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Updated: December 28, 2011 21:57 IST

As pitch-perfect in life as in music

Chitravina N. Ravikiran
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Madurai Mani Iyer
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Madurai Mani Iyer

Centenary Notes: What made Madurai Mani Iyer attain such Bradmanesque standards?

From my very early years, I was fortunate to be raised on a diet of some of the greatest styles in both Carnatic and Hindustani. By the time I was about five, it was evident that Hindustani artistes had to invest a major part of their energy in pleasing tonality and pure intonation (its twin pillars), whereas Carnatic dynamics demanded command over lyrics, a repertoire of hundreds of songs as well as improvisatory skills in well-defined modes (neraval/kalpanaswaras), to name a few. While the multiple challenges of the Carnatic system were highly fascinating, they were also bound to distract the mind from shruti and tone. (It took me a few more years to accept that a highly skilled Carnatic artiste could still make magic.) Against this backdrop, I could see that Madurai Mani Iyer stood out as an icon of intonation.

He is undoubtedly among the greatest India has produced. His life symbolised shruti shuddham and his music transcended the region-and-culture-specific values of the Carnatic genre. His music could sit seamlessly in the pantheon of pitch-perfect artistes in any part of the world across time. My grandfather, Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar, is known to have phrased it colourfully — “Even if the sun rises in the west and the oceans trip over themselves, Madurai Mani would never deviate from shruti.”

Desire for perfection

What makes an artiste attain such Bradmanesque standards? It may sound like a truism but to do well consistently, one has to have an intense desire to do so. The intensity of the cause is directly proportional to the effectiveness of the result. The sort of commitment that Mani Iyer had towards shruti is matched by few in the Carnatic world and it comes through even to me who has never heard him live. The manner in which he cultivated his voice ensured that he had absolutely no insecurity about any note. In a field where numerous artistes feel diffident about singing certain notes even after 50 years of performing experience, this achievement alone is sufficient to put Mani Iyer among the all-time greats.

But that is still only one side of him. His visualisation of music in its fundamental form was so clear and complete that even his introverted sadhana-style singing transformed itself into a mass-appealing celebration. He would lose himself in his music but he could — verily like Pied Piper — take literally everyone along with him. While he commanded immense respect from his peers and contemporaries, his success with uninitiated listeners is unprecedented and unsurpassed. Viewed against the backdrop of the high classical content in his recitals, it is mind-boggling. The turnout for some of his concerts would surely have rivalled that of cricket test matches.

His success is the victory of shruti and music as a whole, a model for every artiste and student. I have tried to pin this down to a formula for students: If one sings tunefully, the music sounds twice as awesome; if one is off-shruti — the music sounds 10 times more awful.

Mani Iyer's treatment of attractive non-major ragas such as Jayantasena, Kapinarayani, Ravichandrika and Pratapavarali elevated their status several notches. His mastery over the ‘big' ragas, Todi, Kalyani, Bhairavi and Kambhodhi was second to none just as his command over other popular parent ragas such as Keeravani, Charukeshi, Shanmukhapriya and Vachaspati. His concert formula (at least in later years) studiously eschewed ragas that sounded melancholic or poignant (Mukhari, Neelambari) and even when he chose to sing a raga like Varali, he preferred the crisp Kaavaava laced with swaras. His choice of rakti (evocative) ragas would lean towards Anandabhairavi, Sahana, Devagandhari, Dwijayavanti followed by kritis such as O jagadamba, Shree kamalambikayam, Seetavara or Chetashree, rendered almost cheerfully!

Madurai Mani Iyer was synonymous with swara singing and was an indisputable master of this. He could repeatedly spur even the most stoic audiences to express themselves through rounds of thunderous applause. And he didn't need to resort to a Ramanujan-level of arithmetic to woo audiences.

To me, his neraval singing was equally enchanting — he would get engrossed in songs like Sarasasamadana and Niravadhi sukhada and create a transcendental experience for listeners.

In masterpieces like Shree subrahmanyaya namaste, he would bring larger-than-life images of Kambhodhi in each phrase. His raga alapanas were edifices built on small but soulful blocks of musically sound material glued together by tunefully sustained notes.

Close associates of his such as violin maestro T.N. Krishnan have attested to his keen analytical mind that could explain and illustrate subtle musical points with startling clarity especially while discussing the music of his idols Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer and Rajaratnam Pillai.

Vast repertoire

The torch-bearer of the Madurai Mani Iyer bani, T.V. Sankaranarayanan reminisces about his uncle's incredible repertoire, memory and musicianship. “Mama taught me numerous songs that one would have rarely heard him sing at concerts — Idisamayamura (Chayanata), Sanatana (Phalamanjari), Evarunnaru (Malavashri), Paramatmudu (Vagadheeshwari), Samukhana nilva (Kokilavarali), Namoralagimpa (Devagandhari), Etavuna nerchitivo (Yadukulakambhodhi), Nadachi nadachi (Kharaharapriya), Ninnuvinaga (Poorvikalyani), Durusuga (Saveri)... I can go on and on,” he says. “What is incredible is that he would not have revised these songs in 20 years but would access them from memory at will.”

This was augmented by the celebrated mridangam vidwan T.K. Murthy. “At a concert in Delhi, Mani Iyer sang outstandingly but a critic, known for his inconsistent and perverse reporting, had a dig at him the following day for singing his usual fare. Mani Iyer just smiled but in another concert the same day, his list consisted of pieces that even I — who had accompanied him for several years — had never heard him sing. The critic, who also made it to the concert, apologised profusely!”

TVS adds: “His voice had just the right balance between delicateness and weight and his sense of gamakas was impeccable. And the way he could hold any note almost endlessly was mesmeric! It would create an all-permeating tranquility that had to be experienced to be believed.”

Anyone who has spoken to me about this distinguished musician has been unanimous in accrediting him as a human being of impeccable qualities. He was gentle, courteous, well-meaning, helpful to younger artistes, loving towards his disciples, committed to the art, and devoid of negativism even in jest. In short, as pitch-perfect in life as in music...

(The author is a Carnatic instrumentalist, composer and writer. Email:


A genius who redefined the art of mridangam playingDecember 28, 2011

The Mani Iyer legacyDecember 28, 2011

Equally great as his music, Shri MMI's personality was divine. He never indulged in politics that the profession was/is witness to, was never money-minded, was focussed only on the music and the audience happiness. Such was his greatness. No vices, women nor wine. Only pure, unadulterated, elevating and divine music from his mind and mouth. It is unlikely that the future will ever see anyone like him. Budding aristes should use him as a benchmark to aspire, both in music and personality.

from:  VIjay Krishnamurthy
Posted on: Jun 3, 2012 at 21:37 IST

I had the good fortune of seeing him in my own younger days 1946/48,
sitting at the compound wall of Kapaleeswarar temple tank and temple
area and at 2 am in the midnight hearing KANA KANN KODI VENDUM KAPALI
ENBAVANAI - Believe me, when he sang that son Lord Kapaleeswarar came in
my presence and I was dumb=bounded for few mts. Such is the greatness of
the Lord and Madurai Mani Iyer's songs. I can never forget this in my
life, I am running 80 now.

Posted on: Jan 3, 2012 at 06:31 IST

The article written by Mr. Ravikiran is quite engrossing. He vividly
portrays the intricacies of MMI way of presentation of compositions and
his unique style. If the author could write so well without having an
opportunity to listen to any of MMI live concert, one could visualize
his way of his observations and comments, if he were to listen to one
live MMI concert ! Hats off to him.

from:  R. Bhavani Shankar
Posted on: Dec 31, 2011 at 16:23 IST

I read the article titled "AS PITCH PERFECT IN LIFE AS IN MUSIC". Shri Ravi Kiran has spoken the hearts of millions of The Great Master's admirers,devotees. He has said all that they want to say but could not for lack of words or oppurtunity. His expression is so wonderful. The enjoyment, the tranquility, the divinity one experience while listening to the Master, Ramabhkati, kanakan kodi, vinasakuni unnanura, O! jagadambha, Thaye Yashoda (one can feel baby Krishna running with silambu in his ankles) can not be expressed in words. But Ravi Kiran has conveyed much of the feelings. Ravi Kiran is a genious and only a person of his stature could understand the Master and tell us all about him.
After reading Mahaperiyaval's explanation of "Sri Subrayamnayaya Namaste" one should listen to The Master; then he will have different experience while meditating on the Gayathri Manthra. Thanks a lot Ravi Kiran Sir, for let know the many aspects of the genius in Madurai Mani Iyer.

from:  G Chandrasekharan
Posted on: Dec 30, 2011 at 10:45 IST

An interesting, well-written article. The imagery in the phrases, comparing alapanas with "edifices", based on "blocks of musically sound material" with "tunefully sustained notes" as glue, is outstanding, making this a truly eloquent statement on the Master's pedigree. I find it a little disappointing though, that some readers have a bone to pick with the Bradman comparison. I think "Bradmanesque" is meant to convey that when it comes to shruthi suddham, the author regards Madurai Mani as being head-and-shoulders above all the rest in the pantheon of Carnatic music deities. This is not very different from the gold standard status accorded to the Bradman average when it comes to measuring batting excellence. The author has simply chosen an expression to drive this point home with brevity. To interpret this as direct comparison between musical mastery and cricketing skill, or to suggest that it is used in order to glorify a western icon, is not only inappropriate, but misses the point.

from:  Ram
Posted on: Dec 28, 2011 at 00:13 IST

Exhaustive account of an extraordinary musician, touchingly narrated. Like the author I too have not listened to MMI live, but from whatever little I could listen to in 'World Space' or AIR, repeated umpteen number of times, these recordings was never any less interesting. Listening to these recordings, I bet, his effortless singing as also a very friendly appearance on stage too was remarkable. Thanks

from:  apsubrahmanyam
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 23:50 IST

Sri Ravikiran's article is a delight! He must have been a good English essayist at school! Sentences such as "...they were also bound to distract the mind from shruti and tone. (It took me a few more years to accept that a highly skilled Carnatic artiste could still make magic.)" were a revelation to ordinary rasikas like me. Sri Ravikiran is the ideal person to inspire Carnatic musicians to achieve higher and higher standards of sruti. Some readers did not like references to Bradman, cricket and the Pied Piper. What we must all realize is that Carnatic musicians are under pressure to come across as modern, well-read and well-rounded citizens. They are merely following the standards set by leading editors, journalists, writers, speakers and so on.

from:  Ananth Sethuraman
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 23:08 IST

Thanks to this article.. I came to know about such a great human being and that he was a realised soul... Thanks to Ravikiran ji

from:  hariharan
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 21:53 IST

I grew up listening to running commentary of Bradman batting as a schoolboy and thrilled by his batting exploits. When I grew up I was inevitably drawn to the greatness of Madurai Mani Iyer`s music -listening to which gave me as much pleasure as Bradman`s batting. Personally I find the metaphor `Bradmanesque` very apt. Kudos to Sri Ravi Kiran for bringing me to my nostalgic memories of listening in his kutcheries and enlightnening today`s younger generation of connoisuers, of the greatness of MMI`s music.

from:  kapali
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 21:00 IST

One must welcome such a brilliantly written article about a great musician about whom little is known. This is definitely the best article in the Hindu in a long time, during the music season, maybe even in all of 2011. Very grateful to Ravikiran for taking time off from a busy season to write this. Instead, I am surprised that people are nitpicking the article over minor issues like the author´s use of Bradmanesque and a comparison to the Pied Piper.
I hope Ravikiran continues to write and does not stop because of these thoughtless critics.

from:  James Gurung
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 20:54 IST

Mani Iyer's music was a "thendral" (breeze) to the ears. His greatness was subtle - he made even the most intricate combinatorics appear simple. It was this aspect that made his music enjoyable even to the novice. More so, there was never a dull moment in his performances. And who can forget his "laaa ooo hiii nannannaah" in his alpanas. Janakiraman called him Madura Mani. For us he was Madura Manickam. Comparing him with any other personality is futile. Mani was Mani. There never was and will never be another one. He was not one in a million; he was One. Mani, we miss you.

from:  Venkataraman R
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 20:24 IST

Good one....request upcoming artists who speak about Bhavam and style
during concerts could also find time to acknowledge that they exist in
the same land as such Mahavidwans (MMI) of yesteryears existed.

from:  S Subramanian
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 20:10 IST

A very interesting article. Madurai Mani Iyer's kutcheris were most sought after for the effortless way he sang and the cascade of swaras that embellished the kritis in delightful ragas. He was really one of those vidwans who brought Carnatic Music to the common man.

from:  G.Naryanaswamy
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 17:00 IST

I don't know anything about ragas or talas. I listen to various songs - film (tamil and hindi) and also carnatic music. I am swayed by the rendering of the song -combination of the voice of the singers and the musical instruments. Without fully grasping the meaning I was thrilled so much on first hearing Madurai Mani's singing "Parimala ranga pathe". (This was about forty years ago) Even today the sudden "thrill" and the "feeling of flying in the air" remains with me when the MMI sang in high pitch in one place in that song.

from:  Sankar
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 16:58 IST

Very well composed article! Wikipedia has much less info about M.Mani
Iyer than whats written here. Not having known M.Mani Iyer since I was
born in 80s (and not having heard from anyone either), I tried to search
the web for more information about this singer and by the end of the
article understood that I was reading about a legend. Thank You!

from:  Venkat
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 15:45 IST

Hats off to Ravikaran for this splendid article about Madurai Mani Iyer. I have heard several audio cassettes of Mani Iyer and have enjoyed every moment of it. Like Madurai Mani Iyer, another musician who comes to my mind is M D Ramanathan. Recently I heard from a T V interview that people call him Mano Dharmam Ramanathan. Very true. Both Mani Iyer and MDR were all time greats. Nidhichala Sukhama?

from:  Kannan Raju
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 15:02 IST

What a soul rendering blast from the past!!! My father , bless his soul, was a worshipper of MMI. 'Eppo Varuvaro' brought tears to his eyes, dance to his feet; As a young boy who hero worshipped his father and who has a yen for carnatic and bhakti music, I am overwhelmed to read this divine piece on the Grandmaster of Music , MMI. I would like to have his CD's , if availible , pls provide the lead. Grateful thanks.

from:  R KUMAR
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 13:47 IST

I grew up admiring (worshiping?)MMI. 60 years later - I continue with my admiration the same way. He was a genius beyond description. The article has made me acutely nostalgic. Thank You!

from:  MSR Ayyangar
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 09:05 IST

We are a bunch of music lovers who used to be regular at December Music Festival at the Music Academy.We used to be there dot on time to see the Icons of 50s and 60s who were dominating the Festival.Ariyakudi, Semmangudi GNB,and Madurai Mani Iyer the great.Why I Single out MMI has a valid reason He is our God of Music and we are MMI fanatics to say the least.In the year when he was conferred the title of Sangeetha Kalanidi we all celebrated it with gusto.when he used to sing 'Entha sowkiya Panile of Thyagaraja we used to compare the raga with the Coffee in the canteen since that raga was KAPI!!MMI used to sing "eppo Varuvaro' as one of his favourite Thukkadas.When rasikas used to ask for it the Violin Mastero Thiruvalngadu Sundaresa Iyer Used to say' Wait!Varuvar, Varuvar!' meaning he would surely sing that piece.When MMI sang the English Notes we used to dance very spontaneously. MMI is a legend and was the Sachin of Carnatic Music.We enjoyed MMI music extensively.

from:  venu
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 08:37 IST

Ravikiran has indeed helped us all re-live the genius of 'Madura' Mani Iyer through his article. The young music brigade will surely be inspired to aspire to such heights scaled by stalwarts such as these. I particularly liked Ravikiran's contrasting the styles of Hindusthani and Carnatic music with an emphasis on the intricacies of the Carnatic style of singing, underlining the importance of Shruti Shuddham, especially in the case of Mani Iyer.Kudos to Ravikiran! Looking forward to more such revelations of our great masters.

from:  Vinod Vetri Iyer
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 08:36 IST

Lovely article, great insights and interesting facts.

from:  Uday Shankar
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 08:19 IST

Dear Raviji: The article is interesting, but to espouse Mani Iyer's standing through the metaphor of Bradman (as Bradmanesque standard), I find it unacceptable prose. Why should Carnatic musician greats always be compared with cricketeers for arousing a yardstick. Music and mathematics represents highest form of expression of consciousness and symbolises intelligence, abstraction and genius capacity. This is contrary to a large component of motor memory and control evolved by sheer training and practice as we see in various sportsmanship. In particular Mani Iyer's garland swara construction is even more bafling for neuroscientists who Investigate patern formation and its motor expression. Nevertheless not intended to lower one vocation from another, musicians need their own metaphor. Rarely has one compared Yehudi Menhuin to Bjorn Borg! Perhaps the fact as rabid rasikas of Madurai Mani Iyer and revere him as an 'avatars purusha' I find this Bradmanesque comparison difficult to digest.

from:  Dr. Hari SUbramanian
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 06:18 IST

While describing the revered Sri Madurai Mani Iyer as “Bradmanesque” is an unseemly mixing of metaphors, that not why I find it so saddening. Why does anyone – least of all a professional torch bearer of our culture, have to pay homage to a Western Cricket Icon even while recounting the greatness a son of our own great heritage? Is there such a poverty of Mahatmas belonging to the ethos Maha Bharat? Or is it just in the mind of the writer?

from:  Mukundagiri Sadagopan
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 06:09 IST

My gratitude to Sri Ravikiran for this superbly composed article! I have read many outstanding accounts of Sri Madurai Mani Iyer's concerts and life, and still found Sri Ravikiran's synthesis hugely refreshing. I am among the multitudes who were blessed to hear Sri MM Iyer's 'Pied Piper' music live. In fact, some 50+ years back, I heard at the end of cricket practice at the PS high school grounds that he would be giving a concert at the Gurukulam in Abhiramapuram that evening, and was simply pulled towards that venue, with no thought of any other consequences. The concert lasted well past midnight, after which I walked across a desolate area to reach home and learned, not surprisingly, that the police and others had been searching frantically for the 'missing' boy. The thrashing I received before they even asked where I had been was only a small price to pay for the 'otherwise free' mesmerizing concert! The word from/about Sri TVS at the end is simply sweet icing on a wonderful cake!

from:  Abhiraman
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 05:39 IST

A brilliantly written homage to an immortal vidvan marred only by the author's poor choice of a cricket metaphor and comparison to the pied piper.

from:  Madhava Chari
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 05:21 IST

Easily the best article of the season! This despite the undelivered story about ''life" in the title and the quaint functional inversion: 'The intensity of the cause is directly proportional to the effectiveness of the result'! Such an article is almost as enjoyable as a great Ravikiran concert!

from:  Sachi R
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 03:56 IST
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