Late mridangam maestro Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer had a distinct definition for heaven: playing a mridangam made of sandalwood.

“He was also particular that the woodwork should be done by Somu Achari, an ace carpenter, and the other aspects should be left to Fernandes alias Parnandu, a master craftsman who made the mridangam for him,” said his son, Rajaram, conferring the S. Fernandes award on his son F. Selvam at a function organised by Parivadini on Wednesday.

Mani Iyer’s objective could not be fulfilled as finding a sandalwood trunk big enough to make a mridangam proved difficult. “Late violinist Mysore T. Chowdaiah made a lot of efforts to get a solid piece of wood. But he too could not succeed,” said Mr. Rajaram.

Mr. Selvam, who received the award, was also a mridangam-maker for Mani Iyer till he lost his right hand in a road accident. His family, hailing from the Dalit Christian community and native to Thanjavur, specialised in the art of making mridangams for generations.

Selvam had a great sense of humour and was mischievous too, said Rajaram. “Once he brought a mridangam to my father. He tried his hand, but was disappointed with the sound. He brought another one. That too was not up to his expectations. A third instrument also could not satisfy him. Unfazed, Selvam came up with a fourth one. My father said the sound quality was okay, but something was terribly wrong with the instrument. Selvam, with a mischievous smile, told my father that the problem perhaps lay in the fact that he had used pig skin for the instrument. Probably, it was Selvam's way of experimenting with the instrument,” laughs Rajaram.

Recalling his association with Fernandes and his family, senior mridangam player T.K. Murthy said: “All you needed to tell Fernandes is the main artist you were going to accompany and he would ready the mridangam accordingly. He knew the shruti of all leading vocalists of the time: Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maduri Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Alathur Brothers and so forth.”

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