The Music of the Maestro
Great Voice, Enduring Appeal
The following analysis was written by Manirangu & Calcutta
K.S.Krishnamurti, who learnt music for some time under Chembai



Chembai at Guruvayur with L.Subramaniam, Thiruparkadal Veeraraghavan & T.V.Gopalakrishnan

The music of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was as straightforward as the man himself.

His best asset was his voice which, despite playing truant a couple of times during his career, sustained him till the end.

He was only 15 in 1911 - when Palakkad Rama Bhagavatar, an eminent musician of his time, heard him sing for the first time. Rama Bhagavatar's reaction to the experience has been recorded. According to Ellarvi, Chembai's biographer, he said: "I can't praise the quality of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's voice enough. I have not heard a voice like this before. I have no doubt that, in the years to come, this voice is going to shake up the Carnatic music world."

The voice had several impressive characteristics: range, weight, volume, reach, clarity and flow.

The range of his voice stretched upto two octaves easily for the better part of his career. More notable was the fact that the strength of his voice was even, without dropping at either end.

His voice had weight too, and this suited him perfectly in rendering ragas like Bilahari, Kalyani, Pantuvarali, Sankarabharanam and Todi.

He could give volume to his singing. And because his voice had the clarity of a bronze bell, it could be heard in the farthest reaches of halls and pandals even in the mikeless days of the past and over the hustle-bustle, characteristic of temple festivals.

And his voice had such an easy flow that he could simply attain and easily maintain great speed and velocity in his singing. He was the king of speed long before G.N.Balasubramaniam came on the scene.

What was perhaps lacking, to a degree, in his voice was polish. His voice was like the granite used in building the great temples, not the machine-polished variety which can be seen in the kitchens of affluent homes today. But like the stone floors and pillars of a temple whose rough surfaces gain a degree of smoothness over time, Chembai's voice gained a mellow quality towards the end of his career. A long-play recording that he has made offers evidence of this fact, even as the 78rpm discs he cut in the nineteen thirties and forties, with all the inadequacies of the technology of those times, give glimpses of his remarkably powerful voice of his heydays.

Chembai's music, as reflected in his singing, was without artifices, devoid of any sophistry. It might even be said that it lacked sophistication, polish. It was comparable not to a gourmet dinner in a metropolitan restaurant but a homely country meal that tastes wholesome and satisfies the appetite.

His voice was, of course, highly responsible for his sustained popularity. But there was more to his music.

His singing had a sense of vigour which kept his listeners fully alert, but also conveyed a sense of joy which got them involved in his music-making. Sometimes, he would even impart a degree of bonhomie to the proceedings, with musical puns and palavers, jocular remarks and humorous asides. And because he gave ample room for his sidemen to shine, and to the percussionists particularly, to ride the rhythmic waves, he got them also fully involved in his music-making and this too had an impact on the audience.

During the major part of his long career, Chembai had to sing for four to five hours, sometimes even longer, in each concert. But he did so effortlessly and, moreover, had no problem retaining his audience.

The concert format he followed was basically the one which his contemporary, Ariyakudi Ramanuja lyengar, had made popular with the lay listeners organised in sabhas. Of course, he too started his performances with a varnam, sang kritis with and without raga alapana, invariably rendered a ragam-tanam-pallavi and offered tukkadas, including Tamil songs, slokas and tillanas in the post-pallavi segment. But within this framework, his approach was different in that he neither relied on brevity nor offered much variety in terms of lakshana features.

Close listening to the 78 rpm discs, LPs and cassette recordings of Chembai's vocal music, and recollection of memories of live concerts heard over the years, yield the following further observations.

His rendering of Viriboni in Bhairavi, Sarasijanabha in Kambhoji and Chalamela in Sankarabharanam reveals that he did not sing the varnas as a mere obligation but used them to give a good start to the performance. His voice rang out from the beginning and, in this sense, he did not need the varnam to warm up.

His alapanas were neither too long nor too short; but they were invariably crisp. This was true of his alapanas for ragam-tanam-pallavi as well. He was anything but mechanical. He would start even the same raga at different places in different concerts.

He would employ fast phrases in the middle section of the alapana, but usually not in the lower octave. Almost always he used plain notes or flat notes which, however, had gamaka intimations. Invariably he concluded his raga presentation on the adhara shadja of either the upper or lower octaves.

Time and again, he included a special featrure in his alapana, namely 'ghanam' or nasal articulation of the humpita gamaka, with the mouth closed.

The ragas which he seemed to have particularly enjoyed elaborating, either through alapana or during the singing of slokas and viruttams, are Arabhi, Bhairavi, Bilahari, Kalyani, Kedaragoula, Kafi, Pantuvarali, Sankarabharanam, Surati and Todi. When he rendered kritis, there was a limpid quality; it was like clear water flowing over small stones. The flow was natural and unforced.

The perception that Chembai's repertoire of songs was limited is likely incorrect, for he did seem to have accumulated a substantial stock of compositions as he travelled through time.

Available recordings offer a glimpse of the variety. He can be heard singing:

Amba nadu (Todi); Bantureeti (Hamsanandi); Bhajanaseya (Kedaram);

Brovavamma (Manji); Chesinadella (Todi); Ela needaya (Athana); Elavatara (Mukhari); Enda veduko (Saraswathi Manohari); Karunai Cheivan (Yadukulakambhoji); Ennil kaninda (Husseini); Evariki (Dhanyasi); Inda kannanandam (Bilahari); Manasa elulo (Malayamarutam); Namini vachina (Kalyani); Nijamarmamula (Umabharanam); Ninnu jeppaga (Mandari), Ninnu joochi (Saurashtram); Pavana guru (Hamsanandi); Raghuvara (Pantuvarali); Rakshamam (Nata); Rama neeyada (Kharaharapriya); Ramachandrena rakshitoham (Husseini); Sankaracharyam (Sankarabharanam); Saraguna palimpa (Kedaragoula); Sarasaksha (Pantuvarali); Sarasiruha (Nata); Siva Siva Siva yenarada (Pantuvarali); Sree Balasubrahmanyaya (Bilahari); Sree Mahaganapati (Goula);Sree Subramanyaya (Kambhoji); Syamasundara (Dhanyasi); Vadera deivamu (Pantuvarali); Vareejadala lochani (Arabhi) and Vatapi Ganapatim (Hamsadhvani). 

The Tamil songs he sang included:

Idudano tillaisthalam (Behag); Innamum oru taram (Yadukulakambhoji); Kanakasabhai tirunadanam (Surati); Nadamadi tirinda (Kambhoji); Natharmudimel (Punnagavarali); Sivalokanathanai (Mayamalavagoula); Un perumaiyai (Kalyani); Vaa vaa Mumga (Kapi); and Yarukku ponnambalam (Bhairavi); hymns from Tiruppugazh and a few viruttams.

Chembai was noted for his rendering of slokas in praise of Guruvayurappan, from Narayaneeyam, [Agre pasyami, Venimooley, Manjeeram].

Other favourite items of ragamalika he sang in this type were: Sree Rama mantram and Sayankaley 

Chembai was at home with songs in Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam. He enunciated the lyrics clearly but the Malayalam accent was quite evident in his diction. There is the story about a Kannadiga listener who requested Chembai, during a concert, to sing a song in Kannada. Chembai is said to have replied: "I just sang two!"(Ippodu than rendennam padineney!).

He sang kalpana swaras usually in madhyamakala (medium speed) but not seldom in dhurita kala (fast speed) also. When he sang them in high speed, a distinct pattern would sometimes emerge. For example, instead of singing the swaras discretely as pa dha pa ma, ga ri sa ri, sa ri ga ma pa dha ni sa, he would use plirases like: Ma pa dha, pa dha ni. Dha ni dha. Pa da pa, Dha ni sa, Ni sa ri Sa. The gait would be distinct and suggest a kind of hopping. Sometimes he would employ what are called kathri swaras or scissored and rolled swaras.

A notable feature of his swara-singing was his resort to gati bheda or modal shifting of tonic. He did this expertly. Chembai used to sing only single pallavis. Sometimes he would conclude the pallavi after a short niraval passage and then take up swaraprastara. Sometimes he would also execute trikala or three-speed variations. When he did so, he would sing the slow movement for the duration of two or three avartas ( tala cycle) only and shift to madhyama kala quickly

In short, madhyama kala singing dominated his presentation of ragam-tanam-pallavi as well as of kritis.

One feature stood out in his singing throughout his life: sruti suddham or purity of pitch. His pitch was between F to F sharp (4 to 4-1/2 kattai) for many years; in the last phase of his life, it was C (1 kattai). But whatever it was, it was perfect. He had got a lock on sruti even as a youngster, through rigorous and disciplined sadhana. It never wavered, even as he never departed from the straight path he followed in his life.