When are you leaving for your next concert?
Which city are you going to?
Which singer will you be playing for?
One of my earliest memories of my father Palghat Mani Iyer is of me as a three-year-old asking him questions, and he replying through the mridangam. As a child, I thought it was just a game, but I now understand that he was cleverly practising the difficult art of making the instrument ‘speak' and ensuring that he would be able to communicate his music even to a child.
As many artists know, this is the litmus test of a successful performance. When so many top artists of that time were desperate for him to reproduce their song through his instrument, I was given this honour solely because I was born to him. Yes, the legendary mridangam vidwan Palghat Mani Iyer was also a dutiful family man.
My siblings and I looked at him as an artist first – we admired his single-minded dedication to his art, the veneration that his rasikas had for his talent and the respect that the great masters had for him. Being a top-ranking musician, he was frequently on tour and spent only a few days at home every month. His return from a tour was always much-awaited. Our mother would tidy up our home, wake us up earlier and tell us to be on our best behaviour.
While my father was reserved while interacting with professionals, he was very different at home. He regularly narrated an incident from the Ramayana – the one where Anjaneyar goes to Ravana's court and makes a seat for himself out of his own tail, when he is not offered a seat. My father's imitations of Anjaneya's facial expressions always had me doubling up in laughter. He was truly the epitome of humility; but for our mother, we would not have been aware of his greatness.
Being the children of such a maestro had its advantages. After a concert, he would analyse the performance in detail and explain what worked or didn't work for the violinist and the vocalist.
One of the most important lessons he taught us was the delicate art of rectifying a potential error during a performance. It was something he did effortlessly thanks to his 50 years of experience, a skill that every up and coming musician must learn. He showed us how he would use landmarks for various patterns, and spontaneously add short phrases if these landmarks were missed and a mistake was imminent. These phrases were so carefully woven into the music that a listener would never guess that they were used as a bridge to a flawless grand finish.
My father was the embodiment of all the subtle things that made a difference between a good musician and a great one. Once, when my sister Lalitha Sivakumar and I visited him in Thanjavur, he was teaching a student how to accompany a singer. He asked my sister to sing. Lalitha remarked that while the student was a brilliant percussionist, she found it a little difficult to sing alongside his playing. She added that in contrast, when our father accompanied her on the mridangam, she found it much easier and that his instrument's support helped her perform even better. At this, my father laughingly said, “That's why I get paid so much for a concert!”
Our awe for him grew with every passing day and we would candidly take photographs of him reading the newspaper or record his conversations on tape. In fact, we even recorded an argument he had with our mother!
When one of the tapes accidentally was given to someone outside the house, he casually said he had no problem who heard the contents as he was always straightforward and honest about his opinion.
My siblings and I never pestered him to take us to the movies or other such outings. We considered it a blessing to just be in the company of a man whose advice so many artists craved for.
Admiration for musicians
My father's reverence for great musicians such as Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer and Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar was evident from an incident which happened when we were young. We had just acquired a Ouija board and were engrossed in the activity when my father, a sceptic, watched us. He finally sat down and said he wanted to summon a person. It wasn't a departed relative – he had composed a korvai and wanted his guru Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer's approval from beyond the grave!
Palghat Mani Iyer showed this level of earnestness even as a child. He was just 11 when he accompanied the harikatha exponent Sivaramakrishna Bhagavathar in a concert in Moolangudi village. Later that night, after the concert, my father was listening to the Keeranur brothers (nagaswaram vidwans) perform a delightful misra kuraippu. The boy maintaining their talam, made a few mistakes, much to the irritation of the brothers. Seeing this, the young Mani Iyer eagerly offered to keep talam for them. My father often recalled how the brothers patted him fondly and appreciated his enthusiasm to learn something new, even if it meant taking on a trivial task.
In that sense, my father was a true artist whose relentless pursuit of faultless technique and creativity put him in a league of his own. He did, however, successfully straddle his passion for the mridangam with his duties as a parent and husband. I remember he was teaching me the aforementioned misra kuraippu one morning. After that, I got ready to leave for work on my bike. He came charging out of the house just as I started the vehicle, and shouted: “Don't be preoccupied with the kuraippu while riding the bike. Be careful.”
The music world remembers Palghat Mani Iyer as a genius, but as his youngest son who was the apple of his eye, I would say that to get a father who was this affectionate and loving is even more of a rarity, a blessing indeed!