T.N. Krishnan – I knew Palghat Mani Iyer from my earliest performing days, when I was only a child. Together, we accompanied all the legends of that time — Semmangudi, GNB, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar — and without exception, Mani Iyer enhanced every musician’s music. When he was on stage, he created great synergy and rapport between all the artistes. Every artiste felt like giving his best. In his own silent way, he encouraged us all, he brought us all together. 

He was a man of few words, in fact, very reserved with the world, but amongst his close circle of friends, he was quite free. He brought dignity and honour to his profession, always giving his best, whoever he played for and wherever he played. To call him a great mridangam player is to tell only half the story — he was more than that, he was a great musician.

Even outside of music, he had varied interests. A very wise man, he had much to say about the world — his opinions were always forthright, well-informed and clear — just like his mridangam-playing. I enjoyed travelling with him, for every journey was an education. I cherish every moment I spent with him, on or off-stage. 

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman: I studied mridangam under four gurus for 15 years, and Palghat Mani Iyer was the third. My second guru, Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, after training me for a year, sent me to his student, Palghat Mani Iyer. It was 1949, and I was already an advanced student by this time. I learnt under him for a year, while studying at the Ramakrishna Mission School. He made me accompany K.V. Narayanaswamy, who was still a young boy then, and after hearing that concert, told me that I had reached a level where I could be on my own.

Even after I ceased formally learning from him, he remained keenly interested in my progress. He would always find out how I played from my co-musicians or people who heard my concerts. He would listen to my radio programmes. In fact, he was the one who encouraged me to shift to Madras to pursue a musical career. Over the years, various people have told me that he had predicted at a very early stage that I would be a top mridangam player. Like an electric train that needs a spark every now and then to keep moving, these blessings, I believe, have kept me going. I always tell people, Umayalpuram Sivaraman does not play the mridangam — the blessings of his gurus play through him.

My guru, being from Kerala, was fond of the Tayambaka style of chenda-playing, and when The Music Academy asked me to perform as part of his centenary, I felt it would be the most apt tribute to perform the mridangam in that style along with four leading chenda artistes from Kerala. As ever, he provides the spark, I only move in its momentum.

Dr. N. Ramani: Growing up around Thanjavur, I came across many styles of mridangam-playing. But the one that gave me the greatest thrill was Palghat Mani Iyer’s. I met him for the first time years later, when he heard my concert, and asked my grand-uncle who the young flautist with such a clear tone was. A few years later, we became neighbours in Mylapore.

He played for Mali Sir very often, and I used to listen to many of those kutcheris sitting by his toppi . Once, Mali Sir called me on the morning of a concert, and asked me not to attend it - I think he was off-mood. Mani Iyer was accompanying him. I wanted to hear him anyway, and I decided I would quietly sit at the back and leave before anyone noticed me. But as I left my house and walked past Mani Iyer’s, I heard this voice, “Remani...” Mani Iyer’s affectionate Malayali inflection was unmistakable. He took me to the concert in the taxi, and my plan of avoiding Mali Sir that evening was foiled! He told me after the concert that evening, “You know how when you switch off the fan, it doesn’t stop for a while? These concerts are like that — they might end, but something keeps turning for some time.”

Mani Iyer has accompanied me in some really special concerts. I can never forget the one at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, with T.N. Krishnan on the violin, and another concert at a wedding, where Mani Iyer specifically arranged the stage and the audience so that we could play without microphones.

I don’t think any other mridangam before or since has had the kind of weight that Mani Iyer’s did. Like the fan that has not stopped, it still rings in my ears. I cannot believe that it is his centenary this year, it’s like he is still amongst us.

Alleppey Venkatesan: Palghat Mani Iyer’s association with my family goes back three generations — he accompanied my grandfather as a nine-year-old! My guru, Ariyakudi, and Mani Iyer, had the greatest mutual admiration for each other — I believe that their best concerts were with each other — and when he saw me closely following in my guru’s style, he became very fond of me and took to mentoring me closely. The concerts where he played mridangam for me, usually at his insistence, were unnerving, but I somehow felt safe in the thought that he was doing his best to encourage me.

In Alleppey, I have seen that entire galaxy of stars — GNB, Semmangudi, the Alathur Brothers and others — at close quarters, having to tend to them often when they came for concerts, and I can tell you, no musician had Mani Iyer’s charisma. He inspired awe in not only his juniors, like me, but also in his peers. M.S. Amma told me this story of how she had planned a pallavi in Begada in one of her concerts, but got so nervous when Mani Iyer strode in like a lion, that she almost didn’t sing it. Sadasivam, as always, insisted that she stuck to the plan, and she sang the pallavi. Mani Iyer complimented her on it, and she confessed to feeling like she had won a medal.

Mani Iyer was peerless — I think he is to the mridangam what Roger Federer would have been to tennis if Nadal weren’t around!

As told to

Swaroop Mamidipudi