Chembai's Sidemen


Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar in 1915
(with Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai, Azhaganambi Pillai & Dakshinamurthy Pillai
on the violin, mridanga and kanjira respectively)

It is no easy task to list down all the accompanists Chembai had in his illustrious career spanning over seven decades. That number will easily run to a few hundreds. It is perhaps not much easier even to give a list of the well known accompanists Chembai had. To state that every accompanist of that period worth his name starting from the legendary Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai to Lalgudi G.J.R.Krishnan have accompanied him would be no exaggeration. But a few at least, among them deserve to be highlighted. As a matter of form, perhaps the violinist who should be mentioned first is his father Ananta Bhagavatar himself. On more occasions than one, in the early years of Chembai's career, he wielded the bow for his son. Chembai himself admitted to vidwan L.Subramanian once, that he had performed with violinists of over 5 generations.

For an upcoming accompanist, it was a privilege of the highest order to accompany Chembai. When the other great artists of the era stuck to a reputed set of accompanists to ensure success for their concerts, Chembai was not the one to follow suit. He would accommodate any aspiring youngster to accompany him and by way of encouragement during the concert, would make the youngsters excel in their instrument. A mistake committed by an accompanist was never a source of ultimate regret since Chembai would never flinch when an accompanist couldn't follow him. Instead, all that the accompanist got were bits of valuable advice and even more encouragement. There is an amusing anecdote which is narrated by Sri T.N.Krishnan about the way Chembai asked him to play the violin at a concert when Chowdiah did not arrive on time. Krishnan at that tender age of 8, it seems, mistook Manji for Bhairavi as the Bhagavatar was singing "Brovavamma". During the concert, Bhagavatar sang Manji as Krishnan played Bhairavi, much to the amusement of the audience. It was after that first concert that Krishnan understood the nuances of Manji. This incident shows how it was not Chembai's nature to discourage a youngster by pointing out a mistake during a concert.  T.A.Krishna lyer of Ernakulam was another of the early violin accompanists.

The violinist who, by all rights, should be most prominently highlighted from among Chembai's concert colleagues is Malaikkotai Govindaswamy Pillai. This great maestro did more than enhance the quality and appeal of Chembai's concerts. Along with another giant of his era, Pudukotai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, who was a master of mridanga and kanjeera both, he promoted Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and was responsible for the meteoric rise to fame that Chembai achieved. It was Dakshinamurthy Pillai who first got an inkling of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's phenomenal talent. He conveyed the favourable impression he gained to Govindaswamy Pillai and the two of them promptly arranged a concert for Chembai in Tiruchi. It marked the beginning of a series of concerts in which the two Pillai's played for, and thus promoted the fortunes of, their 'favourite son'. According T.Sankaran, the Pillais played this role for Chembai because they wanted to put up a rival with comparable talents to Naina Pillai whom they disdainfully described as "that Kanchipuram upstart". It is said his association with the Pillais yielded Chembai a great fortune, not to mention the fact it secured for him a high profile stature in the Tamil country. Not only the Pillais, virtually all the other leading violinists and percussionists of the time were glad to play sidemen for Chembai.

Since Bhagavatar's concert career spanned seven decades and since he sincerely sought to encourage all up-and-coming musicians, a host of others too had the privilege of providing accompaniment to him at one time or another. Even a restrictive list of violinists who accompanied him must include:

Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai
Marungapuri Gopalakrishna Iyer
Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer
Tripunithura Gopalakrishna Bhagavatar
Tripunithura Krishna Bhagavatar
Tiruvanantapuram Gopalakrishna Bhagavatar
T.A.Krishna lyer
Mysore T. Chowdiah
Karur Chinnaswamy lyer
Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai
Papa Venkataramaiah
Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu
Mayavaram Govindaraja Pillai
Erode Viswanatha lyer
Semmangudi Narayanaswamy Iyer
Palakkad C.R.Mani lyer
Marungapuri Gopalakrishna Iyer
T.K.Jayarama Iyer
Tiruvalangadu Sundaresa Iyer
Varahur Muthuswami Iyer
Kandadevi Alagiriswamy
Lalgudi Gopala Iyer
Parur Sundaram Iyer
R.K.Venkatarama Sastry
M.Chandrasekaran
R.R.Keshava Murthy
T.K.Ramachandran
T.N.Krishnan
T.Rukmini
Lalgudi G.Jayaraman
Lalgudi GJR Krishnan
M.S.Anantharaman
M.S. Gopalakrishnan
V.V.Subramaniam
V.V.Ravi

Possibly all of them kept in mind, while displaying their musical wares and technical skills in his presence, that Chembai himself was a proficient player of the instrument and could "wield the bow with effect" as he did, on the spur of the moment, at a flute recital of T.R.Mahalingam at the Thyagaraja Vidwat Samajam in Madras. Maharajapuram Viswanatha lyer played the mridanga on the occasion. Chowdiah's association with Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and his brother antedated the concert in 1928 in which he first played sideman for him. He was about the same age as Chembai and was a co-star in numerous performances of the latter. He knew Chembai intimately both as a friend and as a colleague. He likely voiced the assessment of the entire music community when he described Chembai as an 'uttama gayaka'. The mridanga vidwans prominently associated with Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar in the latter's heydays were Palakkad Mani lyer and Palani Subramania Pillai It was Chembai who introduced Mani lyer, when he was still a young lad, to the discriminating connoisseurs of Madras. He had told the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha of Egmore that he would like to have Mani, then all of 13 years old, as his mridanga accompanist in his kutcheri for the Sabha but the response had been negative. Nonetheless he brought the youngster along and had him play too in the concert, side by side with another mridanga vidwan named Sankara Menon. The tremendous reception he received that day must have made Mani lyer think of signing up as Chembai's slave for the rest of his life! Mani lyer's long association with Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar convinced him that none could excel the giant Chembai in championing the case of young musicians, and that the great gayaka was a model for others in regard to how a main musician should conduct himself vis-a-vis his sidemen. Chembai's attitude and conduct in this regard was most praiseworthy, according to Mani lyer. Explaining this observation, he said once, "Sometimes, the accompanists' performance would be middling, but Bhagavatar wouldn't react to this with displeasure. Nor would he point a finger at them with a view to getting the listeners to appreciate his predicament. He would as far as possible encourage the sidemen to do their best and also to cover up their handicaps and errors." Mani lyer held Chembai in high regard not only for this generous attitude towards accompanists and his broad-mindedness, but also for his laya gnana. With Chembai keeping the beat, the percussionists could never go wrong, he asserted. In the thirties, Palakkad Mani lyer was part of a splendiferous team of sidemen who played with Chembai often. Other members of the team were Mysore T.Chowdiah (violin) and Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai (kanjira). The music they produced would typically be a riot of colour, full of joy, verve and bounce. Bhagavatar's own enthusiasm could be infectious and this was there for all, including the two percussionists, to experience. At a 1936 concert in Vennaimalai, near Karur in Tiruchi district, Mani lyer and Dakshinamurthy Pillai had exploited the 'tani' at the end of a ragam-tanam-pallavi for all its worth but when they had concluded it, Chembai repeated the pallavi line again twice, prompting the percussionists to follow suit. Chowdiah has revealed that at one time the friendship between Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Palakkad Mani lyer had soured but Chembai had adroitly maneuvered to bring them together as sidemen for a concert of his and paved the way for a reconciliation. Mani lyer had taken a prominent position at Chembai's side when Dakshinamurthy Pillai's availability began to diminish. And Palani Subramania Pillai replaced Mani lyer in a similar manner in similar circumstances. Palani Subbudu's father Muthiah Pillai had been providing mridanga accompaniment to Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar now and then. The son utilised the opportunity given to him to entrench himself as one of Chembai's favourite mridanga accompanists. And this he did through excellent displays of his competence, knowledge, skills and attitude - and nothing else. According to Subbudu, Chembai told him at the beginning of their association that he would get him any number of engagements but, if the young man agreed not to specify a fee for some time, he (Chembai) could secure for him whatever fee he wanted later. He explained that this pact to which he had agreed had worked in his favour because, as Chembai had explained to him, a musician must establish himself first and should not allow money considerations to derail achievement of the goal. The first Chembai kutcheri in which Palani Subbudu participated as a sideman was in 1926. Thereafter he played for Chembai numerous times, until his premature demise in 1962. It appears Subbudu ran into a difficulty with violinist Chowdiah at one time. As a southpaw, he had to sit to the left of the vocalist, but Chowdiah objected to this - not once but many times. Chembai, however, backed Subbudu. He told Chowdiah he would realise the correctness of this arrangement one day. His words came true some years later. The backing Chembai gave Subbudu manifested itself in a remarkable manner during a 1941 performance in Bombay. Bhagavatar made room for as many as four tanis, or percussion solo interludes, during the concert. According to Subbudu, Chembai instinctively knew the role the sidemen could play in making a concert a success. Therefore, he said once, Chembai created opportunities for the percussionists to display their talent. And Chembai did this when the concert was going well and the listeners were immersed in it. Moreover, he would keep the beats of the tala in a way that anticipated and supported the performance of the laya vidwans. Numerous other mridanga vidwans were lucky to play sidemen to Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. A sample includes:

Azhaganambi Pillai
Venu Naicker
Tanjore Ramdasa Rao
Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer
Umayalpuram Kothandarama lyer
Palghat Ramchandra Iyer
Vellore Gopalachari
Saakkotai Rangu Iyengar
Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai
Vellore Ramabhadran
T.V.Gopalakrishnan
Guruvayur Dorai
Yella Somanna
Karaikudi Muthu Iyer
Devakkotai Sundararaja Iyengar
Dandamudi Ram Mohan Rao
Mavelakara Krishnakutty Nair
Chaathapuram Subba Iyer
Karaikudi Mani
Palghat Kunjumani Iyer
Tanjore Upendran
Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair
T.R. Rajamani
Thinnium Venkatarama Iyer
Palghat Raghu
Yella Venkateswara Rao
Srimushnam V Raja Rao
C.S.Murugabhoopathy
T.K.Moorthy
Trichy Sankaran
Umayalpuram Sivaraman
Trissoor Narendran
Trissoor Mohan

From T.S. Vilvadri lyer and Alangudi Ramachandran, Kothandarama lyer to T.H. Vinayakram, several ghata vidwans too have participated in Chembai's concerts. As have many kanjeera vidwans - Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Dakshinamurthy Asari among them, and a few masters of the morsing like Mannargudi Natesa Pillai and N. Pakkiriswamy Pillai. There was sure benefit to the violinists and percussionists when they joined the galaxy of which the star in the centre was Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. The brightness of the concerts helped to add lustre to their own reputation.