Centenary Notes: “Mani Iyer empowered his playing with pertinent pauses between powerful strokes”

He was a musician of the century. An epoch maker who defined an era, undoubtedly. The art of mridangam playing reached its zenith with Palghat Mani Iyer's comet-like entry into Carnatic music. It is not merely romantic but also most appropriate to say that the instrument chose this nimble-fingered boy to find its much-awaited, rightful place in the Carnatic firmament.

Mani Iyerval, as he is referred to by all with utmost reverence and awe, started his ever-evolving journey at the young age of 12 by accompanying the notable Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar in 1924. When many doyens like Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Azhaganambia Pillai were already reigning supreme, his musical journey took off on a glorious flight within his first few concert appearances. He soon defined a unique path for himself and laid what would be a solid foundation for many others to follow, leaving in his wake, suggestively understated and hidden treasures for others to find for themselves.

How can one capture his bani and genius in words? A few select words like ‘divinity', ‘brevity', ‘simplicity' and above all ‘intuitiveness', commonly used to describe his music, suggest a mystical aura to his art. One cannot talk about his bani without going into raptures about his tone, with which he built a grand edifice. The tonality of every sollu, if it were to be viewed under a microscope, had layers of solid wrapping, dipped in brilliant aural dimensions. In his hands, the mridangam tone not only found a perfect balance of treble and bass on the right and left, but also the toppi, meetu and chapu rang true, akin to a pitch perfect tambura. It is interesting to share here my brother Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan's impressions at the age of 14, when he was blessed to play some landmark concerts with our guru and father Lalgudi Jayaraman, and Mani Iyer. GJR recalls: “With the very first stroke from his mridangam, both the artistes and the audience would be bound in a hypnotic state of concentration. Such was the power of his nadam.” The impact on young Krishnan was indeed profound.

'No' to mikes

The genuineness of his strokes compelled him to say ‘no' to mikes, in the later stages of his performing career. Be it an artiste endowed with a sonorous voice or rich instrumental tone, one's mind automatically adjusts to the amplification of the mike and the natural tone is lost to a great extent. My father greatly cherishes a series of mike-less violin solo concerts that he performed with Mani Iyer, in the interiors of Andhra in the year 1965. The sensitive strokes from the mridangam that enhanced the solo violin's expressions in an open air auditorium showed his complete control over sound, marvels my guru.

Mani Iyer's personality had a certain enigma, and there was a restraint to anything he did. It is with nostalgia that my father recalls the first time he shared the stage with Mani Iyer in 1950 when barely 20, accompanying Ariyakkudi at Devakottai, and the light smile from Mani Iyer by way of approving the violin repartees to Iyengar's swara challenges.

Like his unspoken words, Mani Iyer empowered his playing with pertinent pauses between powerful strokes. “If his strokes had an artistic purpose, the silence that punctuated them had great meaning and further accentuated the beauty of the strokes that followed,” observes my father. Thus one aspect of Mani Iyer's style is about sound drawing its energy from potent silence and silence acquiring its value from his intense strokes.

An ardent devotee of Tyagaraja, Mani Iyer showed childlike pleasure every time a concert had a major share of the saint's kritis, particularly with neravals and short kalpana swaras, and boosted the concert with his enthusiastic playing. He instinctively followed the sangatis of a composition as well as the neravals, as if he were a second voice supporting the vocalist.

With his deep knowledge of the lyrical content, he very often highlighted the pivotal point of a composition with a breathtaking flurry of rhythmic patterns, leaving an indelible impression of the song on the listener's mind. Like Shakespeare's choice of words, Mani Iyer's rhythmic passages in embellishing a kriti were the ultimate and could hardly be improved upon. Thus, Heccharika, Uyyalaloogavaiyya, Marubalka, Endaromahanubhavulu, Raghuvara, to name a few from an endless list of kritis, never fail to remind us of his playing, when rendered even today.

A man of measured words, Mani Iyer believed in proportion even in the area of manodharma sangeetam. His disciple, vidwan Kamalakar Rao, says that his ‘Master' believed firmly that even a brief tani avartanam in a simple Adi tala sama eduppu for less than ten minutes, had infinite scope to demonstrate one's scholarliness. There have been many occasions when he played two or three short inspired tanis in a concert, enthused by the tempo and right timing of the kriti. Mani Iyer's keezh-kala fillers to a fast paced kriti had the same verve, vibrancy and tight structuring as would mel-kala fillers. Though he had a ‘weighty' approach to any pace, he had a special affinity for madhyama kala. For many of these qualities, he respected Ariyakudi and had a special place for his music in his heart.

The unquestionable conviction that underlined his playing took the concert to a different level. There was never a dull moment when Mani Iyer was on the mridangam. He had this rare ability to assess the strength and weakness of an artiste within minutes after the concert began. Kamalakar Rao notes that his Master would take extra interest and give guiding tips to vocalists about concert planning to suit the day or occasion.

A simple human being

Mani Iyer's son Rajamani who has played with him in all double mridangam concerts, fondly recalls that his father was a simple man, and knew little of the world outside of music. Having toured extensively, living out of his suitcase, Mani Iyer never succeeded in learning the trick of opening the lock of a suitcase. With unquenchable thirst and passion, he spent all his waking hours with his instrument, playing, repairing, experimenting and fixing it until he was happy with the tone. A dedicated achari (carpenter), waiting by his side to execute his wishes like a genie, was the only sign of luxury in an otherwise simple khadi clad life he led. With such unique bonding with his mridangam, it was no more an inanimate object but a living instrument obeying the command of its master, to produce music that touched the soul. Rajamani, who has also been his travel mate, observes that he had a gentlemanly quality in compartmentalising his close and intimate association with many vidwans such as GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur brothers, Semmangudi and others.

Indifferent to praise or criticism, Mani Iyer lived as a nadayogi, forever breathing freshness into his art. The history of the mridangam can be clearly divided into the pre and post Mani Iyer eras.

(The author is a Carnatic violinist, teacher and composer)