Chembai - Valuable Village Connections
By P.A.Raman, founder of Bharatiya Fine Arts Society, Bombay


Tamil movie star Shivaji Ganesan honouring Chembai

Chembai is a quiet village about 25km from Palakkad town and railway station. It is actually closer to Pani railway station which is on the Palakkad - Shoranur track some five km after the Bharata river crossing. It is one of a cluster of four villages - Ayyappankavu, Ayilam, Chembai and Meghanamkulam - which has produced eminent citizens. If Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar belonged to Chembai, A.V. Krishna lyer, a leading lawyer, belonged to Ayyapankavu, Ayilam is the native place of the late A.S. Panchapakesa Ayyar, ICS, who also adorned the bench of the High Court in Madras.

I have heard it said that the forbears of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar originally belonged to Bhavani, near Erode, that they were among the Tamilians who had migrated long time ago to Malabar at the invitation of the Zamorin of Calicut. The Zamorin had promoted the immigration because he had fallen out with the Kerala Brahmins. Banning them from his court, he had invited Brahmin scholars from Tamil Nadu to take their place. And at his instance, the Raja of Palakkad had offered them land and helped to settle them in the surrounding villages.

The first to respond to the Zamorin's invitation was Uddhanda Dikshitar of Tanjavur, a great Sanskrit scholar and exponent of all the Vedas, Upanishads and puranas. His example prompted numerous others - scholars, administrators, vaggeyakaras and musicians" to follow him. The musicians included Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's ancestors.

I have mentioned A.V. Krishna lyer because he played an important role in the development of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's career. When the latter was making a mark as a musician in the local area-- he was very young then-Krishna lyer was a busy lawyer based in Trissoor. He had studied music under Chembai's father and later had the opportunity to deepen his sense of music appreciation by listening to fine performances by top musicians in Malabar and in Madras City. Also he knew Kathakali songs set to Carnatic music and as well the songs used in Ottamthullal and Krishnanattam. Thus he had both the motive and the competence to play the role of a mentor to young Vaitha. (It was Krishna lyer who later "discovered" Palakkad Mani who was being groomed as a vocalist by his father and who helped to launch the youngster on a career as a mridanga vidwan).

Krishna lyer visited the village of Chembai from time to time, combining them with his visits to his native village. He offered suggestions on what the lad and his younger brother Subrahmaniam might do to improve the attractiveness of their singing. But he offered more than mere advice. He took the initiative to recommend Chembai for concerts outside the Palakkad area in Malabar, and as well in Travancore and Cochin, which were then independently-ruled States. He had the collaboration of Pudavaikadai Chathappuram C.S. Ramachandra Iyer, a leading silk cloth merchant of Palakkad, in this endeavour. Together, they secured numerous concert engagements for Vaitha (who was accompanied by his brother) at temple festivals, palace functions and weddings of rich Brahmin and Malayali families.

Krishna lyer's reach extended to Madras also. He was married to a niece of P.R. Sundara lyer, a leading lawyer who later served as a judge of the Madras High Court before his demise in 1913. Sundara lyer's family recommended Chembai for concerts at private and public functions. They also arranged for Chembai to perform at weddings in the family.

(My father P.K. Ananthanarayana Iyer was a cousin of Justice Sundara lyer who lived at Sree Bagh on Luz Church Road, the present premises of Amrutanjan Limited. My father was one of three juniors of Sundara lyer; the other two were Alladi Krishnaswamy lyer and C.V. Ananthakrishna lyer. I have heard that it was A.V. Krishna lyer who brought Parur Sundaram lyer - father of M.S. Gopalakrishnan" to Madras.)

A.V. Krishna lyer used to teach Chembai Sanskrit and persuaded him to sing Agre Pasyami, the sloka from Narayaneeyam. It was he who put Chembai on to Karuna cheyvanendu, the song on Guruvayurappan in Malayalam. When Chembai received offers in 1929-30 from recording companies, lyer made the selections of songs for him. Some of the compositions rendered on 78rpm were: Orumaiyodu (sloka); Chesina della (Todi); Raghuvara (Pantuvarali); Sree Rama mantram (sloka); Bala Gopala (Bhairavi); Amba naadu (Todi); Chetulara (Bhairavi); and Rama neeyada (Kharaharapriya) 

The discs sold fast in India, Burma, Ceylon and other countries where South Indians lived and Chembai's fame spread and royalty income swelled.

A.S.P. Ayyar of Ayilam" former Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkateswaran is one of his sons-- became an admirer of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's music early on. He wrote the Foreword to Chembai Selvam, the biography of Bhagavatar written in Tamil by 'Ellarvi' [L.R. Viswanatha Sarma]. Calling Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar the Dronacharya of Carnatic music - he described Ariyakudi Ramanuja lyengar as the Bheeshmacharya - Ayyar went on to give interesting details about the area to which he and Bhagavatar both belonged. He wrote in the Foreword:

"Chembai is one of the 96 agraharams [enclaves] of Palghat Taluk where the Tamil Brahmins have settled down....

The Rulers of Malabar gave gifts to [them] besides ensuring protection. Malabar was not in those days noted for music, though it was famous for astrology, sorcery, medicine and literature. The Rajas of Malabar, by giving this patronage, grafted music also to the soil....

"Chembai is one of the four villages which form one of the minor groups in the 96 agraharams. I come from Ayilam (Akhileswarapuram) which is only one mile [1.6km] from Chembai. But while Chembai is noted for its musicians, Ayilam has only lawyers, no music.

A wealthy Ayilam Brahmin had an ambition to become a musician, and took tuition from Ananta Bhagavatar, the revered father of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. After a year, Ananta Bhagavatar gave him up as hopeless. To the pupil's remonstrance, "Why do you say that I shall not become proficient in music?" Ananta Bhagavatar replied, "You may at the end of Kali Yuga, but certainly not before."

Ayyar then proceeded to recall an early concert of Chembai's:

"I heard Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar first at my sister's marriage in Ayilam, in 1906. Ananta Bhagavatar was the musician, and he made Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar   and   his   brother Subramaniam, boys aged 10 and 8, sing for an hour. They took the audience by storm, and were, at the end of the performance, paid two rupees by my father who exclaimed, "Fish do not require to be taught to swim!" I have heard him sing at Madras at the height of his power, and I have always been transported to a higher sphere when he sings Nityakalyani, Satruchhedaika mantram and other songs."

Chembai was born under the aster-ism of Bharani and I believe in his case the aphorism that one born under Bharani will rule the world (dharani) came true, insofar as the Carnatic music world is concerned. His wife was also born under the same asterism. She passed away within six months of her husband's demise.

I myself learnt music from Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar for some time during 1942-44. I sang along with him and also played the ghata at his concert once or twice. But what S. Satyamurthy said speaking about Sir Mohammad Usman is relevant here. "When I stand before him, I am lost in the background. If I stand behind him, nobody sees me." So lofty was his voice and so crafty his singing that" no disciple of his could grow in stature under his shadow, though he helped numerous boys and girls to learn music 

My late wife and later my daughter (Suseela Raman) also learnt music from him.

Back to the village, where we began. In the nineteen thirties even, the 50 or so houses in the village all had thatched roofs. Then the Pani Tile Works, near the Pani river, was on the verge of closing because of financial difficulties. Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar bought its assets and arranged to supply tiles to all the villagers at a nominal price. And he made provisions for deferred payments too. This generous move on his part helped to make the village both lovely and virtually fire-proof.

Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar also remodelled the two temples in the village and helped the local panchayat to maintain the roads. In 1942 he agreed to make a cameo appearance in a Kannada film produced by his violinist-friend Mysore T. Chowdiah and render a song in Shanmukhapriya. He received 5000 rupees in payment which he promptly used to have a golden kavacha (or covering) made for the deity at the Parthasarathy temple.

His disciples have since built a mandapam and a shrine where pooja is offered mornings and evenings to an image of the Bhagavatar. On his birth and death anniversaries, his disciples even today gather and sing bhajans and other songs continuously for 24 hours.

Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was a unique musician with an inimitable style of his own. More, a rarity among musicians, he was a person of unassailable character who believed in simple living and high thinking