Memories of Chembai
 - By T.R.Rajamani

Chembai with Chowdiah and young Rajamani

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was one of the titans of Carnatic Music those days. As a performing mridangam vidwan, along with my father Sri Palakkad Mani Iyer, I got a number of opportunities to accompany Chembai in his concerts as well as to interact with him on a personal level. Chembai was instrumental in laying a firm foundation, for not only my father's career but also the careers of countless other upcoming artists.

My father was ten or eleven years old when he first met Chembai. He had come to our house at my grandfather's invitation. This was around 1921. Chembai at that time was already known throughout South India as one of the leading young performers. He was impressed by my father's mastery over the mridangam and decided to take him on as his accompanist for his future concerts.

During those days, the Bhagavatar was holding an annual music festival at the Parthasarathy Swami Temple in the Chembai village. A concert by Kanchipuram Nayana Pillai was arranged and the mridangist who was to accompany him for some reason, could not make it to the concert and Sri Chembai wanted my father to accompany Sri Nayana Pillai.  Pakkiria Pillai was the konnakkol vidwan. Mani Iyer had heard of Nayana Pillai’s mastery over laya. In the concert, Nayana Pillai sang a particularly intricate pallavi. My father made a decent effort to gauge the tala structure and succeeded without much difficulty. It was a new experience for my father to accompany Nayana Pillai. Nayana Pillai made some derisive remarks about Mani Iyer after the concert, which my father did not take too seriously. 

Two months later, it was in Trichy for a sabha concert that Mani Iyer was asked to accompany Sri Nayana Pillai again. Rajamanikkam Pillai was to play the fiddle. Mani Iyer accepted the offer and before going to the concert went to his guru Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer and mentioned to him that he was on his way to Trichy for a concert to accompany Sri Nayana Pillai. Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer said “Oh, it is Nayana Pillai you’re going to accompany. He will create difficulties. He tried some tricks with me by not showing the tala when I accompanied him sometime back. I just stopped playing and kept the mridangam aside. But he cannot do anything to you. You are the electronic brain. Do not have any fear”. Mani Iyer then went and played for Nayana Pillai. Pillai sang a very complicated pallavi and did not show his tala openly. Mani Iyer immediately stopped playing and put his mridangam aside. F.G.Natesa Iyer, who was sitting among the audience, got up and requested Nayana Pillai not to test the young lad and asked him to put the tala openly. Nayana Pillai relented and Mani Iyer played with gusto, much to the appreciation of Nayana Pillai and all others present. Many years later, Mani Iyer mentioned that he should have tried to play and not have kept his mridangam aside, but because at that instant, he remembered what his guru had said, he also behaved in a similar manner.

Later Chembai was to sing at a marriage concert in Salem with Mani Iyer. The tavil vidwan Panchami was to play the Kanjira. On arriving at the place, Mani Iyer found that Panchami was seated in his place (usually reserved for the mridangist – to the right of the performer). Panchami Iyer wanted Mani to sit at the back. Mani Iyer was equally unyielding. Chembai said “I will not interfere in this. Settle your disputes yourself”. Someone from the audience told Mani Iyer “Either you play sitting at the back or we’ll take away your mridangam and send you back”. Chembai, who was watching Mani Iyer to see how he would handle the situation, now said in a compromising tone, “Mani, you need not sit at the back. Come here and sit by my side”. So my father performed that day sitting by Chembai’s side. 

My father was very dear to Chembai. When some concert organizers used to ask Chembai about his choice for mridangam, invariably his reply would be “If you can arrange for Mani’s mridangam, good; otherwise it does not matter who plays mridangam.” My father also held Chembai in absolute reverence. 

There was an unfortunate incident which led to a misunderstanding between my father and Chembai. My father once accompanied M.A.Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar at the Trivandrum Navarathri Mandapam. My father thought M.A.Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar deserved much more popularity for all his vidwat (knowledge). So, when the organizers at the Music Academy asked him whether he could accompany Chembai that year, he said, “Would it not be more beneficial for M.A.Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar if I accompanied him instead of Chembai? Word got around to Chembai that Mani Iyer was not interested in accompanying him. This news embittered Chembai and the rift widened as they did not meet each other to sort things out. Later, at the Sashtiabthapoorthi Celebrations of P.A.Raman Iyer at Bombay, Chembai was to perform. Mani Iyer was also present for the occasion. It was there that Mani Iyer had an opportunity to explain things to Chembai and assure him that he did not have any hard feelings. That brought back the lost rapport and Chembai asked Mani Iyer to accompany him in his concert there, which Mani Iyer did.  

My father and Chembai jointly learnt some kritis like Jesinadella, Chetulara etc. from Karur Chinnaswamy Iyer. My father used to tell me he had a great interest in learning vocal music, and had he not taken to playing mridangam, he would have become a vocalist. 

My first opportunity to accompany Chembai was at the Thiruvaiyar Thyagaraja Aradhana. My participation in it was quite unexpected. I had just gone there to listen. The organizers wanted me to participate in accompanying some musician. I accepted and the musician was none other than Chembai. Sri V.V.Subramanian was providing fiddle support. The concert was being relayed through AIR. The radio authorities had a practice of not announcing the names of artistes who were not auditioned. Chembai, when he heard that my name would not be announced, said “So what?” The concert commenced and he sang ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu’. Just a few minutes after he started singing, in the middle of the song, Chembai suddenly said “The mridangist who is accompanying me here is Rajamani. He is Palakkad Mani’s son. He is an engineer by profession.” The radio authorities were shocked. One of them came near and said “Relay is on!” Chembai replied calmly “I know that”, and proceeded to inform a lot of other details about me over the mike. Later, he told me “I have told all that is there to be told about you in the radio. Are you happy?”

Later I also accompanied Chembai in a concert recorded by the All India Radio in 1963-1964. This was my first radio concert. My father took me to his house two days before that concert. I offered him a veshti and some fruits as a token of my respect and sought his blessings. Since the AIR station was close to Chembai’s house, he asked me to come to his house on the day of the recording and suggested that we all go together. Accordingly, I went to Chembai’s house on that day about an hour before the recording was to commence. Chembai Narayanan was to provide vocal support. We went to the Radio station in Chembai’s car. Sri T.N.Balappa was to play the dolak for the concert. Chembai told him “Balappa, come here. You want your cheque only, is it not. I’ll get you your cheque. Rajamani is playing in the Radio for the first time today. You need not play at all. I will see that you get your cheque.” When the relay was about to begin, Chembai said “When the red light is switched on, play softly. Don’t be too loud. When the green light glows, play as you wish”. This incident made me feel how much he was interested in my success on the dias.

In 1966 or 67, at the Krishna Gana Sabha, my father and myself were to play mridangam for Chembai. At the time we were playing the thani, I and my father taking turns, Chembai abruptly said, looking at my father, “Mani, today you will lose.” We did not know what was going on. The audience was equally clueless. Chembai repeated “Mani you will certainly lose today, no matter what”. When asked for an explanation, he said, “Today, if your son plays better than you, you will lose. If you play better than him, it will mean you haven’t taught him properly. So you will lose in either case. You are going to lose”. The audience, in rapt attention till then, applauded greatly in amusement. 

It was the occasion of my marriage, when a lot of the front ranking singers like Chembai, Semmangudi, Ariyakudi, Musiri, Alathur Brothers, etc agreed to perform and I, my father and Sri Umayalapuram Sivaraman took upon ourselves to accompany them for two concerts each. I was to accompany Chembai. Chowdiah was at the violin. After the first few songs, Chembai started singing the song ‘Raghuvara’ in an expansive manner. It is generally quite difficult to make the mridangam more audible when the singer is someone like Chembai, and I was trying my best to keep up to Chembai’s voice. When he started singing swaras, I thought he would sing for a few avartanams. So I played with much effort right from the beginning. But Chembai used to stretch the swara for many avarthanams and the mridangist will get completely exhausted by the time he comes back to the kriti. My father, who was listening, is said to have remarked to his friend about me thus “Rajamani is not quite experienced. This is not the way he should strain himself now. The Bhagavatar will keep singing for a very long time . He should play softly now and reserve his energy for the end.” 

Once I was at the Madras Central Railway Station in 1968. There in a first class compartment of the train, were seated Chembai & Yesudas. On seeing me through the window, Chembai wanted to know why I was there and called me inside. I explained that I had come to see a friend off. Then, he asked Yesudas to fetch some drinking water. After he left, I asked Chembai where he was going. “There is a concert we have in Coimbatore tomorrow”, he said. “It is going to be a hundred years concert”. I couldn’t understand. “A hundred years concert?” I asked. “Yes, a hundred years concert. When we perform tomorrow, the sum of my age and that of Yesudas will be 100”. I laughed.

There was this concert of Smt.M.S.Subbulakshmi that Chembai went to attend with his wife in a Sabha in Madras. The organisers wanted Chembai to felicitate M.S. by garlanding and blessing her. Chembai did not know what to say, so he asked the organizers to find out whether him garlanding M.S. was objectionable to her. M.S. said that she did not find it objectionable in any way. When Chembai heard this, he said “So she does not have any objection. But ask Sadasivam (M.S.’ husband) whether he has any objection to my garlanding her.” The organizers came back to report that Sri Sadasivam did not have any objection either. Chembai said “So M.S. has no objection, Sadasivam has no objection. Now let's ask my wife whether she has any objection.” When his wife (Smt. Meenakshi Ammal), who was generally quite reticent in nature, conveyed her no-objection, Chembai observed, “So MS has no objection, Sadasivam does not object, and my wife also does not object, but I do object! She has my blessings but I will not garland her.” 

There was this unknown violinist who could just play so and so. After some effort in attempting to coach him up to a certain level, Chembai wanted the violinist to accompany him at a concert. In the concert, the violinist found it really difficult to accompany Chembai and was trying his best not to fumble. On noticing his difficulty, Chembai said openly, “You played well at home, why are you afraid when I’m here.” Though the words did not help the violinist much, it dispelled the idea among the audience that the violinist was mediocre. Chembai was at work again in trying to prop-up yet another artiste. 

In the old days, when Chembai used to pay Rs.50 per concert for violin support, there was this violinist who asked for Rs.75. After some thinking, Chembai agreed to pay Rs.75. In the concert the violinist could not keep up with Chembai’s singing. Things reached a point when he had to stop playing. Chembai, with a twinkle in his eyes, said “What happened. You wanted Rs.75, is it not?”

There were concerts in which my father used to play mridangam and Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai used to play kanjira for Chembai. Dakshinamurthy Pillai was a devotee of Lord Muruga, and he would make a vow after the concert not to play again in combination with my father. This was due to the fact that he had put much effort to play with Mani Iyer and each concert was  more or less a challenge.  He’d say “I will not play with this ‘maana’ again”, referring to my father. He would later, invariably accept concerts with Mani Iyer as mridangist and himself at Kanjira citing financial reasons. On one such occasion, when he asked Chembai for a concert booking, Chembai remarked “So without this maana, there is no paana” (Paana = money). 

My father learned many things from Chembai. One important attribute he learned was straightforwardness. It was not for Chembai to talk in a round-about manner. He was bold and direct in everything he did. It was the same with Mani Iyer. My father was always direct and to the point.

Once, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Mani Iyer and I went to Bombay. The occasion was that Mani Iyer was to be felicitated and awarded at the Bharatiya Sabha. Chembai had been camping in Bombay for some time and he was invited to attend the function. In his speech Mani Iyer spoke at length and acknowledging the contributions of his well-wishers, said “Sri Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and Sri Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar are like my two eyes.” 

No one said anything against Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar since both fellow musicians and the public held him in reverence. But there are two incidents which can be called the only low-points in his life. In those days, in Palakkad, an annual Thyagaraja Aradhana was being held. Once, Chembai went to listen to an artiste and unintentionally sat down in a place reserved for ladies. Someone, on seeing this spoke some derisive and unbecoming words to Chembai. His remarks were particularly unwarranted and harsh, considering a person of Chembai’s age and character. Chembai got up, and without saying a word in reply, left the place. He never since attended any concerts at the Palakkad Thyagaraja Aradhana. In another case it was a concert in which Mani Iyer was playing for Chembai. After Mani Iyer played a brilliant thani, Chembai remarked in Tamil “Oru payalum idhu varaikum ippadi vasichadillai” (No one has played like this before). One observer was indignant that Chembai should not have used the word ‘payal’. He criticized Chembai’s remark in the newspaper saying that he had meant to call all earlier mridangists by using the offensive word and also resorted to dharna and hunger-fast before Chembai’s house demanding an apology. Chembai was put off by the way these things shaped up. He remarked that he did not mean all that he said, that he had only wanted to convey that Mani Iyer had played well, and that  he had no disrespect for earlier mridangists. 

Years back, Chembai was giving a concert with Mani Iyer at Srinivasa Sastry Hall, Mylapore. He was being given vocal support by his disciple who was a youngster. In the kriti ‘Raghuvamsa sudha’, he was singing a sangathi which needed little effort to sing. When it was to be repeated, he kept quiet allowing his disciple to sing. The disciple with the idea that his master will sing the difficult sangati was just singing the outline, without taking pains to sing it.  But by Chembai, keeping quiet, this was exposed to the public. Sri Chembai looked at the disciple and asked “What is it you are doing?”  The audience burst into laughter. The incident only shows the sense of humour in him.

There is really no end to the anecdotes on Chembai. I hope my recollections are useful for the readers in getting a better idea of Chembai and the special relationship which my father and I enjoyed with him.