When Chembai got the Kalanidhi
When Chembai got the Kalanidhi

In a few days from now, T.V. Gopalakrishnan will be formally elected as the Music Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi designate for the year 2014, in a quaint ritual that requires a Sangita Kalanidhi awardee to propose his name and another to second it, on the day of the inauguration. It is a throwback to the early days when the president of the Conference was elected from the floor of the house.

The general consensus is that at 82, TVG has had to wait for sometime to receive the highest accolade in Carnatic music. If TVG’s guru Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar had been around, he would have agreed. In his time, Chembai too had to wait for the award to come his way.

Chembai, born in 1895, was probably younger only to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar when it came to the leading performers of his generation. In terms of seniority on the concert platform, he was probably ‘older,’ for his career had begun in 1904 when he was nine while Ramanuja Iyengar’s debut was only in 1913 at 23. In fact, Chembai would often jocularly remind Ariyakkudi that while he was still providing vocal support to his guru Ramanathapuram Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, he, Chembai, had already given vocal concerts and had then taken to the violin in order to tide over the adolescent period when the voice breaks.

By the early 1920s, Ariyakkudi was the acknowledged monarch of Carnatic music and remained so for years to come. So, when in 1938 he was invited to preside over the Academy’s annual conference (at that time the Sangita Kalanidhi title had not been established), everyone including Chembai applauded the decision.

Chembai, perhaps, expected that the honour would be his next, for after all he was the senior-most in age after Ramanuja Iyengar. He was, therefore, upset, when in the following year Musiri Subramania Iyer was invited to preside over the Conference. Chembai held his peace for his disciple Princess Manku Thampuran was singing at the inaugural concert. But when he was asked to felicitate Musiri on his elevation, he could not control himself. Striding to the microphone, he wished the latter well and complimented the Academy on its choice. He then said that he hoped that the Academy would invite Musiri to preside the following year too and every year thereafter! He then broke off all connections with the Academy for five years, during which time the honour went to others.

He made his peace with the Academy in 1945 and returned to perform, but the honour of presiding over the Conference, which had become synonymous with the Sangita Kalanidhi from January 1, 1943, was not to be his till 1951. During the intervening years, it went to juniors such as Semmangudi and Kumbakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai. That it rankled became evident when at a concert of his, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer both got up in the middle and left, covering their faces with shawls. Having spotted them, he bellowed into the mike that the two Sangita Kalanidhis need not hide their faces and were free to come and go as they pleased. Nevertheless, when the title was conferred on him, he accepted it with good grace. But he would always question the remuneration the Academy gave the artists.

During the 1950s and ’60s, when the Academy struggled financially, because it was building an auditorium, Chembai willingly sang for low fees. By then he had begun diverting all his concert earnings to the Guruvayurappan Temple. He demanded and got high remuneration for all his performances, every paisa of which went to the temple.

By 1962 the Academy’s auditorium was completed and by 1969, thanks to the efforts of industrialists and well wishers, its loans were also almost repaid. On realising this, Chembai insisted on a hike in his fee. He felt that he and fellow artists had sacrificed enough over the years for the Academy. In his case, it was Guruvayurappan who was to be the beneficiary.

But the Academy would not give in. Its committee felt that it still had several commitments to fulfil. Chembai’s response was that he would wait till it had become fully solvent and be able to pay his market rates. Till then, he said, he was better off not singing for it. His last performance at the Academy was in 1970, after which he did not sing there. But that he harboured no ill will towards the institution was clear in the way he readily consented to preside over the Sadas on January 1, 1973 and confer the Sangita Kalanidhi on Prof P. Sambamoorthy.

This article appeared in the special season supplement of The Hindu on Tuesday December 10, 2014