Chembai - Recollections of a neighbor
By G.B.Rakasekar (GNB's son)


Chembai with Nookala (Violin). Yesudas looks on.

I was born in the year 1953. When I was five, my family moved to #140, Palace Road, off Santhome High Road. Our compound was a big one, about 5 grounds. At the front of the house there was a separate bungalow. The resident of that bungalow was Shri Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. Apart from the period April 1964 to May 1965, when we moved to Trivandrum and came back to the same house, I lived in that house.

The house we lived was owned by Shri T.K.Radhakrishnan, flautist who recently passed away. I remember that we were only paying Rs 150 rent for that big house, with ground and first floor. There were other tenants by the side of our house in a small portion.

At the time we occupied the house in April 1958, there was acute water shortage in the area and our owner built a well for us which took a few months. During the entire time, we used to draw hundreds of buckets of water everyday for our house use from the well in Sri Chembai’s house.

We were ten children, my parents, my aunt, uncle, grand mother, a cook and innumerable visitors from the city and outside who used to stay with us all the time.  At the time we moved in, there was not even a wall separating the two compounds.. Later, only after few years, a wall was built. It was easy access to Shri Chembai’s house from our house. 

Shri Chembai and his family were very fond of all of us children in the colony. Parvathi mami, daughter of Shri Chembai was childless and was really affectionate to all of us.

Whenever Shri Chembai went to concerts outside Chennai, Shri Narayanan, his son in law who was giving him vocal support used to go with him and so there was only Parvathi Mami and her mother who were at home in their  big house.

They used to call some of us to sleep over as “thunai” those nights. Any pooja etc in their house were not conducted without calling us over. I vividly remember that when Singeri Swamigal stayed at Sri Chembai’s house and there was a pooja, we all went and took his blessings. My father who was in town also came for the pooja.

Shri Chembai loved me especially as I was the last child in my family and used to call me Raja kuttan. He used to make me sit on his lap even when he was teaching mridangam or violin. He always introduced me... “Ithu yaru theriyumo, Maniyoda kadai kutti…” He always used to pet me and had kind words. Their thinnai was the place you found Shri Chembai most of the time. He always used to wear his dhoti, and a green belt, about four inches thick with many pockets and  a buckle… he always had a towel with him..

He always walked up and down our street every day in the evenings, I recall, for exercise.  

I have seen him teach violin and mridangam to many students… if they did not play correctly, I have seen him take the instrument and show how that bit had to be played correctly.

He could play both instruments i.e. violin and mridangam. 

I remember Shri VVS, Sri TVG etc used to go to his house often. V.V.Ravi also used to learn violin from him those days..

We lived around 11 years in that house and I used to go practically every day as a young boy to Sri Chembai’s house. I could go right thru to their kitchen and drink water half way thru our games on the road or in the nearby house of Sri T.K.Ramachandran the violinist who lived in the house the other side of our house.

I may not remember what happened last year, but those days at Santhome are days I cannot forget as we had such neighbours who were very friendly and helpful all the time.

Shri Chembai was a very very humble human being, and I am happy that I had such a great human being  as a neighbour during my formative years.

He had no jelousies and used to openly praise my father’s music.. I have heard him say, “Nethikki radiola kettelo, Mani asathiyama padinan” etc etc..

I am sad that I did not have musical acumen to understand his music at that time or realize what he was teaching etc. It was with great sadness that we moved out of that house to Thirvanmiyur when I was doing my pre university in 1970. 

It was a sad day in our house  when the great man was called by the almighty to sing for him.  His smile, his facial expressions, his words etc are still vivid in my mind. I consider myself very lucky to have been the neighbour of the great gentleman for so many years.