Sitting in one corner of the first row of The Music Academy on the occasion of mridangam vidwan Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer's birth centenary on Saturday was 72-year-old F. Selvam.
He was among those who were honoured along with the disciples of Mani Iyer. His contribution: he was the mridangam-maker for the maestro.
Selvam's father Fernandes, who was known as Parnandu, used to make and repair mridangam for the percussionist. He belonged to a family of Dalit Christians in Thanjavur who were into making mridangams for generations. Sebastian, Fernandes' father, made the percussion instrument for Thanjavur Vaidhyanatha Iyer and his grandfather Arokyam used to make thavil for Palani Muthiah Pillai, the father of Palani Subramania Pillai. Sebastian's brothers Chengol and Chetty alias Antony were all mridangam-makers.
“I was a punkahwallah (one who used to pull a large swinging fan fixed to the ceiling) in the office of the district magistrate. My colleagues wondered why I should do a menial job, when my father had connections with great people like master (Palghat Mani Iyer). So I quit and joined the master in 1959,” recalled Selvam.
Selvam's family was living on Keethukara Street in Vadakkuvasal in Thanjavur and Vaidhyanatha Iyer bought 1.5 acres of land for Sebastian. Later, Mani Iyer converted the thatched house of Fernandes into a pucca modern structure.
“My father was a diabetic. He would go to the hospital every morning and visit master's house to have his morning coffee. It was then that the master suggested that I could do the work for him and that is how I joined him. On the day I also prayed to Arokiamatha of Velankanni not to make me a better worker than my father,” said Selvam, who could no longer do the work close to his heart after he lost his right hand in an accident in 1995.
Like his father, Selvam also stayed with Mani Iyer at his residence in Thanjavur and travelled with him across the country, making and repairing the mridangam, depending on the type of concert the maestro was performing. When Mani Iyer settled down in Chennai, Selvam too moved, where his brother F. Melgish and son Jayakumar are now following the family profession.
Skins of cows, goats and buffaloes are used for making the mridangam, while the drum is made of jackfruit wood. The dark spot on the middle of the right side of the instrument is a mixture of grained stones available in the riverbed of Bhavani and rice paste.
“Master used to have around 100 mridangams and would carry four instruments for a concert. He would send a small note with every mridangam, mentioning the shruthi for the instrument. But my father was a master craftsman. All master needed to tell him was which main artiste he was going to accompany and he would ready the mridangam for that particular concert, although he was almost deaf,” said Selvam.
Mani Iyer's son T.R. Thyagarajan said his father was extremely fond of Fernandes and that he showered gifts on him.
“I vividly remember my father draping a silk dhoti given by S.S.Vasan around Fernandes' shoulder for performing at his son's wedding,” he said.
Selvam equally enjoyed the affection of the maestro. “He treated me like one of his sons. I would sit near him and engage in conversation, though my father would always stand in the presence of master,” he said.
Any memorable incident? “There are many. But this one I will always cherish. I went with him to Bangalore. He was to accompany the Alathur Brothers, and so we took four instruments with shruthi ranging from one to three-quarters. But the concert was cancelled due to some reason and in its place Maali's flute concert was organised. His shruthi was between four and five. Master told others I would ready the mridangam by four in the evening. I managed to live up to his expectation. What else would I want!” Selvam said.