Chembai - My Spiritual Guide
By Poomuli Parameswaran Namboodiri


Chembai with Vaidyamadhom Narayanan Namboodiri and Parameswaran Namboodiri

I came to be the disciple of the great maestro Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar thanks to the now well-known but happily ended mishap that befell him when he contracted a troublesome throat infection between 1955 and 1956 and seemingly lost his golden voice for ever. Through the intervention of my brother the late Poomulli Raman Namboodiripad, Bhagavatar was examined by Vaidyamadhom Narayanan Namboodiri and treated at Raman Namboodiripad's manor in Peringode. I was interested in music and this turn of events gave me the opportunity of becoming Bhagavatar's disciple while I had the task of preparing for him the medicines prescribed by Vaidyamadhom. On the ninth day of treatment, Bhagavatar regained his voice and broadcast a concert from All India Radio-Kozhikode. Truly, this was a miracle wrought by Lord Guruvayurappan.

Chembai continued to remain at Poomulli Mana as tutor to his host. Poomulli was a place which Vedic scholars and experts in puranas, ayurveda, mimamsa, astrology, yoga and Kalaripayattu as well as doyens of Carnatic music, all liked to visit. Vidwans would visit the mana especially during Navaratri. Needless to say, Chembai also used to be an important visitor, delighting all with his performances. I recall in particular, during the Navaratri festival in 1957, the delight­ful episode of Bhagavatar and the great flautist T.R. Mahalingam taking the measure of each other. Mahalingam entered the house and asked if Chembai was there and Chembai, with a straight face, told him that he was there a little while earlier waiting for Mahalingam. And Mahalingam then said: "I am Mahalingam," and Chembai replied with impish delight: "In that case, I am Chembai." Everyone broke into hearty laughter.

That was not the end. Mahalingam virtually challenged Chembai to play the violin, which of course he could very well indeed. Bhagavatar asked the violinist T.K.Ramachandran to hand him his instrument and gave such an astonishing performance that the audi­ence was moved to tears. Mahalingam reverentially touched Chembai's feet. Then he himself played on the flute and had the audience spellbound. This con­cert lasted some six hours.

While teaching Raman Namboodiripad vocal music, Chembai would ask me to provide mridanga accompaniment. He had even brought with him Kodunthirapally Mahadeva lyer to teach me advanced techniques in mridanga-playing. I provided mridanga accompaniment to Bhagavatar himself during one of the succeeding Navaratri festivals. M.S.Gopalakrishnan on the violin and Alangudi Ramachandran on the ghata were the other accompanists. I can never forget that occasion.

I also vividly remember how, as President Radhakrishnan was presenting the Sangeet Natak Akademi award to Chembai in 1958, the Bhagavatar good-naturedly helped the First Citizen to slip on the golden bracelet that was somewhat tight. The day after the award presentation, I accompanied Bhagavatar when he gave a performance. Bhagavatar then proceeded to Hardwar and Rishikesh and performed bhajans at the Sivananda Ashram where he was honoured.

I should also recall here the great kutcheri that Bhagavatar gave under the auspices of the Bharatiya Music and Arts Society in Bombay, of which his close friend P.A. Raman was a leading light. This was a notable performance. It was Chembai's first concert outside Kerala after his recovery from the severe throat malady. Raman Namboodiripad provided vocal support while I played the mridanga.

Around this time, Bhagavatar wanted me to stay in Madras and to accompany him on his tours. I readily agreed. For 10 years I had the rare privilege of being his private secretary also. At the Tiruvaiyaru festivals he chose me to play the mridanga for him in preference to all others. How overwhelmed I am still, to recall his love for me!

Many were the musicians that Bhagavatar encouraged, including the greatest mridanga vidwan of them all, Palghat Mani lyer, whose talents he nurtured so lovingly. Yet Chembai was all humility, illustrated by the fact that he would carry Mani's mridanga for him.

K.J.Yesudass, Veena S.Balachander, Harikatha expert Balakrishna Sastrigal and Anjam Madhavan Namboodiri were all his devoted friends and admirers because of his endearing qualities.

His kindness did not end with me. My son Babu also became his disciple and earned his first remuneration by singing in his company.

It was through Chembai's good offices that I joined All India Radio's Trissoor station in 1973, though it was a wrench for me to leave him for this Government job.