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Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar
A statue of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar at Chembai (Kottayi)
A statue of Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar at Chembai (Kottayi)
Background information
Birth nameVaidyanatha Iyer
Born(1896-08-28)28 August 1896[1]
Lokanarkavu, Vatakara, Kozhikode, Kerala, India
Died16 October 1974(1974-10-16) (aged 78)
Ottapalam, Palakkad, Kerala, India
GenresCarnatic Music
Years active1904–1974
LabelsHMV, Inreco, BMG, Vani Cassettes

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (born Vaidyanatha Iyer, 1 September 1896 – 16 October 1974) was an Indian Carnatic music singer from Palakkad. Known by his village name Chembai, or simply as Bhagavatar, he was born to Anantha Bhagavatar and Parvati Ammal in 1896, into a Tamil Brahmin family in Perakkool Madom (Parvati Ammal's birth home), adjacent to Lokanarkavu near Vatakara on Janmashtami day. He lived here until he was five years old. The family later shifted to Palakkad.[2] Chembai was noted for his powerful voice and majestic style[3] of singing. His first public performance was in 1904, when he was nine. A recipient of several titles and honours (including the Madras Music Academy's Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 1951), he was known for his encouragement of upcoming musicians and ability to spot new talent.[2] He was responsible for popularising compositions like Rakshamam Saranagatam and Pavana Guru, among others.[citation needed] The music critic 'Aeolus' described him as "the musician who has meant the most to Carnatic Music in the first fifty years of the 20th century."[4] His prominent disciples include Chembai Narayana Bhagavathar, Mangu Thampuran, Guruvayur Ponnammal, T. V. Gopalakrishnan, V. V. Subramaniam, P. Leela, K. G. Jayan, K. G. Vijayan, K. J. Yesudas, Kudumaru Venkataraman and Babu Parameswaran, among others.[5] He also mentored many young accompanists, including Palghat Mani Iyer, Lalgudi Jayaraman, M. S. Gopalakrishnan, T. N. Krishnan, Palani Subramaniam Pillai and L. Subramaniam. Memorial music festivals have been held in his honour annually since his death in 1974, the most important being the annually celebrated Chembai Sangeetholsavam.

Early life

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagvatar.jpg

The family's connection with classical music spans five centuries. Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar's father, Anantha Bhagavatar, was a violinist and singer from Chembai, near Palakkad, to whom a local Maharaja awarded the title "Ghana Chakratanam", indicating his mastery of a special closed-mouth style of singing tanam.[3] At age 3, Chembai began to learn Carnatic music from his father[2] in the customary guru-sishya tradition, and also began violin and flute training in 1912. Chembai is also one of 12 names of Sirkazhi, the birthplace of Saint Gnanasambandar 7th century CE in Tamil Nadu.

Singing career

Some of the noteworthy early events that helped shape Chembai's career include his arangetram (debut concert) in Ottapalam in 1904, performances at Vaikom and 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, notably including the Madras Music Academy and the often forgotten Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha.

Chembai in 1952 he had lost his voice and couldn’t chant the name of his favourite deity, Guruvayurappan. He prayed fervently and apparently his prayers were answered when a stranger gave treatment to his voice for 18 days in Poomallianmana in Kerala at the residence of Nilakantan Namboodripad. He came around and was able to sing with increased vigour. Since then, he donated the majority of his earnings to Guruvayoor temple.

Release of recordings

Chembai has many phonograph recordings to his credit, recorded from 1932 to 1946. Those were the days before the advent of the concert microphone, and a singer was entirely dependent on the timbre and reach of his voice for a successful concert. Chembai was blessed with a voice of great depth.[3] Further, the perception that Chembai's repertoire of songs was limited is highly incorrect. The number of different compositions he recorded is in the hundreds (let alone the total number he performed in concerts and on radio during his career).[6]

Lalita Dasar Kritis (1945)

Chembai's old friend, T. G. Krishna Iyer, from Tripunithura, had settled in Madras (now Chennai) and offered a house to Chembai on Palace Road near Santhome. He had composed some 155 kritis in Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit under the mudra 'Lalita dasar' and requested Chembai to popularise them. Chembai 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.[2]

Performing ability and style

Chembai had a vigorous, strong, vibrant, ringing and resonant voice. He would sing in a clear, open-throated style that requires high levels of physical and mental endurance to pull off, yet, he did so in a seemingly effortless manner. He had a wonderful sense of accurate kala pramana (time measure). He could do a niraval and swaraprastara from any given point, which bespoke of mental alertness in a concert.[7] His empathy for his accompanists and disciples was noteworthy and he would go to great lengths to encourage them.[7]

Other stalwarts have admired the strengths in Chembai's singing. For instance, upon witnessing that Chembai was able to sing three major concerts in a single day, Sangeetha Kalanidhi G. N. Balasubramaniam is said to have remarked "These are not ordinary men. These are the Asuras of the music field. If I sing one concert, I need to rest the whole of next day".[8] Legendary percussionist Pudukkottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai would call him "Laya Brahma" for his impeccable grasp of tala and laya.[8] Sangeetha Kalanidhi K. V. Narayanaswamy has also remarked on Chembai's ability to hold notes aligned perfectly to sruti for extended intervals of time.[9]


Chembai had many students, including K. J. Yesudas and many noted musicians like Sangeetha Kalanidhi T. V. Gopalakrishnan,[10] P. Leela,[11] and the Jaya-Vijaya twins,[12] Kudumaru Venkataraman, Paramasivan Bhagavathar and others.


Chembai died suddenly on 16 October 1974, aged 78, of a cardiac arrest. Shortly before that, he performed his last concert at Poozhikkunnu Sreekrishna temple in Ottapalam (the venue of his first concert), and concluded the concert with his favourite song "Karuna Cheivan Endu Thamasam Krishna" (Why is there so much delay in conferring your mercy, Krishna?). He was talking to his disciple Olappamanna Vasudevan Namboothiripad when he suddenly collapsed and died. His nephew said he had always spoken about an easy death, and had attained it.[13] He was cremated in his birth village. He was survived by his wife and daughter, both of them who died later. The Govt. Musical College in Palakkad was renamed as 'Chembai Memorial Govt' Musical College' in his memory.

Awards and titles

Chembai statue in Kerala

Chembai received several awards and titles during his career, most notably including:

Music festivals

Chembai had been conducting a music festival in his native village from 1924 onwards. This was continued by his family and now by Chembai Sreenivasan and Chembai Suresh (C. A. Subramanian). The concert, called Chembai Ekadasi Music Festival, is held annually in February–March. Chembai also held a music festival on Guruvayur Ekadasi Day (mid-November) at Guruvayur every year. This festival, now called Chembai Sangeetholsavam in his honour, is officially conducted by the Guruvayur Devaswom Board.[18]

Guruvayurappan Chembai Puraskaram

The Sri Guvayurappan Chembai Puraskaram, awarded by Sree Krishna Temple, Guruvayur, is instituted in Chembai's memory of the late Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. This award, comprising a cash prize of INR 50,001, a gold locket of Sree Guruvayurappan, a citation and ponnadai, is usually presented during the annual Chembai Music Festival.

The recipients of the Chembai puraskaram include:

See also


  1. Sadanandan, Soumya (30 June 2016). "CHEMBAI - MY DISCOVERY OF A LEGEND - NATIONAL AWARD WINNING DOCUMENTARY(2016)". YouTube. Archived from the original on 19 December 2021. Retrieved 1 June 2020.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 L. R. Viswanatha Sarma (1954), Chembai Selvam (Biography of Chembai), 1954: Amudha Nilayam Ltd.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 N. Pattabhi Raman and K.S. Krishnamurthi, Sruti, Issue 98, November 1992
  4. Aeolus, Shankar's Weekly, 12 December 1963
  5. "Chembai Memorial Govt. Music College". The Hindu. 30 May 2006. Archived from the original on 7 November 2012. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  6. Chembai - Recordings
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Chembai Vaidyanath Bhagavathar". 16 October 1974. Archived from the original on 31 May 2010. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "A Musician's Reminisces - Prof. Mysore V. Ramarathnam" (PDF).
  9. "Interview with KVN".
  10. "A maestro's music". The Hindu. 2 September 2005. Archived from the original on 3 September 2006. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  11. "P. Leela's death mourned". The Hindu. 1 November 2005. Archived from the original on 13 June 2007. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  12. "In memory of a legendary guru". The Hindu. 26 August 2005. Archived from the original on 3 September 2010. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  13. Bhakthapriya magazine, 2004
  14. "Sangeet Natak Akademi Award". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  15. "Classical Music". Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala. Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  16. "Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar".
  17. "Chembai Stamp Released". 28 August 1996. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  18. "Guruvayur Devaswom". Guruvayur Devaswom. 16 October 1974. Archived from the original on 14 November 2009. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  19. Chembai Puraskaram for Kadri Gopalnath, The Hindu, 31 October 2013.
  20. Chembai award for 2012 announced, The Hindu, 2 October 2012.

External links