He was truly a gem

Kamalakar Rao  

Each time someone walked into that hall, Kamalakar Rao said: “I did not expect so many people to come. I was under the impression that there would be some 10-15 students of mridangam…” A pause. “You are Hemmige Prashant, isn’t it? And you…,” the 80-year-old affable mridangam maestro was found connecting with his initiated audience. Kamalakar Rao, well-known in music circles and demigod to percussionists, is among the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer’s most favourite students. “Master loved me very much,” was his refrain that evening, as he spoke to a small gathering of students of music, teachers, performing artistes and connoisseurs. “I was very lucky. And that’s what most people of my times even told me. He did not have too many students when I went to him in the late 40s. He taught his son Rajamani and me together. Master treated me like his son itself…” Each time Kamalakar Rao spoke of his guru’s kind and affectionate ways, it was followed by a brief, poignant silence. Separated by those memories for over five decades, it was still vibrantly alive — it moved him, excited him and infused life into the music and practice of the great maestro. There was nothing called writing down, Kamalakar recalled. Everything that his guru taught had to be committed to memory. “As soon as the lessons for the day were over, I used to sit outside and recite each of the nadais and korvais for hundreds of times, sometimes well into the night. All that I learnt from him were not necessarily taught. I would learn by listening. On several occasions, he even expressed surprise, ‘how did you learn this?!’” Mani Iyer was not in favour of recording concerts or lessons. “Whatever recordings survive outside of AIR is all done in stealth,” he remarked. In fact, when the microphones came into the picture, Mani Iyer refused to use it too. There are so many vintage concerts in which you find the vocalist and the mridangist using the microphone and Mani Iyer without one. “Microphone amplifies sound and takes away the talent of the mridangist itself. Every percussionist’s strokes gains equal sound. ‘I want the listener to know the power of my fingers’,” he would say. Kamalakar Rao kept talking about the magic in the fingers of his guru. He recalled a lovely anecdote of a Chembai Vaidyanath Iyer concert for which the great Dakshinamurthy Pillai provided accompaniment. The young boy Mani Iyer who was present at the concert played a tani avartanam out of his own will after Dakshinamurthy had finished playing. Minutes after he had finished, Dakshinamurthy who was condescending about the boy’s talents to begin with, walked up to him, held both his hands and publicly declared: ‘Nee andavan da (you are god himself!)” From that day the name stuck, Dakshinamurthy called Mani Iyer Andavan. Mani Iyer was not only a god incarnate as far as the mridangam was concerned, he was a man of golden heart. Kamalakar Rao narrated so many moving stories about his guru – of how he refused to play for AIR in days when they paid the mridangam artiste the least in a concert. Raghava Menon came all the way when Mani Iyer refused three contracts in a row. After this meeting, all musicians were paid equally. When AIR was to audition his guru bandhu T.K. Murthy, Mani Iyer told them to drop the insulting idea immediately since there was no greater vidwan than T.K. Murthy. Mani Iyer was a man of few words, but of right action. Kamalakar Rao remembered that afternoon several decades ago when his guru was getting his mridangam ready for the evening’s concert. “A dholak player who played at the village festivals dropped by. Mani Iyer was surprised because the man rarely came. In silence, my guru carried on with his work and told him to go inside and have something to eat. A little later, ‘There’s a concert this evening at a wedding hall, come with me,’ I heard him telling the man. That evening, he made that old gentleman sit next to him on stage, and asked him to play along with him. When the organizers offered to pay him Rs. 200, Mani Iyer added 200 from his own fee, and handed it over to the man. The dholak player had tears in his eyes…wonder how my guru sensed all this…”

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 8:19:42 PM |

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