Chembai - A Karmayogi
By C.D.Ayyar


My uncle, the late Sivaramakrishna lyer, then an Accountant General, was fond of entertaining people. Musicians liked him very much. He would often regale us with interesting anecdotes of old masters like Maha Vaidyanatha lyer, Tirukkodikaval Krishna lyer and Poochi Srinivasa lyengar.

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was his honoured guest more than once. He was visiting my uncle once again. His company was like an invigorating breath of fresh air.

This was some 35 years ago. The place: a mansion at 56 Ballygunge Circular Road, Calcutta. The time: 6 pm. I was in my late twenties then. I called on my uncle as I normally did. I was surprised to see him restless since he had a jolly disposition. A tactful inquiry revealed that the Bhagavatar who had left home in the morning had failed to return, though only half an hour was left for his music performance. The concert hall in Tollygunge, a crowded suburb of Calcutta, was over six km away. And Chembai had to have rest and a change before the performance. Time was running out. Had Bhagavatar lost his way? Had he suddenly taken ill? Our minds were in a whirl. We thought of the numerous music enthusiasts patiently waiting at the concert hall to listen to the maestro. We thought of the predicament of the organisers. Many such thoughts were assailing our minds, when Bhagavaiar suddenly appeared. What a relief. The maestro looked somewhat tired, but his chubby face was wreathed in smiles. After welcoming Chembai my uncle spoke and a conversation ensued along the following lines.

Uncle: I hope you had a nice day. You must be ready to blast the audience with your music!

Bhagavatar: I am fine. My concert does not worry me. After singing a song or two, I will get into my stride. My voice will then become my obedient servant.... I got stuck the whole day with a disciple of mine whom a pallavi in Sankarabharanam was eluding. Her timing had gone haywire. She had practised the wrong way and could not get out of the rut. She sought my help. It is next to impossible to eliminate habitual musical errors. The morning session was followed by a sumptuous lunch, after which we resumed our battle royal with Sankarabharanam. I did not know how time flew. I was shocked when the wall-clock showed 5-30. I immediately sent word to the organisers that I would be late by half an hour and to inform everyone accordingly.

Uncle: Please have your wash and change. We will en joy some coffee before we leave. My Oldsmobile will not take more than half an hour to reach us to the concert hall.

A little later we marched into the dining hall, the Bhagavatar looking fresh and trim. He preferred to sit on the floor. A few dosas were served, and the maestro relished them greatly. Then followed coffee which he sipped slowly. He was completely unruffled though time was running out. He reminded me of a karmayogi.

The coffee over, we drove through the crowded streets and reached our destination. As our car approached the outer gate, Bhagavatar asked the driver to stop. The haunting melody of the unmistakable Mohanam was delightful to the ears. The loudspeakers poured out kalpana swaras in torrents. The maestro seemed lost in the music. We did not disturb him. We, however, guessed that the singer it was a lady, must be his disciple. After remaining in a trance-like state for a few minutes, Bhagavatar signalled the driver to proceed. On reaching the main entrance we were received cordially by the organisers who were anxiously awaiting our arrival. As desired by Chembai, we all slipped into the hall through a back entrance. This precaution was not very helpful because the majestic figure of the maestro did not elude the eyes of many. There was a mild commotion, followed by smiles and relief: at last, the maestro was in their midst and a musical feast was a certainty. On seeing Chembai, the lady on the dais stopped singing. Embarrassment was writ on her face. She implored him to take her place. But he would not listen; he asked her to finish her song.

When Chembai finally took the stage, there was terrific applause. The maestro shot straight into Pantuvarali. Except for the sound of music, there was pindrop silence. The famous temple-bell voice filled the hall. For the next two hours, there was a riot of joyful music. Songs in Bhairavi, Kambhoji, Saveri and Todi flowed like a river in spate. The performance over, the audience dispersed, fully satisfied, with the music ringing in their ears. That was one of the best performances of Chembai I had heard.

The sequence of events later became clear to us. On knowing that he would be late for the performance, Chembai had not only taken pains to inform the organisers, but also had planned out a mini-performance by his disciple, pending his arrival. By this means, the audience was kept occupied. In addition, his disciple -  no mean singer, had an opportunity to display her talent before the public. The maestro did not mind spending all day on a gruelling task, though he was committed to give a performance the same evening.