and devotion. The plump, dignified features topped with a luxuriant tuft of hair and the chubby face adorned with sandal-paste give him the looks of a Vedic scholar, apart from adding serenity to his figure. But despite this overall dignity, the cheerful bulk of Chembai on the platform often reminds one of a "Laughing Buddha". He does not seem to have any such fatigue and constraint while singing as are seen in the contortions and mannerisms of many other musicians. His singing is effortless and cool, though warm in its rich hues, and the modes seem to emerge in luxuriant coils of tone.

"I never bother about my voice at any time," said Chembai when I questioned how he came to develop this rich timbre and what course of exercises led to it. "It has come all by the grace of God. I need not have taken to any rigorous exercise or painful discipline to develop my voice and music, because it was already there for me and I had only to develop the earnestness and seriousness of purpose to cultivate it." This was no boast, either because music is something that runs in the veins of Chembai. He hails of a family whose musical traditions have run uninterruptedly for nearly two hundred years. One of his ancestors, Ghanacchakratna  Subbier was a famous musician and his grandfather, Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, was not only an exponent of repute but also courted such eminent maestros as Palghat Anantarama Bhagavatar amongst his disciples. "By the grace of God I had no necessity arduously to tread the way from one guru to another and face the many pains and tribulations of a traditional garukulavasam. Music was there ready for me at my home," said Chembai.

"I should recall those times with happiness," he continued reflectively. We were living in an agraharam. (Chembai is one of the several agraharams around  Palghat where Brahmin pandits and scholars settled long since to pursue their avocations). Its atmosphere was laden with the dignified chanting of Vedic hymns and with devotional music. In our family, music was cultivated and imparted as a part of Vedic education, along with other subjects. Disciples lived  either close by or actually with their gurus, learning the Vedas and the Upavedas.

"My forbears did not aspire for material success in the pursuit of their avocations. I do not mean that none of them earned honors or recognition. They went at the request of patrons or princes to sing and present the noble aspects of music. But they did not aspire to seek employment or choose a gilded existence as an appendage to any princely court. In fact, once, after conferring upon him very costly presents, the Maharaja of Travancore also sent a posse of bodyguards with my illustrious ancestor, Ghanachakratana Subbier, to see that the presents reached home safely and were not given away to any person bemoaning his luck and begging for help on the return journey as so often happened. They pursued music as a part of their religious ceremonies such as upanayanans and marriages than a means for mere material gains or entertainment."

Needless to say, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar has inherited the characteristics of a family which has promoted Vedic culture for generations and maintained the corresponding sadachara or religious temper of behaviour. Possibly, the deep austere resounding of the Vedic chants in his ears from infancy inspired many of the qualities contributing to his rich tonal culture, while the discipline of sadachala has brought its strength and energy to his singing. Consequently he is not a prey to many of the weaknesses to which  men of music are subject and which tell upon their faculties and fritter away their energies. And this has certainly contributed to the vitality of his voice, which has not diminished even at his age. The effects of this, if any, are evident only in occasional wobbly accentuations.

Benign Aristocrat

By his demeanor and deportment Chembai strikes one rather as a patrician of the musical  world. He is generally very  cheerful, it is true, but by nature he is composed and dignified and does not encourage levity of conversation. His remarks are forthright and may sometimes seem as blunt  as the appeal of his music is direct. Of course he is very courageous and is known for his sympathy for up-and-coming artistes, especially accompanists. He is always assiduous in encouraging the more talented among them.

For all the smiles and good grace that he spreads around him, Chembai does not seem to relish interference with the course of his music. He may respond occassionally to requests from his fans for their pieces. But more often he chooses to ignore them and light-heartedly passes the matter off if it is pressed. Thus Chembai makes the impression of an aristocrat who is benign and kindly, supremely happy in his rich inheritance and graciously to extend its blessings and message to others as something preordained for them.

Like his nature, Chembai's music seems to be forthright in its appeal. His rich tone with its all-pervasive metallic ring seems to chime the features like a temple bells the timbre of his voice lending a lustre and colour which give depth and  dimension to his music. In the absence of subtle ornamentation, the effects of this  may often  strike one as monolithic. And despite the strict lines of tradition which  it follows, his music seems to exude a slightly different flavour by contrast with the current fashion  - that bearing the heavy imprint of the Tanjore school. Nevertheless, his music seems very orthodox in its directness and dignity.

This fact is obvious to any one who has heard even some of his gramaphone records, to say nothing of those who have heard him in person. Apart from the rich tone, the abiding feature of  these recordings seems to be the modulation and the rendering of the songs selected through fast rolls. His music strikes one, overall as energetic and developed with great ease and facility, characteristics which can be sumptuously savoured in his concerts, not withstanding an occasional dulled edge to his voice.

Rare Performances

Possibly as a concession to his age, Chembai's public performances are widely spaced. Further, though almost all the hallmarks of his recitals remain present, these perhaps no longer display the full magnitude of musical appeal. To understand this, records may be a help. But people who heard him even in the late nineteen-forties will recall his captivating aspects with  relish. That deep solid tone seeming to illuminate each modal figure in his singing, and the joy of the pure nada when he held on to single notes such as shadja or panchanma are something not easily forgettable. Indeed, some of the common folk who had no pretensions to knowledge of the science of music were as thrilled as connoisseurs and would exclaim often that Chembais music was highly invigorating in effect.

Generally, Chembai commences his recitals with the classic varnam Viriboni, which he always renders in two speeds, strictly in accordance with custom, following it up with other numbers. Whether these are in medium or slow pace is immaterial, because he treats either with equal facility. Be it the elaboration of a raga or the swara the dominant feature of his music is the conspicuous rhythmic alignment of its elements. They seem to be propelled by a surging rhythm. The abundant fast rolls in which he revels, particularly in the swaraprastara possess more rhythmic patterning than modal curves. Chembai is a reputed master of tala and laya and this aspect he carries through endless variations, all the time enjoying himself and conveying his joy to the audience in the process.  

Special Partiality

Slowly meandering, Chembai seems to be at his height in the pallavi. and particularly in the tanam. Indeed, when I asked him which part of his music appealed to him most, Chembai readily answered layavinyasam and especially tanam. Leisurely unfolding the raga through his characteristic free-flowing figures, Chembai saunters through the course, sparking off many patterns and permutations en route and all the while displaying an infectious joy. The tanam is of course preceded by a spacious alapana. But among the many modes Chembai appears particularly partial to Bhairavi, treating this in ampler measure than other ragas.  

The Bhagavatar first saw the day in 1896 at Chembai. He may not have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Nevertheless his was a more or less sheltered life from infancy. Hailing from a reputed family of musicians, he had unlimited opportunities to grasp and cultivate his art. and it was also not difficult for him to find an opening in  the field. His debut took place along with his younger brother, Subramanyam, or Subramani Bhagavatar, as he was familiarly called, during 1905, at a place called Vadakamannamalai. in Kerala, at a religious function. The fame of his rich voice and resonant style preceding him, Chembai was quickly drawn to the various centres where Karnatak music was abundantly patronised. His first break, in a substantial sense came in Madras in 1918, and it need not be added that with his richly expressive and pervasive tone Chembai beeame a hit in a very short time and became the despair of many well-known musicians and even of established maestros whose voice was not their forte. And this was no mean achievement, considering that he became popular in a field graced by such eminent stalwarts as Naina Pillai, Pushpavanam, Konerirajaram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Bidaram Krishnappa and others of their stature.

Despite his spectacular successes on the concert platform, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar has been constantly benevolent and sympathetic towards his accompanists, whatever their status in the musical hierarchy, and he has sincerely tried to launch worthy members upon successful careers - the most notable instanee in this connection being that of Palghat Mani Iyer.

Launching a Virtuoso

It was during one of his recitals in Madras, in 1925, that Chembai informed the authorities of the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha  that he would look after the arrangements for the mridangam for the day, and they were perhaps happy to be, for once, relieved of this responsibility. However they can hardly have been prepared for the Bhagavatar's choice. He had fixed upon a boy just turned thirteen, named Mani. Of course they had once or twice heard of this young player from Palghat, but somehow they could not accommodate themselves to the idea that such a mere lad as this should support so eminent a singer as the Bhagavatar, particularly known for his control over laya. They remonstrated with the latter, requesting him to put off his experiment to another time, and suggesting that they should engage one of the topmost accompanists, whom he was accustomed to, to ensure the success of the day. But Chembai was adamant to the point of insisting on cancelling the engagement if they interfered with his arrangements. Finally, the authorities agreed, with some apprehension, but they thoughtfully provided another mridangam player too, as a stand-by. However they were swept off their feet by the masterly playing of this boy and Mani was rocketed to fame in no time.

Though the function of an accompanist, said Chembai, to me, is more or less that of an adjunct to the main artiste and a buttress to him, the success of the programme, overall is a collective effort. Each participant contributes his share to the enjoyment and inciden tally enjoys the general effect. Consequently, I do not like to monopolize all the limelight. I must also allow the accompanist's faculties full play, apart from often provoking him to unexpected flights. This was in answer to my enquiries about his constant sympathy for the accompanist. But a general earnestness to promote goodwill and harmony among artistes is a characteristic of Chembai's. It was significantly displayed in his efforts to effect reconciliation between two feuding giants of the Karnatak music world - Palghat Mani Iyer and Pudukottah Dakshinamurthy Pillai. This was a tough  task, of course, but the enormous prestige Chembai enjoyed made them set aside their feud to accompany him at a concert.

And after that historical concert, at which neither yielded a point to the other, and reached the crescendo of his form, a sincere and close friendship developed between the two. The combination of Chembai with Chowdiah (who had also joined him in 1922), Palghat Mani Iyer and Dakshinamoorthy Pillai seemed to be ideal and was one set at a very high premium and commanding always a packed house.

All-lndia Tour

Some time after launching Mani lyer at Madras, Chembai undertook an all-lndia tour, taking the young man with him. Besides impressing the audiences of the North, he was himself impressed by the music of some of the eminent Hindustani vocalists. I say we should respect the Hindustani system, which has the same history and tradition as ours. I admire their sense of sruti  and pure swarajnana. But that should not mean that we should implicitly copy whatever they do. Some of the best time I spent was enjoying the deep-toned and full throated music of such stalwarts as Pandit Vishnu Digambar, Faiyaz Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Roshanara Begum and others, said Chembai.

Placidly settled on a cot, when I met him during 1963, Chembai was the same serene and Buddha-like figure who has been familiar to lovers of music for decades. Discussing the prospects of Karnatak music I casually asked him whether he was happy about its current course. No, said  the Bhagavatar sharply, I have neither belief in, nor illusions about the present trends and values in music, which seem to be highly commercialised. The teacher has no time to instill a sense of devotion in the student and the latter has neither time nor inclination to attain any perfection. Consequently, the music of today sounds particularly anaemic to us, especially to such of us as had the facility to hear such maestros as Ramanathapuram Srinivasa  Iyengar, Pushpavanam, Palghat Anantarama Bhagavatar, Mysore Bidaram Krishnappa and others who sang with full voice and gave dignity and depth to our music. Truly, we have come very far from the times when music touched the spirit and soul of man, instead of merely grazing the senses as at present.

Past Perspectives

"Time was," continued Chembai with an abstracted air. "when the musician, without any hurry or flurry, had the opportunity to develop his mood and give full play to the expressive powers that is his manodharma and the audience was not gripped with the craze for mere number of songs. Remember, I speak of times even before the advent of Tyagaraja, about which I have heard from my elders. During those days a concert of classical music commenced with the tanam in the five ghana ragas of Nata, Gaula, Arabhi, Sri and Varali. After a leisurely elaboration, of these modes, which warmed up the atmosphere and set the mood of both the audience and the artiste, the musician would next present a song each of Bhadrachala Ramadas and Purandaradasa, with occasionally an ashtapadi from the Geeta Govinda. Then he would follow up with the extensive alapana of a raga and an equally spacious tanam and pallavi. Each of these served as a theme for the creative ideas of the musician to blossom in all their proliferation. In those days they had the energy, the voice and above all the composure and spirit of devotion to undertake such noble work."

"Then you said that the present voiec culture and quality are deeply dissatisfying?" I asked.

''Undoubtedly'' said Chembai with some heat. "Musicians have also become too lazy to cultivate the full power of their voices. Even if they intend to cultivate it, where can theyfind the right accompaniments? For decades, now, almost all musical instruments  have been manufactured to suit a low sruti. The inebriating effects of the microphone has gone too far.

"No, it is no use discussing this sordid subject," continued the Bhagavatar. "Though I am not very happy about the present trend. I nurture a hope that in the midst of all this chaff there may be some solid grain, too, amongst earnest students of music. It is for them I must say that the mere aspiration to beeome a successful musician in a katcheri is not enough One has earnestly to strive for this and earn it. Remember, it entirely rests with the musician to enliven and control an audience. For this, his knowledge of sruti nada and laya must be sound.

"In the light of my experience, I would say that four factors contribute to develop a musical personality. The first is the inborn intuition of the musician; the second, his sound knowledge and firm control of sruti swara raga and laya. Third comes those aspects of science and aesthetics he acquires after hard work, through a good Guru and also by listening to sound and inspiring music. The fourth and most important factor is the capacity to evolve an individual style of expression suited to the aspirant's voice, aptitude and ideas distilled through the variegated experience behind him. I am, of course, speaking about the ideal musician and it is, admittedly, hard to find such an earnest, persevering and knowledgeable musician in every aspect."

Vistas of Hope

"That means you are hopeful of a better prospect for Karnatak music with all the natural qualities and power of the voice restored to their former glory?" I suggested.

Raising his head slowly from the devotional work, Narayaniyam. which  he had been reading, Chembai Vaidyanatlla Bhagavatar fixed me with a look and said, "I cannot say that. I am not a prophet. I can only repeat the words of the Lord from  the Gita:  

Pavithranaya Sadhunam, Vinashaya cha dushkrutam.
Dharma samsthapanarthaya, sambhavami yuge yuge.

Scanned from an article in Gayana Samrajya, Monthly Bulletin of the Bangalore Gayana  Samaja, Vol XIV, No. 8, April 1996