Chembai - The Composer


Chembai reading the Narayaneeyam

"Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar had a melodious and resonant
voice, and had the capacity to hold the attention of his audience"
- C.V.Narasimhan

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar played the role of geyakara or tunesmith for lyrics written by T.G.Krishna lyer using the mudra of Lalitadasar.

Krishna lyer was among the influential friends Chembai had made in Ernakulam. The association went back to 1915 when Chembai gave his first performance, along with his brother, at the annual Tyagaraja music festival in Ernakulam  organised  by  T.A.Duraiswamy lyer, a prominent lawyer.

Duraiswamy lyer was musically knowledgeable too, having received regular training in the subject. As a connoisseur he was highly respected by leading musicians of the time.

The Tyagaraja festival in Ernakulam was the first such event at which the Chembai brothers were exposed to an array of leading Carnatic musicians and their performances. They became indebted to Duraiswamy lyer for this opportunity, as well as for the chance to perform. The brothers had gone to the festival on their own but once there, impressed by every thing connected with the festival, they wished to participate as performers as well. And Duraiswamy lyer gave them a chance. 

Duraiswamy lyer detained the youngsters for a few days after the conclusion of the festival and had them stay with him as his guests. The personal contact established at this time ripened into a friendship based on mutual respect. 

Duraiswamy lyer's son T.D.Narayana lyer and nephew T.G.Krishna lyer were also deeply interested in music, although their main vocations in life were different. They too became good friends of the Chembai brothers.

An upshoot of these new friendships was that T.A.Krishna lyer, brother of Duraiswamy lyer who was a violinist, played sideman to Chembai in numerous concerts. 

T.G.Krishna lyer's son T.K.Ramachandran also, in later years, played the violin in many of Chembai's concerts. His other son is the flutist T.K.Radhakrishnan, now retired.

T.G.Krishna lyer's career took him to many places but eventually he settled down in Lalita Nagar, a complex of houses he built in Santhome, Madras. Chembai too settled down there in the mid-forties.

Krishna lyer was a devotee of Devi in her manifestation as Lalita. In his retirement days lie composed lyrics, in Sanskrit and Telugu, dedicated to his favourite deity. 

However, he had no training in music and hence someone else was needed to set the lyrics to music properly. In the event, Chembai assumed the role of this 'someone else'. In fact, the decision to compose the music for Krishna lyer's lyrics was among the factors that made Chembai shift his residence to Madras. 

Chembai's work - he would have described it as a pleasure, on Krishna lyer's lyrics resulted in a book called Sree Lalitadasar Keertanaigal. He himself began to include select songs from this anthology in his concert repertoire. Kritis with the Lalitadasar mudra popularized by Chembai include:

Akhilandeswari - Kanada
Ennil Kaninda - Shankarabharanam
Evariki Telusu - Dhanyasi
Pavana Guru - Hamsanandi
Pranava Nilai - Mohanam
Sama Gana - Hamsanandi
Sree Mudukulupati - Husseni
Un Perumai - Kalyani
Varijadala Lochani - Arabhi.

Because of the important role played by Chembai in the composition of the songs written by Krishna lyer, he should - if the correct Western tradition be followed - be given equal credit for them. The compositions should properly be ascribed therefore to "Krishna lyer - Vaidyanatha lyer" rather than to Krishna lyer alone.

Sree Mudukulapati [Lalitadasar song] is a replica of the song Sree Raghukulanidhi by Poochi lyengar. Both have chitta swara; but in the former, Chembai used to sing sahitya for the chitta swara.