Chembai Memorial Music Festivals


Chembai Sangeetha Utsavam

There are two Carnatic music festivals associated with Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar.

One is the annual 10-day festival which has been taking place in the village of Chembai in February-March. As early as the second decade of the century, stalwarts like Ernakulam Venkatrama Bhagavatar used to sing regularly at this festival. All vidwans and top violinists of the years that followed used to perform. Among them were Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, Ariyakudi Ramanuja lyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha lyer, Musiri Suhrahmania lyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa lyer, G.N.Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani lyer, M.S.Subbulakslimi, Flute T.N.Swarninatha Pillai,  Flute T.R.Malialingam and Mysore T.Chowdiah.

Even after he shifted to Madras in the early forties, Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar would come down lo Chembai every year to conduct the festival.

When Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar died, his Madras-based son-in-law Narayanan assumed the responsibility for conducting the festival, with funds left by Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar in trust, his own funds and resources mobilised by him. Narayanan too died in 1992.

Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's disciples Jaya-Vijaya have erected a shrine for their guru at the entrance to his village. The pancharatna kritis of Tyagaraja are rendered by a chorus of musicians at the shrine during the festival.

Commenting on the five-day festival conducted in the last week of February 1991, P.T.Narendra Menon reported: "During the event, one felt that the spirit of Chembai was hovering over the village and that he was once again sitting on his favourite swing, opposite to the (Parthasarathy) temple, with his eyes riveted on the sanctum sanctorum.

The other music festival has been taking place at the Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayur. From the age of 20, Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and his disciples gave free concerts on navami, dasami and ekadasi days in the waxing phase of the moon (sukla paksham) in the month of Kartika. The three-day affair was attended by thousands of music lovers and devotees of Guruvayurappan. The Dewasom gave only a very small grant to help Chembai conduct the festival.

When Chembai passed away in 1974, the Dewasom assumed the responsibility for conducting it and decided to dedicate vastly larger resources for it. The duration of the festival was increased to four days in 1979. Four years later, it was increased to 11 days. With some 200 musicians, young and old, novices and established artists, vocalists and instrumentalists participating every day, the total number taking part in the festival every year exceeds 2000! All India Radio broadcasts a selection of the late evening concerts.

Significantly, children are allowed to perform too, since Chembai made it a point during his lifetime to encourage youngsters to learn music. A couple of years ago, 52 youngsters belonging to the age group of 5-20 participated in a mridanga mela.

As at the Tyagaraja aradhana festival in Tiruvaiyaru, a highlight is the group-singing of Tyagaraja's Pancharatna kritis. Over a 100 musicians sing these kritis in chorus on the dasami day, while another group sings on the night of ekadasi. Their presentation includes Chembai's favourite songs like Vathapi Ganapathim (Hamsadhwani), Rakshamam Saranagatham (Nata), Pavana Guru (Hamsanandi), Mamava Sada Janani (Kanada) and Karunai Cheivan Endu Thamasam Krishna (Yadukulakambhoji).