Chembai - An Exemplar
By Manku Thampuran

The following article was written by Manku Thampuran, a member of the erstwhile Cochin royal family. She was the first disciple of Chembai and the first Chairperson of the Kerala Sangeeta Natak Akademy. Later she was made a Fellow of this Akademy along with Chembai. In her mid-eighties now, she lives in Tripunithura.

Manku Thampuran performing with Chowdiah and Palghat Mani Iyer

I had a very long association with my respected guru, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. I was his first disciple to give concerts.

My father, Muriarass Mana Neelakantan Namboodripad was a great connoisseur of music. He desired that I learn music. I started by learning to sing Kathakali padas when I was about seven years of age. My first guru at that age was my own father.

Kunhikidavu Thampuran, my uncle who was also my father's intimate friend, was the person who introduced Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar to my father. In Tripunithura at that time there were a lot of festivals and functions where a good many distinguished musicians came to give musical performances. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar also used to come to Tripunithura to participate in these functions and give music concerts.

Bhagavatar had the unique capacity to discover real musical talent in the young. He heard me singing when I was yet young and told my father that I should be taught Carnatic music. In the event, he himself took the responsibility of teaching me, even though he was a very busy artist then, with engagements all over the South. What a fine example, if example is the right word, of a simple and sincere musician of his stature he was!

It was a time when there were considerations of caste, creed and community and superiority of men over women. But he had a liberal attitude and stood bold in seeking to eliminate such differences. Among his numerous disciples, there were Brahmins, kshatriyas, Nairs, Menons and harijans and other so-called depressed classes also. This fact, I presume, is known to all. I knew that his own father disagreed with him on his choice of disciples and his liberal attitude.

An illustration of this outlook was when Bhagavatar secured for me an opportunity to sing at the Music Academy of Madras in December 1939 a joy and a stroke of real luck which I can never forget. The courage with which I sang and my adherence to the Carnatic tradition amazed many who listened to that concert. He also recommended me to All India Radio in Madras and I had opportunity to sing for AIR-Madras from 1939.

Bhagavatar did not pursue his career as teacher to make money. His aim was to create a good number of talented disciples without expecting any return in kind or cash. Even though he received guru dakshina, he often used to repeat that it should only be a mere token since he found it distasteful to receive payment for imparting musical education. He often used to extol the virtues of vidya danam or the gifting of knowledge.

In promoting his disciples, he was impartial and unaffected by any kind of criticism. His goal was to create more and more disciples and develop Carnatic music in the country in which he was born. When the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademy was started and I was selected as its Chairperson, it was Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar who was the first person to congratulate me. I cherished and continue to cherish this fact with great pride, gratitude and respect.

I may mention that I had the privilege of singing along with my guru at the Guruvayur temple many a time. I had occasion to sing with him also at the Parthasarathy temple in his home village.

I should mention a very special feature about my revered guru. If he established an affectionate attachment, a connection with any person or a family of persons, he maintained that intimate relationship throughout his life. He had very close connections with many reputable families of Kerala and he moved with them as a member of each. To name only a few, I may mention the families of Poomulli Mana, Olappamanna Mana, Varikasseri Mana, Kudalur Mana, Kavalappara House, Manakhampad House, Kamiambra House and Kollengode Palace.  He mingled freely with Brahmin as well as non-brahmin families, with royalty as well as the scions of Kshatriya families.

He maintained his friendship to the last.

Lastly, let me say with all the emphasis at my command that I learnt from Chembai not music alone; I also learnt how to pursue a simple and humble life. I appreciated his capacity for moving with people. He showed me how to be a perfectly practical person in such matters. He was not only my guru; he was also like a father to me, as he was indeed to all his disciples.

Chembai's attitude towards life, his way of handling men and matters must serve as an object lesson to others, especially musicians.