Chembai - His Last Day
This article was written by lawyer-poet P.T.Narendra Menon of Ottapalam, with the
cooperation of his musician-wife Sukumari Narendra Menon, a disciple of Chembai.



Chembai sings "Karunai Cheyvaan Enthu Thaamasam Krishna" in his last concert on 16th Oct 1974

Andal, Swami Haridas, Meera, and Ramalingaswami in the last century passed away with their swan-songs on their lips. So also the Trinity of Carnatic music; not for them the tortured struggle for breath, the pathetic rattle of chakra swasa; they entered the world beyond with the resonance of dhaivata, nishada, and shadja in their throats. The end of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's life conformed to this tradition.

 Tyagaraja informed his disciples on a pushya bahula panchami that an extraordinary event would take place that day. Later, he told them he would sing his last kriti. He sang Paramatmudu in Vagadeeswari, a raga of infinite tranquility and sweet pathos, which culminated in his mahasamadhi:

"Oh! Paramatma, you shine gloriously in everything.
You shine in Hari, Hara, devas, human beings and in the innumerable worlds.
You shine in the five elements of the sky, fire, air, water and earth, and in animals, birds, hills and trees.
You shine in the good as well as the bad.
And lo! You shine in the heart of humble Tyagaraja."

Muthuswami Dikshitar entered into final samadhi with Meenakshi memudam dehi, the Gamakakriya kriti ringing in his ears. But his soul left the body before the end of the composition. He was on wing to the unknown the moment he heard the words, "thou, who liberates from the coils". His disciples, however, completed the kriti.

Equally famous is Syama Sastry's Madhyamavati song of farewell, Palinchu Kamakshi pavani.

Ramalingaswamy, the composer of Tiruvarutpa, entered a cellar with an instant song on his lips and, following his instructions, the disciples sealed it with stone and cement. A concourse of people witnessed the event. The District Collector, an Englishman, who rushed to the spot the next day on getting reports that a person had been entombed alive, got the cellar opened, and found nothing inside, except the fragrance of the champaka flower, which the swamy's body always carried. This happened at the close of the last century, and many who witnessed it have recorded it.

One could banish these reports as arising from the fanciful imaginations of their followers. One could argue, in the light of reason, that it is not possible to compose and sing during the last struggle. But why did such myths acquire significance in our musical lore? And why, in recounting the last moments of Chembai, our thoughts are drawn to this tradition of musical samadhi? For an answer, we have to look into his mental state, demeanour, and conversation on the day of his death which he spent in Ottapalam, our small town.

16th October 1974

A translucent morning in the month of Aswina - 16 October, 1974. The winds were still bringing in a dwindling monsoon, but in between, the dawn was beginning to get dew-laden. When Sukumari sat down for sadhakam, she could see, through the window, the palm trees at the end of the field silhouetted in mist. When she was studying at what was then known as the Central College of Carnatic music in Madras, Chembai had once explained the meaning of a passage from Kaddanuvariki, the Tyagaraja kriti in Todi, and pointed out the method for practice mentioned therein: "Wake up from sleep. Take up the beautiful tambura. With pure mind, sing suswara in sampradaya style."

 Ottapalam is just an overgrown village on the banks of the Nila river. The sadhakam was just over when Soolapani, a disciple of Chembai and a music-teacher in our town, called on the telephone. Bhagavatar was in town, he said, and resting at the house of O.M. Vasudevan Namboodiripad (O.M.V.), one of his early disciples. He would come to our residence at 12 noon. Meanwhile, he wanted a car to go to Vengassery, a nearby village.

 Chembai was a constant visitor to Ottapalam during the last 35 years of his life, because O.M.V. had settled down there. During every visit, he would stay at least a couple of days in Vasudevan's house. Right from his childhood, he had had a close association with the latter's family. The only income of Ananta Bhagavatar, Chembai's father, was from teaching music and the meagre fee obtained was seldom enough to make both ends meet. Chembai, and his younger brother Subramani, had known stark poverty in their childhood, but they had become accomplished singers in spite of it, due to the father's training. When they were children, a marriage proposal had to be finalized for their father's sister. Ananta Bhagavatar had no wherewithal. Vasudevan's family, of the Olappamanna Mana, was almost a zamindari then, and he approached the head of the family for a loan of 2000 rupees. The latter would not oblige, as he knew that it would never be repaid. But he helped in another manner. He wrote to some 30 chieftains and landlord families, stating that Bhagavatar's two boys, who were good singers and would be top-notchers in future, were in straitened circumstances, and requested them to make some payment after listening to them. Ananta Bhagavatar made a tour of Malabar and Cochin with these letters, and ere long obtained the 2000 rupees he needed. He returned to Olappamanna Mana five letters which he had no need to utilize. From that day onwards, Chembai considered himself as a dependent of the Mana, and at every opportunity would walk the 15 miles to the Mana from his village. Of course the good food served there also was a big draw.

This time he had come to Ottapalam to participate in the arangetram of the disciples of his disciple Soolapani, and to give a recital at a small temple belonging to O.M.V., on the banks of the river. We sent the car to him and waited for his arrival. He had gone to the village, worshipped at the Devi temple there, and inquired about the welfare of an indigent girl to whom he had provided dowry a year earlier. After this, he was at our residence by noon.

 Bhagavatar used to help many girls to get married, during the last years of his life, by providing dowry, in part, and once or twice in full. A month earlier, when we were in Madras, he had said: "Do you know how much I earned from singing this month? Twenty thousand rupees! Perhaps you think I put it in my bank. No. I spent 500 rupees here in my madhom. Four or five thousand, I gave away to get a couple of poor girls married. The entire balance was given to Guruvayurappan, [the deity of the temple in Guruvayur). I was very greedy for money once. Now the Lord has taken away that greed from my heart."

 For many years, till he died, Chembai used to go to Guruvayur, every time he had earned enough, to conduct the Udayastamana (dawn to dusk) pooja. (Now the pooja costs 15,000 rupees). He had thus conducted more than 40 of such poojas, a record for an individual.

 Guruvayur had become an obsession with him, and devotees there had long begun to look upon him as a representative of the Lord. At every visit, people used to vie with each other to get his blessings, and that included many who had no knowledge about his musical prowess. He had developed an uncanny gift of speaking words which brought solace to people. 

Chembai was not only a king of nada, but also a king of wit. His humour had an effervescent quality which sent everybody he met into peals of laughter. His puckish wit would well up the moment he came across a few people.

 Years ago, he came late for the concert at our wedding and everybody was anxiously waiting. Suddenly we could hear somebody shouting at the gate, in Malayalam: "Aanavarunu, aanavarunu, vazhi vittolu" - the elephant is coming, make way. It was none other than Chembai shouting!

 We could see that he was in good form when he alighted from the car on that October day at the gate of our compound. When we hastened to receive him, he said, "That nephew and niece you brought' to me at Madras, those with funny names. Well, I taught them two songs, Pavana Guru and Jaya Jaya Sree Giri. Come on, tell me which are these kritis. Kumari, you don't know? Let me see whether he (Narendra Menon) can tell me!"

 I knew Pavana guru as a Hamsanandi composition of Lalitadasar [T.G. Krishna lyer], but had not heard the other one. [It turns out it is also a kriti of Lalitadasar in Sindhubhairavi.] I said that he would try to identify it on hearing the pallavi. Chembai wagged his finger and laughingly said, "Yes, yes, I know you want to make me sing standing under this mango tree at your doorstep, so that you can go about bragging about it. Sari, sari (okay, okay), you can have your way." And forthwith he sang the pallavi with gusto standing in the noonday sun.

 "Both the kids sit on my lap while learning. The younger one is for ever patting my potbelly," he added, reverting my nephew and niece.

 While being never despondent or morose, on that day he seemed to be particularly jolly. We felt that some special joy was pulsating in him. He was very active too. From 12 noon to 5.30 in the evening, he was at our residence, now sitting and chatting in the drawing room, now walking about the house. Sukumari had prepared several items of food, not knowing what he would relish. But he had only milk and biscuits. He was walking around the dining table, and loudly counting the items.

 "You are not eating anything, then why count them?" Sukumari remonstrated.

 "Your nathoon (sister-in-law] in Madras will ask whether you treated me to vada-payasam. I want to tell her you had prepared so many items," he replied.

 The correspondent of Malayala Manorama dropped in on hearing about the arrival of Chembai. He was entranced by the wit of the aged doyen. He said he was planning to write a long article on Chembai. The latter replied, "Don't bother. I do not feel like reading the papers nowadays. You report only wars, murders, robberies and sex. You report nothing but the abuse people hurl at each other. I have other things to think about. If you want, you can report that Chembai said so."

 The correspondent earned a promotion for his report captioned, "Malayala Manorama given the last interview", which appeared on the front page the very next day.

 A Cascade Of Reminiscences

 We talked during the afternoon and kept asking him about the many incidents in his interesting life. And he responded readily.

 He skipped from one incident to another in quick succession, all recounted in his rustic, colloquial Malayalam, carrying a sort of telling effect. He recalled his childhood days, steeped in arduous sadhakam, though beset by penury; the jalasadhakam he tried in the Nila river as a youth; the few months of schooling, abruptly terminated by the father when once he came home covered with slush, after falling off from the back of a buffalo, while playing with children of other castes; the days he used to walk 10 to 20 miles just to participate in a varam feast where the poor could get fine food. He also remembered a concert at the Madras Music Academy which exceeded the allotted time, and continued long into the night as a spellbound audience listened. He talked about the poignant days when he lost his voice, and the agony he underwent; the occasions he used to stand before the Lord of Guruvayur with tears in his eyes, asking, "Oh Lord! have you forsaken me to this extent, so that you cannot even bear to hear my voice recite a verse in your praise"; his back-breaking violin practice during those days; the restoration of his voice by the grace of Guruvayurappan (he totally believed it was so); the treatment   by Vaidyamadhom Namboodiri and his stay at the Poomulli Mana. He remembered, too, the days when he made a golaka [golden plate] for the Parthasarathy idol at his village temple with the 5000 rupees he demanded and obtained when Mysore T. Chowdiah persuaded him to sing for the Kannada film Vani; and the gradual surrender to Guruvayurappan as the only refuge.

 We asked him abut the truth of the story that he once produced rain by singing the Devamritavarshini raga. He smiled enigmatically and replied, "Once when I sang the raga, it rained heavily even though it was not the rainy season. I do not know how it rained in the height of summer. Music has great power. Did it not rain   when   Dikshitar   sang Amritavarshini? In my case it might have been a mere coincidence, comparable to the falling of the palm-fruit the moment the crow perched on it," He was repeating the Malayalam   proverb,  'Kakka irunnathum panampazham veenathum oppam'. "Yes it was possibly a mere fluke, as I am a far cry from Dikshitar. But remember, there is nothing which cannot be wrought with the saptaswara."

 We asked Chembai about the report that he had refused to don the dress presented by the Maharaja of Mysore while singing at the durbar.

 It was compulsory for the artists to wear the achkan presented by the Maharaja, but Chembai had refused to do so, and insisted that he would be bare-chested, except for a shawl draped around the shoulders, as was his practice. In the end, he was given special permission to give the recital in his usual attire. Chembai replied: "Yes, I did not like a bhagavatar to be dressed up in raja part. I was prepared to sing only in my palassar and angavastram. The courtiers said that I would not be allowed to sing. Okay, I said, I will be glad to go back without singing the concert. The matter reached the ears of His Highness. He allowed me to sing in my usual attire."

 He confirmed that he had refused the invitation to be an asthana vidwan of the Mysore court, because he could not bear to be absent from the Navaratri celebrations at the Parthasarathy temple in his village.

We had heard that Chembai had taught music to his disciples on the railway platform on occasion. When queried about it, he said: "Yes, I have done it a few times. If a train would be late for two or three hours, why sit idle? So I used to teach the accompanying sishyas then and there. What was the harm if a few people saw and heard us?"

 We were reminded of the incident when Chembai sang in a bank premises in Palakkad. He was there to encash a cheque, when a clerk sitting at the counter told him that he was looking forward to hearing Chembai directly, though he had heard him over the radio many times. "Then you can hear me now itself," said Chembai. He sat down on the floor and started to sing, Vatapi Ganapatim. The manager, the clerks, and the customers all came running and clustered around him, bringing the business of the bank to a hall for the next half an hour.

 Chembai belonged to the Chozhiya brahmin community, whose members were traditionally engaged in officiating for srardha (anniversary) ceremonies, and were consequently considered to be inferior to them by other brahmins in olden times. As was the custom in the community, Chembai had a 'munkudumi', or tuft in the front part of his head. Some orthodox brahmins used to look down on Chembai during his younger days because he was a Chozhiyan. As regards that he quipped: "In those days, some could not stand the sight of a Chozhiya Pattar [Bhattar] singing. They would get up and leave, the moment I started my concert. Once I got really peeved about it, and shouted to them: ‘I also have a kudumi. The only difference is that it is a front-tuft, instead of a back-tuft (pinkudumi)’. Those were my full-blooded days. Now I have no rancour against anybody."

 Regard For Kerala And Its Culture

Chembai belonged to the community called 'Paradesa brahmana' in Kerala, whose mother-tongue is even now Tamil. They speak Tamil at home. Almost all the vidwans of Carnatic music in Kerala till recently belonged to this community. It was considered by virtually all of them not quite the done thing to sing Malayalam kritis in a concert. Even though Muthiah Bhagavatar sought to popularize some Malayalam kritis of Swati Tirunal very few sang them in practice. But Chembai used to sing Malayalam kritis right from his youth. He included even Kathakali padas in his repertoire. Even though Ulloor Parameswara lyer, the Mahakavi, had loved and devoted his entire life to Malayalam, it was unusual for a person like Chembai, who had practically no formal education, to have loved this language so much. He also loved Sopana Sangeetam, the ancient musical style of Kerala.

 When we mentioned Sopana Sangeetam, he said: "It is just like our Bharatapuzha [the Nila river]. Not much, but what is there is really great." He went on: "Have you not heard the Kathakali padam, Mariman kanni in Nalacharitam. Bhava in its entirety is found there. Kumari!" (Chembai always used to call Sukumari thus). "You will have to do some work on Sopana Sangeetam one day."

 It is the experience of many that whatever Chembai spoke about, especially towards the end of his life, used to happen. We know at least three couples who believe that they had a son or daughter due to his words of blessing.

 We were wondering why Chembai spoke those words regarding work on Sopana Sangeetam until 1989 when its purport was made clear. That year Sukumari got a senior fellowship from the Department" of Culture of the Government of India to do some work on Sopana Sangeetam.

Love for all, compassion, a brimming zest for life, intermittent spells of detachment - these were the qualities we noticed in Chembai that day.

 He pointed to the little daughter of our maid-servant, and said: "Ah! the girl has got a face with good lakshana. Kumari! teach her to play the tambura. If the voice is good teach her to sing also. Let her make a living out of it."

 He looked at the garden and said: "Some ragas are like the jasmine. Fragrant and white. Some are like the hibiscus. Red and spectacular. Some are like the full-blown lotus. Lovely and soft. But remember! They will all flower only when the heart is full of love."

 It was as if he was thinking aloud. Presently he said: "Two of my disciples, Raman and Kunchu. I have not been able so far to get them settled. Look at Kunchu, he has five or six children, and is always in difficulties. As for Raman, who knows where he will be the next moment?"

 Raman is Rama Poduval, the now well-known expert of Sopana Sangeetam, a brilliant, but erratic and absent-minded singer. It was after Chembai's death that his talents were recognized, and he got the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Kunchu is Soolapani, to help whom Chembai had come to Ottapalam that day. He followed his master into the Great Beyond.

 Chembai lapsed into deep silence two or three times. During one such spell, he said with eyes focussed at some far distance: "I want to have anayasa maranam [easy death]. That is my only remaining desire. I am sure, Guruvayurappan will grant me that boon also."

 At half past five in the evening, Chembai left for the residence of O.M.V.

 Saying we would come to the venue by the time the concert began at 6.30 pm, we started accompanying him upto the car. He indicated the floor of the verandah and said, "Kumari! Sit down here." When she sat down, he placed both his hands on her head, prayed with eyes closed for a minute and blessed her saying:

"Oh Lord! Give her all soubhagya." Then addressing her: "Never forget to sing during ekadasi at Guruvayur temple. The Lord there will always be with you."

 Chembai had never before given his blessings in such a ceremonious fashion. Not for a moment did we suspect that it was the last blessing.

 Poozhikunnam temple is situated on the banks of the Nila river, with a song of nature created by the serene flow of the river, the green fields waiting for the pre-winter harvest, and the distant blue hills providing the backdrop. A small shrine of Krishna is like a gamaka in between. The rain of the previous night had made the narrow pathway slippery, and though it was short, O.M.V. had arranged a manchal, a country-palanquin, to carry Chembai. At first he refused to get into it.

 "I have not travelled in one so far," said he and asked: "Do you want me to cut a sorry figure at the end of my life."

 But then he relented. When he reached the temple, there was a slight delay in helping him to get up from the manchal.

 Chembai quipped to P.K.G.Nambiar, the Koodiyattam artist, and Chithali Rama Marar, the percussion exponent, who were on hand to welcome him, "Are you planning to make me lie here for ever? Well, it does not matter even if that is so. It is time for that sort of thing."

He had darshan of the deity at the temple, and proceeded to the stage where two girls, disciples of Soolapani, were singing. Sitting on the side, he encouraged them, exclaiming 'Besh'. When they finished the kriti and prostrated, he raised them up and made them sit on his lap.

 Last Concert

Many had come early to hear the concert, including Poomulli Neelakantan Namboodiripad, an expert in the martial art of Kalaripayattu and in hypnotism and elephant therapy, in addition to being a Sanskrit scholar. Chembai, in a buoyant mood, cracked jokes with all of them.

 When we reached the venue, the concert was about to begin, with T.K.Ramachandran on the violin, Trissoor R. Mohan on the mridanga and Alangudi Ramachandran on the ghata. There was one more violinist on the stage; we do not remember his name. There were also about 10 to 15 disciples on the stage, including O.M.V., Rama Poduval and O.M.V.'s son and young sishya, Babu from Madras. The audience was small, but most of the listeners were rasikas.

 As the concert proceeded, an admirer who had a dairy brought Chembai a glass of milk. He sipped a little, and asked, "Is this milk with water added, or water with milk added?"

 The audience laughed.

 The favourite kritis of Bhagavatar started flowing out. He was in form, and it was a first-class concert. He sang Viriboni in Bhairavi, Vatapi Ganapatim in Hamsadhwani, Pavana guru in Hamsanandi   and   Rakshamam saranagatam in Nata with his usual verve and gusto. Then he took up Sree Subrahmanyaya in Kambhoji, and elaborated the raga, to be followed later by a sizzling niraval and swaraprastara. Power mingled with visranti in his alapana. The bell-metal voice was practically intact. The sruti suddham and accuracy of tala were there unravaged by old age. The enunciation of sahitya was as usual clear, though he never used artificial dentures. The speciality of Chembai, kattiri swara - combination of scissored swaras" also was there. And above all there was soulful bhava.

 We heard this last concert with bated breath, never suspecting the imminent end for a moment. Bhagavatar took up many items not usually sung by him:

 Bruhi Mukundeti of Sadasiva Brahmendra was among them. Then, of course, he sang Karuna cheyvanendu tamasam by Irayimrnan Tampi, his favourite and a virtually indispensable song in all his concerts. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he sang it, and he raised his hands high above the head and joined his palms in prayer. Then he rendered a sloka, ‘Vandemataram Ambikam Bhagavatim’, the supplication of the child going to the mother's lap.

 When the concert ended, O.M.V. asked me to speak a few words. Being a poet, I could speak only lyrically about the recital. When that ended, Chembai announced over the mike, "Oh, the speech of this chap is also a type of music!"

 When he was helped to get up, he said: "Please take me to the sanctum sanctorum"

 Chithali Rama Marar and P.K.G. Nambiar held his hands and led him to the door of the sanctum. He sat down on the floor, shut his eyes, and prayed for a few minutes. Then he called out to the deity in a supplicating tone: "Krishna! Guruvayurappa! I am 80. You have fulfilled all my desires. Why do you still make me go about with this body? Why don't you call me [to you]?"

 The Final Adieu

When he got up, after receiving the prasada, and giving dakshina to the priest, Rama Marar said:

"Bhagavatar will live for the full span of 125 years."

 Chembai laughed aloud and retorted: "You don't poke your head in it. All is settled between me and Guruvayurappan."

He returned in the manchal itself to O.M.V.'s residence. He washed his feet and face, and sat down for prayers in the verandah. After a few minutes, it was noticed that his head was sliding to one side.

 Somebody supported him, and slowly eased him down to lie on the floor. He was perspiring profusely. Neelakantan Namboodiripad, who knows 'marana lakshana' [signs of death] went near to examine him. He looked only for a few seconds, and called out: "Everything is over for Bhagavatar."

 Centuries ago, Hazrat Amir Khusro said: "The music of Hindustan is divine."

 As the funeral pyre burnt and died down on the banks of the river the next day, this passage came back to mind and I thought Chembai's music had once again conveyed the message to all those who love the saptaswaras