Chembai - The Guru

Chembai at a concert of one of his disciples

"So lofty was his voice and so crafty his singing, that no disciple of his
could grow in stature under his shadow, though he helped numerous
boys and girls to learn music."

P.A.Raman Iyer, Founder Chairman of
Bharatiya Music and Arts Society, Bombay

Throughout his life, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar displayed a passion for teaching, spurred by his desire that as many as possible should learn the music he knew.

This passion manifested early. His biographer LRV has suggested that, even as a six-year old, he began serving as a guide to Subramanian, his brother who was two-years younger to him. Perhaps this was a bit of hyperbole, but it is recorded as a fact that when he was only 16 years of age, eight years after his debut on the stage, Chembai formally took on the role of a music tutor. The emergence of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and his brother as impressive musicians under the tutelage of their father prompted many parents to send their children to Ananta Bhagavatar for training in music. When the number of students became too large for him to handle by himself, Ananta Bhagavatar assigned son Vaitha the task of tutoring some of them. With his broad outlook and willingness freely to share his knowledge and experience with his students, the father himself served as a good model for his son.

Even if the thought never crossed Vaitha's mind that he should hoard his learning like a miser, he made a vow always to share with others whatever he had learnt, after an incident in which a well-known musician whom he had requested for the text of the charanam of a particular kriti tricked him into believing that he could not remember it.

Over the decades, he taught music or specific songs to numerous persons of diverse backgrounds and different levels of prior accomplishment, indifferent to their age, sex, caste, background or social status. If someone was sincere in wishing to learn from him, he obliged without hesitation.

And he did not teach in order to earn money. Manku Thampuran, a princess of the Cochin royal family and his first disciple to mount the kutcheri platform, has this to say about Chembai's noble attitude:

"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 daanam or the gifting of knowledge."

The altruism that guided him in his role as a guru received praise from many others too.

The case of L.R.Lakshmi of Bangalore appears to have been a peculiar exception in that she believes her tenure as a disciple of Chembai was terminated by a member of his family on grounds she was being favoured by Chembai even though she was not able to pay him any fee.

Chembai would not only teach anyone who cared to learn, but also give lessons at all times of the day and anywhere he found it possible or convenient to do so. There is a tale of his conducting a class for his disciples travelling with him while they were waiting for a delayed train at a railway station platform.

Although a leading concert artist, he never considered it below his dignity to teach even newcomers, beginning with the rudiments of music. The experience of violin vidwan V.V.Subramaniam illustrates this observation.

He did establish and conduct a school to impart music training to boys and girls within the framework of the gurukula system. This was as early as in 1923 and in Chembai. It was, of course, a free school. He erected a building for the school and his brother Subramaniam helped him with the teaching. A success, the school survived the departure of Bhagavatar from his native village. It is functioning even today.

Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar trained numerous disciples but, according to one of them, they were all dwarfed by his own tall stature.

A list of his more prominent disciples includes Manku Thampuran and her sister Kunjikavu Thampuran; O.M.Vasudevan Namboodiripad; Mani Bhagavatar of Coimbatore; Vangeri Krishnan Namboodiripad; Raman Namboodiripad of Poomulli Mana; Parameswaran Namboodiri (Babu); Jayan and Vijayan, the twins; R. Subbaraju (guru of Mandolin U.Srinivas); Bhagavatar's own nephew and son-in-law Chembai Narayanan; Guruvayur Ponnammal and Sukumari Narendra Menon.

Kadayanallur Venkataraman, violinist V.V. Subramaniam and T.V.Gopalakrislinan also consider him their guru. T.K.Govinda Rao and V.R. Krishnan had their initial training under Chembai. Popular playback singers P.Leela and T.V.Rathnam learnt songs from him, as did K.J.Yesudas, who for a few years also provided vocal support to Chembai in concerts.