Centenary Palghat Mani Iyer's phenomenal achievement and contribution to the “mridangam mind” and “mridangam sound” have influenced all master percussionists who have succeeded him. A tribute to the icon on the eve of his centenary celebrations… Sriram Parasuram

How do you begin to understand, fathom and then set out to describe the musical phenomenon that Palghat Mani Iyer was and even is, today? Thirty or so years have passed since he moved on to another sphere but the sound of his mridangam, the perfection of his rythmscape and the force of his musical genius resonate vibrantly in the world of Indian Classical Music.

Recently I was asked whom I regard the greatest in Indian Classical Music. Considering that one has not heard Tansen or Tyagaraja, I said it was a toss up between three greats that I have heard (thanks to the boon of recording technology) — Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai and Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer. This was not an impulsive or emotional response, but rather, a weighed and objective one. But how does a mridangam “accompanying artist” figure in this shortlist, one may wonder.

Born in 1912 to Anandambal and T.R. Sesha Bhagavathar at Tiruvilwamalai, Mani Iyer, at the age of nine, started formal lessons on the mridangam with Chaatapuram Subbaiyer and was also taught by his father to play for Harikatha pieces.

Soon after his debut performance for Mukke Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, he started accompanying stalwarts such as Palghat Rama Bhagavatar, Ennappadam Venkatrama Bhagavatar and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar.

It was Chembai who introduced him to Madras in a concert at The Music Academy when Mani Iyer was just 14. Soon after, he met mridangam vidwan Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer of whose eminence he had heard much. This meeting blossomed into a most fruitful one as Vaidyanatha Iyer took a great liking to teaching the intricacies of the art to Mani, who in turn showed exceptional devotion and brilliance of grasp of the art from his master.

Tomes could be written on Mani Iyer's mridangam playing, his technique and style, his innovations, methods and pedagogy. As Muthiah Bhagavatar once said, “Mani Iyer combines in himself the art of all the great mridangam vidwans of the earlier eras.” But this essay focusses on some of his ‘silent' but epoch-making contributions to the music field as a whole.

Memorable combination

It was in the late 1920s that, at the wedding concert of Palladam Sanjiva Rao's son, Palghat Mani Iyer accompanied Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar for the first time. This heralded the beginning of an era of one of the great combinations on the Carnatic music stage of Iyengar and Mani Iyer. The nearly five decades during which this combination continued unbroken was a watershed period in the history of Carnatic music.

An artistic innovation in any of the performative arts needs to be tested, tried, modified and then honed and presented with conviction if it is to make any significant impact on the field. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar's kutcheri format did exactly that both overtly and intuitively. And in doing so, it unleashed a revolutionary change in the performance of Carnatic music. I daresay this grand format of the Carnatic music concert introduced by Ariyakudi, with its structural variety, proportional logic and overarching appeal, would not have been possible but for the firmament that Mani Iyer's unique style of accompaniment provided. It was his mridangam playing that held and cemented the disparate pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of the kutcheri together. It was his skilful use of sound and silence that gave the concert a sustained and rapturous beauty. It was his brilliant percussive phrasing that raised the impact of the compositions to a level hitherto unheard of. It was his rhythmic improvisations that added five stars to the travels of the singer's melodic ideas. And most importantly, it was his magnificent sync and merging of the mridangam sound with the sound of the voice and violin that created a Gestaltic feel of a wholesome musical experience.

An ‘influencer'

How can one capture in words the vigour of Palghat Mani Iyer's playing for Chembai's madhyamakala compositions and strident kalpanaswara? His uncanny anticipation and repartees for Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer's niraval singing; the majestic gait he provided while accompanying Musiri Subramania Iyer's vilamaba kala kritis; his speed-matching virtuosity while playing for GNB; the smooth and effortless flow of percussive phrases while playing for Madurai Mani Iyer; his mind-blowing responses to the complex arithmetic in the Alathur Brothers' pallavis — all of the above are but a few examples of his genius and versatility. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the trends and styles that these great vocalists came to set would not have come about without Mani Iyer's brilliant accompanying art.

Built into the Carnatic kutcheri format are both small/transitory solo sections (korvais) and major solo sections (tani avartanam) for the mridangam. At the end of the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam of each kriti, the mridangist plays korvais (which are essentially short cadential/punctuative solos, giving both a sense of closure to the section just rendered and also serving to introduce the next). No doubt Palghat Mani Iyer excelled in the tani avartanam, but it was in the art and craft of these punctuative cadences that he remains without a parallel. In fact, Mani Iyer was of the view that the tani avartanam was nothing more than an opportunity for the mridangist to present and perform mathematical compositions pre-planned and well rehearsed. He believed and epitomised the values of truth in art, simple elegance and team play — with the final goal of making the kutcheri a memorable experience for all.

And what a mark he made for himself in the process and what an example he has set for future generations!

One of the greatest developments of Indian music in the past century has been the evolution and rise of the mridangam. Very little is known of the theory and practice of the mridangam before the 20th century but one thing is for certain. In the past eighty years or so, the mridangam has risen to a status and position as the unparalleled paradigm for all that is sophisticated, intricate, beautiful, creative and artistic in World Percussion.

Today, no talavadya presentation or world percussion ensemble is complete without the mridangam. Even in terms of compositional framework, embedded repertoire and design of the musical pieces, the mridangam has come to be the fulcrum around which the entire ensemble revolves. This phenomenal achievement is in no small measure due to the immeasurable genius and contribution of Mani Iyer's “mridangam mind” and “mridangam sound” and the infinite ripples that he pervaded through (and continues to do so) in the mridangam masters and world percussion performers who came after him.

It is indeed rare to find a musical genius to be so consistently brilliant for over six decades and still hold complete sway on the minds and hearts of generations to come. It is akin to a Bradman or Pele ruling the field during their times with their sheer genius and continuing to shape and inspire the present. I have often wondered (as a great poet did while describing the magnificent tiger) “What immortal hand or pen could essay thy fearful and absolute brilliance?!”

(The author is a musician

and composer)

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