Saturday, September 17, 2022

Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar: Transcending boundaries of time

                                                Transcending boundaries of time

Chembai Memorial at Kottayi, Palakkad

Palakkad is a rare gem in the cultural milieu of fascinating geographical diversity that God’s Own Country presents to the world.  The district has to its name innumerable personalities who have excelled and have been recognised for their contributions to the world and humanity through their talent, hard work and dedication.  One such towering personality is doyen of Carnartic Music, Chembai Vaidyantha Bhagwathar For a lover of Carnatic Music, a visit to Kerala will be incomplete without a visit to Chembai Gramam, home of the legendary Carnatic Vocalist who has taken this musical form to great heights.


Music connects real with the transcended. 

In it, we get healed, with it we conquer time…  

Hidden amidst green paddy fields and a serene country side is a sleepy village of Kottayi which has taken Carnatic Music to great heights.  A visit to  this village is akin to visit to a temple of music that awakens the light of knowledge and melody of life in one’s heart. Home and abode of doyen of Carnatic Music, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar.

Karuna Cheivan Endu Thamasam Krishna

 (Why is there so much delay in conferring your mercy, Krishna?}, was the last Kriti sung by Vaidyanathan Bhagavathar, as he breathed his last on 16th October, 1974 at an age of 78 during a concert at Poozhikunnu Sreekrishna Temple, the same venue where he performed for the first time.

Ancestral House of Chembai at Kottayi

Born on 1st September, 1896 at Chembai Village to Parvati Ammal and Anantha Bhagavatar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar belonged to a Tamil Brahmin family of Perakkool Madaom which is located adjacent to Lokanarkavu near Vadakara.  The family thereafter relocated to Kottayi village in the district of Palakkad. Bhagavatar’s family connection to classical music spans across five centuries. His father Anantha Bhagavatar was a violinist and singer to whom Maharaja had awarded the title of ‘Gana Chakraratnam’ for his speciality of musical rendition through a special closed mouth style of signing called tanam.  Anathan’s son Vaidyanathan started his early lessons in Carnatic music at a tender age of 3 under the tutelage of his father in the traditional guru-shishya Parampara. He also took lessons in violin and flute till 1912.

As years passed by Vaidyanathan’s voice grew more powerful and majestic.  Some of his awe-inspiring performances in his early years gave shape to his career that started with his arangetram at Ottapalam in 1904 at an age of 09.. His voice timber was noted for its unique depth and vibrance.  He gave innumerable performances between 1907 and 1927 most notably ones  at Vaikom and Guruvayoor in 1907 and thereafter at different music sabhas and festivals which included ones at Madras Music Academy and Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha.

Powerful singing style of Chembai caught public attention and his fame spread far and wide.  Music critic S. V. Seshari@Aeolus described him as, ‘the musician who has meant the most to Carnatic Music in the first fifty years of 20th Century’.  Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagawatar was a recipient of several titles and honours including the Madras Music Academy’s Sanageetha Kalanidhi in 1951 and Government of India’s Padma Shree in the year

One major incident in the year 1952 changed the course of Bhagwatar’s life.  One morning Chembai discovered that he had lost his voice and could not sing or chant his favourite diety Guruvayoorappan’s name.  His prayers seemed to have been answered by a stranger who appeared before him and provided treatment over a period of 18 days at the residence of Nilakantan Namboodiri in Poomallianmana. Chembai recovered his voice and returned to sing with renewed vigour and devotion for Lord Guruvayoorappan and also donated significant proportion of his earning for Guruvayoor temple.

Resonance and depth in Chembai’s voice was the hallmark of a great Carnatic vocalist who was unquestioned king during his times.  His vigorous, strong, vibrant and ringing voice  was  clear, open-throated which required high levels of physical and mental endurance.  Bhagwathar with his sheer practice and dedication sang in a seemingly effortless manner.  He also had a unique sense of kala pramana (time measure) while singing.  He could do niraval and swaraprastara from any given point  which aptly displayed his mental alertness during a concert. 

Chembai Home

Chemabi whole heartedly gave encouragement to upcoming musicians.  He popularised several Carnatic compositions including Pavana Guru and Rakshamam Saranagatam.  His prominent disciples included stalwarts like K. J. Yesudas, P. Leela, K. G. Vijayan, V. V. Subramanyan, T. V. Gopalakrishnan, Guruvayoor Ponnammal, Mangu Thampuran and Chembai Narayana Bhagvatar. He also mentored many aspiring accompanists who included Palakkad Mani Iyer, Lalgudi Jayaraman,M. S. Gopalakrishnan, T. N. Krishnan and L. Subramaniam.

Padma Bhushan

Chembai’s music career spanned several decades. Glory of his singing finds testimony is the statements of stalwarts of music who showered him with praises for his strengths and his unique rendition techniques. 

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". 

Legendary percussionist Pudukkottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai would call him "Laya Brahma" for his impeccable grasp of tala and laya.

Sangeetha Kalanidhi K. V. Narayanaswamy has also remarked on Chembai's ability to hold notes aligned perfectly to sruti for extended intervals of time.

During his career, Chembai also helped popularize songs written by his friend T. G. Krishna Iyer of Thripunithara.  Krishna Iyer had composed as many as 155 kritis in various languages including Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil anld Sanskrit and sought help of Chembai to popularise these songs set to Classical Carnatic style and published as Lalita Dasar Keetanangal. Chembai rendered these kritis which were later released as records. Some the gems include kritis like Evariki Telusunamma (Dhanyasi), Ennil Kaninda (Shankarabharanam), Pavana Guru (Hamsanandi), Varijadala Lochani (Arabhi) among others.  As a token of love for Chembai, T. G. Krishna Iyer offered his house in Chennai at Santhome on Palace Road, Chennai forms part of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagwatar’s heritage today.


During a performance at  concert at Poozhikunnu Sreekrishna Temple where he gave his debut performance, Chembai breathed his last on 16th October, 1974.  He was talking to his disciple Olappamanna Vasudevan Namboothiripad when Chembai collapsed and left for heavenly abode.  

Legacy of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagwatar remains alive in the village of Chembai known as Chembai gramam which today is a heritage village. Situated with the geographical limits of Kottayi in the district of Palakkad.  The place hosts the annual Chembai Parthasarathy Ekadasi Music festival in memory of the great singer in February/March. Renowned singers perform music concerts during the festival.  Year long events and programmes for promoting Classical Carnatic Music are held in this village.

Chembai Music Academy at Kottayi

In memory of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagawathar, Government Musical College in Palakkad has been renamed as 'Chembai Memorial Govt' Musical College’.  Initiatives of well wishers,  family members and followers of Chembai, the village of Chembai is set to become a heritage memorial village of South India that would attract connoisseurs of arts and music.  A cultural complex that can host bigger music festivals is being initiated with the support of the state government. 

Easy chair of Chembai placed in front of his home

It was a delightful experience to have visited Chembai Village located at Kottayi on Legendary Musician's Birthday. His family members accorded warm welcome and opened up the door of their home for me to walk around and breathe in the soul of music revaberating through the walls, doors and windows of Chembai's home.

©jpkallikkal 2022

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

In Trance: Chottanikkara Bhagawathy temple

 Hinduism offers answers to innumerable cryptic puzzles of life that are very simple to observe but too complex to gauge through available information in the current scientific system of understanding and research. 1500 year old Chottanikkara Bhagawathy temple situated in the suburbs of Ernakulam in the state of Kerala carries forward the ancient system of ritual worship centred around Goddess Bhadrakali that untangles the web of paranormal and supernatural through mantric practices.  Precincts of this majestic temple exudes a distinct aura and energy field that follows a devotee in and around the temple.

God’s own country, Kerala can also be called a land of festivals, temples and rituals. During a recent visit to Kochi, I was impelled to visit Chottanikkara Bhagawati Kshetram, a powerful devi temple located at 9.9331° N, 76.3911° E, in the suburbs of Ernakulam. Believed to be more than 1500 year old, the temple carries a mystical force around its precincts that dwells around a devotee visiting the temple.

According to legend a forest dweller named Kannappan who practiced animal sacrifice lived in deep jungles where Chottanikkara temple exists today .   To please his ista devata (Bhadrakali or Durga) he used to sacrifice one beast each day. Eventually a day came when he had no animals left for sacrifice except his daughter’s pet calf but his daughter preferred to sacrifice her own life than her pet calf’s. It is then when Kannappan had a revelation and heard his ista devata’s voice which turned out to be the calf he was going to sacrifice. That day Kannappan realized the ultimate truth of life.  The place where Kannappan sacrificed animals to please Bhadrakali eventually became the guruthi kalalm of keezkavu at Chottanikkara temple.  The place is believed to hold immense healing powers that can alleviate people haunted by supernatural spirits or those who are mentally deranged for whom modern medicine offers no answers.

Chottanikkara (Jyotikara) literally translates into ‘One who enlightens. Possessing unlimited powers through manifestation of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati, the temple is consecrated as a deity with multifarious manifestations of energy.  Worship of the deities in this temple is believed to cure even life-threatening diseases. The temple housed in a massive compound placed at two levels.  The higher level comprises of the primary sanctum sanctorum of Bhagavathy and Lord Vishnu besides other deities including Dharma Sastha, Siva, Brahma, Ganesha, Karikeya, Hanuman Swamy and the serpent gods (Nagas). The lower level houses the Keezhu Kavu where another temple of Bhadrakali exists beside a pond (mentioned earlier) where special Guruthi Poojas are conducted to cast away evil spirits out of people or from those who are believed to be possessed by supernatural forces often referred to by the medical fraternity as extreme cases of Schizophrenia or people with mental maladies to whom modern medicine does not offer any relief.

Original Idol of Devi in the main temple is consecrated in irregular shaped red laterite stone that is believed to be ‘svayambhu’ or self-revealed. However, temple priests decorate the idol in elaborate jewels or Gold Kavacha for general darshan.  However, in the mornings, the idol is draped in white saree representing Saraswati, a bright red saree at noon representing Mahalakshmi and in a blue saree in the evening to represent Mahakali or Durga.

The Chottanikkara Bhagavathy amman (goddess) and the Keezhu Kaavu Bhadrakali amman are worshipped as the healing goddesses.  Interestingly, in Hindu faith, Bhadakali is believed to be the patron goddess of exorcism.  Thus, this temple is a unique blend in shakti worship, which gives a visitor a glimpse of the paranormal activities manifesting in the region through some of the devotees. The temple also has an ancient ‘Pala’ tree (Alstonia scholaris) which has hundreds of iron nails implanted by devotees using their foreheads, who have been cured of possession by malevolent spirits.  The tree is a testimony to the miraculous healing through pooja and darshan at this temple, a fact that can be verified through the rising number of devotees to this temple with passage of time.

Considering the large number of devotees who bring in their relatives suffering from psychosomatic conditions or Schizophrenia at this temple, makes me believe that this temple is indeed a space that exhibits a higher level of energy that makes exorcism, a science that needs more research and understanding. The above stated medical condition is managed through a ritual called  Guruthi Pooja at Keezh Kaavu pond.  The arena transforms into a supernatural location each evening, where a ritual Guruthi (ritualistic sacrifice) involving chanting of divine verses and offerings in the form of pots (12 in number) is performed using a mixture of turmeric and lime that transforms into a blood red liquid representing sacrificial blood to the Devi.  The sight is certainly not for the faint hearted and can be quite disturbing too, as innumerable devotees suffering from mental issues can be seen turning hysterical during Guruthi pooja oblivious to the presence of other devotees.

Amidst the screaming, wailing and laugher it is a stark silence that makes the entire event leave an indelible mark in the mind of a visitor.  I was alarmed to see a 20 year old looking girl turn hysterical in front of me.   A pretty girl of about 5’2 in height, a body and attire that reflected affluence but a mind that had lost sense of the real.  She had abruptly starting shaking her hands fiercely and an eerie laugher emanated from her lips.  I tried to take my eyes away but my head kept moving to witness her condition.  She was laughing and crying at the same time.  Her relatives (perhaps her father) tried to hold her to prevent any injury but suddenly adjacent to her, another woman started shaking her body violently, as if a chain of hysterical confusion had been set to motion in the arena. The entire place seemed to be in possession of some super natural spirit!

Personally, I find myself to be a believer who tends to tread the path of rationality and scientific temper. A visit to the temple was an eye opener to the fact that supernatural energy and vibrations do affect our physical and mental faculties.  Scientists offer many theories to such occurrences. In Florence, Italy, there have been instances in the early 19th Century when people have been found to faint while taking in Florentine art.  This was later named as ‘Florence Syndrome’ in 1979 by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini who observed over a hundred similar cases among tourists. Similar is the experience of several visitors to the city of Jerusalem who are said to get afflicted by a syndrome which was regarded as a form of hysteria referred to as "fi√®vre J√©rusalemienne".   

I would not call this a ‘Chottanikkara syndrome’, as we Indians have our own treatise on spiritualism, occult sciences and temple rituals.  Our Vedas have deep discourses on aspects that cannot even be in the line of vision of modern sciences.  It seems as if the Vedas begin from where scientific research ends its dissertation.  Modern medical sciences offer tangible solutions and remedies to innumerable physical and mental diseases but there are a million other ailments that do not have any scientific answers. Spirituality and temple darshans are perhaps the only succour left in situations where medical fraternity asks humans to have faith in God!

Chottanikkara Bhagawati temple is indeed a temple to be in, if you wish to get into a state of trance and charge your metaphysical energies.  Irrespective of your scientific understanding, do attend the Guruthy ritual that will make you realize that life is truly precious. I believe, Hinduism offers answers to innumerable cryptic puzzles of life, in forms and representations that are very simple to observe but too complex to gauge through knowledge  available in the current scientific systems of understanding and research.


Date of Visit: 28 June, 2022

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