A Night to Remember
Chembai with Papa Venkataramiah, Palghat Mani Iyer and D.Swaminatha Pillai
In the early thirties, electricity had just arrived in the more important towns of India, but the radio was yet unheard of, concert platforms were mikeless and music performances were not amplified and loud-spoken. No one missed any of these signs of progress then as they did not exist! But the vocalist had to sing aloud and at a high pitch to make himself or herself heard over the length and breadth of a large auditorium, usually referred to as 'hall'. This was quite the fashion of a sangeeta natakam or musical drama in which usually the 'raja' (hero), invariably a well-known vocalist, appeared on the scene singing a popular bit, whether it was quite relevant to the story being enacted or not. The pedal harmonium accompaniment and the mridanga had to be played aloud to be beard at the rear-most row, which meant the singer had to sing even louder. This tonal requirement applied to dialogues too, and it is not surprising if the over-worked actor helped himself to some nourishment, 'spiritual' or otherwise, at every fall of the curtain. This, indeed, added colour to his performance but the organisers hoped and prayed that there would not be too much colour.
In those days, a music concert had its own interesting features. Firstly, the singer and the accompanying musicians had to arrive most probably from different locations, when road and rail transport were still not highly developed and communication mainly had to be by post. The late arrival of any one musician of the pre-arranged group would cause no end of concern especially when tickets were sold out and a restive audience in the jam-packed hall was counting the minutes for the performance to start.
It is one of those performances in Tiruvanantapuram, which has gone into memory's archives and which is now being recalled here: a performance by Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. He was a popular singer and he had a terrific team of sidemen that day. The violin was in the hands of T.Chowdiah, while Dakshinamurthy Pillai, originally slated to play the mridanga, had opted to play the kanjeera. The name of the mridanga artist cannot be recalled now, but he was also someone of top rank.
The kutcheri was to start around 8.30 pm, but the stage curtain was still down when the appointed hour came and there was hardly any sign that a music performance going to take place. In a few minutes, this ominous situation was compounded by a minor panic which gripped the restless audience, for someone seemed to have floated a rumour that one or two of the artists had not reached the town yet and that the concert was likely to be postponed or cancelled. The thatched ball was full; even the verandahs were full with people crowding the windows. But, it was the surprise that brought relief. The audience broke into cheers as the curtain went up after the long wait. Every artist was in his place and smiling and all was right with world! During the next minute or two, the general noise level rose up but, suddenly, Chembai, with a twinkle in his eye, shot off a musical sound into the air which was the tara shadja beginning note of Chalamela Swati Tirunal's Ata tala varnam in Sankarabharanam. Chembai held on to this note for a few seconds and then came gliding down the octave as was required in the pallavi. And he brought the house down. Obviously he had known how to handle an impatient audience. Il is difficult for me to recall now, after some 60 years, what else he sang except that, when I was getting out of the hall on the arm of my father, the musician was on Evarimata in Kambhoji raga. It was now near midnight and Chembai's voice, metal-smooth and clear, cut through the still night.
The patience exercised by the audience in spite of the uncomfortable conditions and the onset of a shower during which one could hardly bear anything was, indeed, commendable by present day standards. Nor were the artists fastidious. The pitter-patter of rain on a thatched roof seemed to offer them just another trial of virtuosity against the prevailing noise.
Some other aspects of this performance seem worth recalling also. The singer and sidemen seemed to be friends and totally relaxed and outgoing, this friendship sending its warm glow into the audience. Memory has retained the amiable gimmicks of Dakshinamurthy Pillai while playing the kanjeera, either by way of throwing challenges to the mridanga vidwan or seeming to ask him or the audience: "How do you like that?" Appropriate facial gestures, a frown here, and a quizzical look there; a smile here and a grunt there!
It was a night to remember.