so long it lasted
Chembai with Yesudas outside Guruvayur Temple
The following article was written by L.R.Lakshmi of Bangalore who learnt music from Chembai for a while.
Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar agreed to teach me at the instance of T.P.Gopalachari, father of mridanga vidwan Vellore Ramabhadran. I had learnt music during my girlhood but my marriage had put an end to my aspirations. Later, when I came to Madras in 1967, I wished to resume my studies. It was then that Gopalachari took me to Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, who was then residing in Santhome.
I offered tamboolam with 10 rupees to the Bhagavatar and prostrated at his feet.
"Ai kutti [child] you need not give all these since the Lord has given me aplenty." Saying this he returned the ten rupee note. Then he told Gopalachari, who had pleaded my case “I’ll teach her what I know, but I'll not accept any chakram [coin]”. And then he asked me to sing a song.
I sang something nervously. "Good, you sing well," he said and added "What's there to be taught? Mere knowledge from listening will be enough."
But Gopalachari insisted that he should actually teach me, and Chembai promised to do what he could.
My lessons started next morning. On some days he would ask me to sing alapanas and would enjoy it. Sometimes he would ask me to prepare fruit juice or write a letter for him.
My guru was very considerate towards me. Sometimes he would be suffering from severe pain in his stomach and lying down in bed, but even then he would teach me.
I used to listen to all his concerts sitting in the front row. If ever I sat away, he would make me sit in front. In the middle of the concert he would say "It is getting late, and don't go alone by bus, I'll take you in the car."
My financial situation was poor, and I couldn't pay any fees, but he never seemed to care, though if I took fruits with me, he would accept them.
Aware of my situation, he even helped me to earn some money, by persuading a neighbour of his to engage me to tutor his children.
One day, Chembai was in one of his best moods, and asked me to sing, and he started singing with me. As we were singing, two sabha officials arrived in a car, with a sangeeta vidwan. I stopped singing, but he admonished me "Don't stop in the middle! Finish the song." When I had completed it, he said to the sabha secretary "Why, sir, she is going to sing with me in the concert. Print her name also. What do you say?"
I was thrilled. But the vidwan did not like the idea. "How is that possible?" he asked. "Will the sruti be the same?"
"Why, you heard her just now" she was singing in 6-kattai sruti," said my guru. I could not have asked for more from my guru. I was in heaven.
But I could gather that my guru's willingness to teach without expecting any fee was not an attitude favoured by some within his immediate family. At least this seemed true in my case, as I learnt to my great sorrow when, a few days after the visit of the sabha officials recounted earlier, I went to my guru's residence. I was not welcome any longer and the reason given was that he was not well. I was in tears but there was little I could do except to keep on crying.
I never believed that my guru had turned me away. When I later met him quite accidentally, I found out that he hadn't. He said "You will always have my blessings."