Mridangam artiste, Karaikudi Mani, no more

A bachelor, Mani had trained scores of students, played for yesteryear doyens of Carnatic music as well as present-day stars

May 04, 2023 02:47 pm | Updated 10:57 pm IST - CHENNAI

Karaikudi Mani, as a young boy accompanying Pithikuli Murugadoss, on the mridangam. File

Karaikudi Mani, as a young boy accompanying Pithikuli Murugadoss, on the mridangam. File | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Karaikudi R. Mani, who dominated the Carnatic music world for more than half a century as a mridangam player and popularised the south Indian percussion instruments across the globe through his troupe Sruthilaya, died, aged 77, in Chennai on Thursday. Mr. Mani and his troupe had collaborated with American singer Paul Simon and one could listen to his konnakol in the album Dazzling Blue.  

A bachelor, Mr. Mani had trained scores of students, played for yesteryear doyens of Carnatic music, including M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, M.L. Vasanthakumari, Madurai Somu, T.M. Thiagarajan, D.K. Jayaraman and Lalgudi Jayaraman, as well as present-day stars including Sanjay Subramanian, T.M. Krishna and Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna. 

Mr. Mani’s skill on the mridangam embellished whole concerts, artistes said. His accompaniment to the devotional songs of Pithukuli Murugadoss bears testimony to his prodigious talent. He was also well-versed in ragas and keerthanas. “Karaikudi Mani was the Rock Star of the Karnatic music,” vocalist T.M. Krishna tweeted. 

“The moment he stuck the mridangam, we gasped in awe! His every thought, rhythmic pattern, innovation and response was filled with the spirit of discovery. As a person, he was always brutally frank and honest. We made music together, laughed and on occasions disagreed. Today, I have lost a senior and a collaborator with whom, I shared a special musical bond,” Mr. Krishna adds. 

First award at 18

Mr. Mani first learnt music from Karaikudi Ranga Iyengar and subsequently from Harihara Sharma, the father of famous ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayagaram; the pair of them (Vikku and Mani) went on to collaborate with many Western percussionists. He had further tutelage from K.M. Vaidyanathan as well.  He received his first award when he was 18, in 1963, at national level from S. Radhakrishnan, the President of India. In 1998 he won the “Sangeet Natak Academy” National Award. 

“His playing marked vibrancy and you can identify his playing through it and production of solid phrases. A few mridangam players innovated like him and there would be no dull moment when he played. He proved that mridangam, as a main instrument, was capable of captivating the audience,” said Lalitha Ram, biographer of mridangam player Palani Subramania Pillai. 

Kariakudi Mani accompanying M.S. Subbulakshmi. File

Kariakudi Mani accompanying M.S. Subbulakshmi. File | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Launch of Sruthilaya

After performing as an accompanying artist, in 1984, he launched Sruthilaya, a troupe venturing out to do experiments. “Through Sruthilaya, he brought the mridangam to the centre stage. In the beginning, he had reservations about sitting in the middle of the stage during concerts. He occupied the centre stage only after musicians such as the late S. Balachander encouraged him to do so,” recalled Ghatam player V. Suresh, who played and toured the world with Mr. Mani from 1987. 

Sruthilaya consists of top ranking artists in percussion instruments of India, with mridangam in the forefront, collaborating with similar artists of the Australian Art Orchestra in the Jazz form, headed by Paul Grobowsky, Australia and with Eero Hameenniemi of Nada, Finland.   

In 1993, he met with an accident and broke his hand, and it looked as if his tour to Germany for performing would have to be called off. “But he decided to go ahead despite the advice of the doctors. On the first day, he lamented that he was not able to produce a single tonic note. In a week, he gained momentum through rigorous practice and composed a few items that were played in Germany,” said Mr. Suresh. 

It was through Jamey Haddad, an American percussionist and a student of Mr. Mani, that the collaboration between him and Paul Simon happened. “Mr. Haddad informed Paul Simon that Mani sir and our troupe were travelling in the U.S. and he invited us to his studio in Manhattan. He requested us to play, and we played for three hours. He wanted to incorporate a few pieces in his album, and you can listen to them now,” said Mr. Suresh, whose ghatam playing can be heard in the beginning of one piece in the album.  His name was included in the album and Paul Simon wrote personally to thank him. 

A close friend, besides being a collaborator, Mr. Suresh also recalled with fondness how Mr. Mani was an excellent cook. “Since he was very particular about eating only vegetarian food, during foreign tours he would always double up as a cook.”

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