Introduction


Chembai with T.N.Krishnan & Palghat Mani Iyer

Chembai Vaidyanatha Iyer was one of the leading practitioners of Carnatic Music in the period usually referred to as the 'Golden Era'. Old timers are enthusiastic in pointing out that he, along with Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar & Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer formed the 'Modern Trinity of Carnatic Music', the trio who were responsible for keeping up the concert tradition in the vacuum caused by the departure of the titans in the beginning of the 20th Century before the entry of the bright young stars such as Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G.N.Balasubramanian, Madurai Mani Iyer and the female-trio comprising of M.S.Subbulakshmi, D.K.Pattammal and M.L.Vasanthakumari, who took to the stage later. But what made Chembai different from them was his voice, that booming, metallic, powerful voice which never seemed to depart from sruti.

It is not very hard to imagine why Chembai, as he was popularly called, was phenomenally popular. With a knowledge of the art deeply acquired and with a voice that earned him the fame of 'Bell Metal Voiced Bhagavatar' with its power and majesty yet sweet and melodious, Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar rose to supreme heights, taking vast audiences to rapturous delights in a span of about 70 years of performance expertise. Born in a family of musicians, whose traditions ran uninterruptedly for over two centuries, and being a great grandson of 'Chakra Tanam' Subba Iyer, who was a contemporary of Saint Thyagaraja, Chembai had music in his blood. A deeply religious man, music in his family was taught and learnt as part of Vedic instruction. He had his early training under his father and equipped himself fully to give an independent performance even at the age of nine. A humble man, he attributed all his success to his favorite God - Guruvayurappan.

As a performer his creative ability was astonishing, and he could do a neraval and swaraprastara from any given point, which bespoke of mental alertness from the word "go", in a concert. His abiding sympathy for his accompanists and disciples was noteworthy and he would go to any length to encourage them by giving them full scope to develop and display their talent. His closed left fist gently swaying up and down, the joy of pure nada when he held on to single notes, his very own kathri swaras, his stupendous stamina, his great sense of humour, his closed mouth singing of ragas etc., endeared him to connoisseurs and critics alike. Together with this should be seen how he was above caste and communal prejudices ruling the roost in contemporary music world, especially in his relation with his disciples, allowing any aspiring and talented youngster to learn from him.

 With his rich vibrant voice and a ringing tone, Chembai's music had a direct appeal to his listeners. Mr. B.V.K.Sastri, musicologist says, "The deep solid tone seeming to illuminate such model figure in his singing and the joy of the pure nada when he held on to single notes are something not easily forgotten.'' Special mention must also be made of Chembai's total mastery over his voice, achieved from rigorous practice of the techniques of rendition such as namitham, dhavala sadhakam, vaiji sadhakam, sukla paksha sadhakam - to be able to sing in all kalas with equal facility. To Chembai, the main factors that contributed to the development of a musical personality were the intuition of the musician, his sound knowledge of ragas and swaras and firm control of sruti and laya and the capacity to evolve an individual style of expression suited to one's voice and aptitude and ideas distilled through the variegated experience behind him.

Chembai was the recipient of numerous honours. He received the 'Sangita Kalanidhi' title in 1951, 'Central Natak Akademi Award' and 'Padmabhushan' from President of India, and the 'Gayana Gandharva' title. Swami Sivananda conferred on him the title of Sangita Samrat. Honours were also bestowed on him by the rulers of Cochin, Mysore, Baroda, Vijayanagaram, Bobbili and Jaipur. He lived a life of a savant and passed away on October 16, 1974. Even after his demise, Chembai continues to inspire countless musicians who participate in his memorial concerts. He enjoys a cult-like following among his large network of disciples and admirers throughout India and abroad. This website is a small dedication to that great vidwan.