Music from the Outpost  - A TRIBUTE TO CHEMBAI

A tribute to the renowned vocalist Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar on the occasion of his 28th death anniversary. The following article, penned by the noted music critic Aeolus, appeared on December 12, 1963 in Shankar's Weekly.

While it is true that Carnatic music belongs to the whole of South India, the musical culture that developed it and made it what it is today had its centre in Tanjavur during the last century. This was due to the fact, perhaps, that the largest patronage to music came from the Mahratta rulers of Tanjavur. There were, however, isolated pockets where Carnatic music had its outposts, as it were; the court of Bhaskara Setupati in Ramnad, the court of the ruler of Ettayapuram in the South and so on. Besides these minor centres of courtly patronage, Carnatic music found some other outposts of popular patronage, as well, like Palghat, Salem and Chittoor. Of these Palghat, and the region around it, have added to the  roll of honour in Carnatic music the names of some of the greatest musicians of the last century. Palghat Parameswara Bhagavatar who more or less, lived through the whole of the last century was the friend and court musician of Swati Tirunal. He was a composer in his own right, and helped Swati Tirunal in his compositions by providing the notation or the sahitya as the occasion demanded. In the latter half of the last century he came to be regarded, along with  Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, as one of the two outstanding exponents of Carnatic music. Later came Palghat Anantarama Bhagavatar whose renown is still fresh in  the memory of many of the older people today. Anantarama Bhagavatar’s prowess in Pallavi-singing  was the despair of many of the accompanists of his day. In our own day we have had Palghat Rama Bhagavatar, a stately and benign-looking musician who used to enthrall his audience with his rich and magnificent voice. But the musician who has meant most to Carnatic music in the first fifty years of this century, comes not from Palghat but from Chembai.


Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar belongs to a generation to whom music was not only a career but a way of life. His music does not bear the impress of that complicated struggle which life is to many of us today. It is redolent of the fast vanishing order and peace which a settled and hierarchical social set up vouchsafed to the members of the higher castes in a not distant past. There is a bareness and purity which marks it as the expression of a singer whose unruffled equanimity of the temperament lifts his life from the petty cares of life. There is no austerity in it though; on the other hand, one feels a warm generosity in the fullness of utterance, in the long dwelling on the tonic and dominant notes, in the ingenuous flourishes. Chembai’s music at any rate, does not pretend to be spiritual. It is earthy, it is even autochthonic. What there is of art in it is derivable from the artlessness of the mind which orders it. Whether in the peculiarly West coast pronunciation of the Telugu sahitya, or in the cavalier syllabification of it, whether in the absence of recondite bhava or in the open and challenging naiveté of sangatis, whether in the attempt at triple frequency in swara singing (apart from Chembai, it is only Madurai Srirangam Iyengar who attempts anything like it, if we exclude the younger musicians like Madurai Somasundaram and Manakkal Rangarajan in whom it appears more a fashion than faith) or in the flat, unembellished utterance of the whole music, it is this artlessness which bears testimony to the spacious, if uneventful, life of a past generation which to us seems remote and unintelligible.

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar has enriched Carnatic music not only by his singing but by his generous and magnanimous encouragement of younger musicians. It is he who discovered and presented to Carnatic music Palghat Mani and Palani Subramanya Pillai. Attachment to percussion instruments has been the distinctive feature of many of the musicians who hail from the land of Kathakali. Report has it that Chembai himself is no mere novice in the art of percussion. This would not be improbable when we remember that many among the elder generation of musicians cultivated an instrument or vocal music besides their own professed line of music. For instance the great Trichy Govindaswami Pillai himself, it is said, had once accompanied Chembai on the mridangam, though it was as a violinist that he had carved out a niche for himself.


Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar’s concert from AIR Madras last week showed him still in secure possession of that marvelously clear and metallic voice which has, in its prime, thrilled vast audiences. His Purvikalyani and Chakravakam were true to the Chembai form, as also his neraval and swaraprastara in those ragas.


Posted on October 17, 2002


Tributes to other great masters


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