Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (1896 – October 16, 1974), was a Carnatic music singer from Palakkad (state of Kerala,India). Known by his village name Chembai, or simply as Bhagavatar, he was born to Anantha Bhagavatar and Parvati Ammal in 1896, at Kottayi near Palakkad on Janmashtami day, with Bharani star in the month of Chingam. Chembai was noted for his powerful voice and majestic style of singing. His first public performance was in 1904, when he was nine. He was a recipient of several titles and honours. He was known for his encouragement of upcoming musicians, and also for his ability to spot new talent. He was responsible for popularizing compositions like Rakshamam, Pavana Guru, among others.
The music critic 'Aeolus' describes him as "the musician who has meant the most to Carnatic Music in the first fifty years of the 20th century" Some of his prominent disciples include Yesudas, T. V. Gopalakrishnan, V.V.Subramaniam, P.Leela, among others.Many memorial music festivals are held in his honour annually since his death in 1974, the most important being the annually celebrated Chembai Sangeetholsavam.
The family's tryst with classical music had spanned about five centuries. Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's father was a singer from Chembai near Palakkad . His father had been the recipient of the title "Ghana Chakratanam" from a local Maharaja indicating his mastery of a special style of singingtanam. Chembai's father Anantha Bhagavatar was a vocalist and violinist Chembai learnt Carnatic music from his own father, from his third year,in the customary guru-sishya tradition, as a part of overall Vedic learning. Chembai also received violin and flute training in 1912.
Some of the noteworthy early events that helped shape Chembai's career include his arangetram (debut concert) in Ottapalam in 1904, his performances at Vaikom & Guruvayur in 1907, his year with Kaliakudi Natesa Sastry (1909) and the accolades he received from Palghat Anantharama Bhagavatar (1911). Between 1913 and 1927, he performed at many different music festivals and sabhas for the first time, notably including the Madras Music Academy.
Release of recordings
Chembai has many recordings to his credit. Between 1932 and 1946, Chembai's music was captured on several phonograph discs. Those were the days before the advent of the microphone in concerts and a singer was entirely dependent on the timbre and reach of his voice for a successful concert. Chembai was uniquely blessed in this respect, for his voice which had great depth, was a special attraction.
Lalita Dasar Kritis (1945)
Chembai had an old friend called T.G.Krishna Iyer in Tripunithara, who had settled in Madras (now Chennai) and offered a house to Chembai on Palace Road near Santhome, in a locality called 'Lalita Nagar' he had himself developed. He had composed some 155 kritis in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit under the mudra 'Lalita dasar' and requested Chembai to set them to music and popularise them. Chembai accepted the invitation and set the kritis to classical music, and got them published under the name Lalita Dasar Keertanaigal. He made it a practice to sing these kritis in most of his concerts. He also released a record containing selected kritis from Lalita Dasar's kritis like Evariki Telusunamma (Dhanyasi), Ennil Kaninda (Shankarabharanam), Pavana Guru (Hamsanandi), Varijadala Lochani (Arabhi), among others.
Chembai had many students, including noted musicians like T.V.Gopalakrishna, P. Leela, the Jaya-Vijaya twins, and K. J.Yesudas among others.
Chembai died on 16 October 1974, aged 78, of a cardiac arrest. Shortly before that, he performed his last concert at a temple in Ottapalam (the venue of his first concert), and concluded the concert with his favourite song "Karunai Cheivan Endu Thamasam Krishna" (Why is there so much delay in conferring your mercy, Krishna?). His nephew said that he always said about easy death and thus he attained it in the magazine of Bhakthapriya in 2004.
Chembai received several awards and titles throughout his career, most notably including:
- "Gayana Gandharva" (a title bestowed by Kalki Krishnamurthy in 1940)
- Sangeetha Kalanidhi (1951; highest accolade in Carnatic music)
- Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1958)
- Padma Bhushan (1973; from the Government of India)
- The Department of Posts, Govt of India released a special issue stamp on Chembai's birth centenary year (1996).