Mridanga maestro Palghat Mani Iyer’s centenary is being commemorated at a special event at the Music Academy, Chennai on 28 January 2012.
Born for the Mridanga
[Excerpts from a three-part profile of Palghat TS Mani Iyer by Sriram V (Sruti 270-272), now available as an e-book at www.sruti.com]
Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer was born on 12th June 1912 at Pazhayanur, Tiruvilvamala Taluk, in Palghat District to Sesham Bhagavatar and Anandambal as their second son. The couple had many children of whom some died early with only two sons (Mani Iyer and a younger brother) and two daughters surviving into adulthood. Sesham Bhagavatar was a vocalist in the Harikatha troupe of Mukkai Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, a famous exponent of the art form. Mani was christened Ramaswami at birth— after his grandfather who was a school teacher besides being a good singer.
The Guru-s of Mani Iyer
Chathapuram Subba Iyer was Mani Iyer’s first guru. Born on December 28th 1894, Subba Iyer came from a strong musical tradition. His father Annaswamy Bhagavatar was a violinist and grandfather Appaswamy Bhagavatar was a vainika. Noticing his interest in percussion the father gave him the basic lessons and from an early age he began accompanying bhajan sessions where his father played the violin. In 1909 he apprenticed himself under Kalpathi Krishna Iyer, a mridanga vidwan of repute. Later he trained under Chokkanathapuram Aacha Bhagavatar who, apart from being a mridangist, also ran a drama troupe.
By 1914, Subba Iyer began accompanying Mukkai Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar for his Harikatha-s. Gradually he became the accompanist of choice for all the visiting stars such as Ariyakudi and Maharajapuram, apart from Chembai whom he accompanied often. Ill health prevented Subba Iyer from seeking concert opportunities elsewhere and soon he also began training many disciples, among whom was Mani Iyer. Others included T.S. Vilvadri Iyer who shone as a ghata vidwan. Subba Iyer passed away on 17th June 1961. A road in Palghat is named after him.
Not much is known about L.S. Viswanatha Iyer, one of Mani Iyer’ guru-s, except that he was of affluent means, and that music was central to his existence. He is said to have accompanied many prominent artists who visited the area.
Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer was the third and perhaps most important influence on Mani Iyer as far as the mridanga was concerned. Sruti has devoted a full issue to him (Sruti 126). He was also influential in getting Mani Iyer to savour the culture and lifestyle of Tanjavur of which the latter was to become a lifelong admirer.
Standing up to Pillai
The first meeting with Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai was fiery to say the least. Pillai, always an awe inspiring personality, could make himself scary on occasion and decided to do just that to intimidate Mani. The concert was by Chembai with Mani wielding the mridanga and Pillai the khanjira.
When the turn came for the tani, at the end of the RTP suite, Mani played his initial phrases and gave way to Pillai who put up an awe inspiring performance. Then, unexpectedly he also went on to play the teermanam and coming to the point of take off simply said “Pallavi” in a loud voice thereby telling Chembai to sing it. As far as Pillai was concerned the tani was over.
Mani was not to give in. Barely had Chembai sung the line when he launched into a detailed tani on the mridanga and like Pillai, played the teermanam and announced “Pallavi”! Chembai much amused, sang the line once again.
Pillai, not to be outdone, now launched into yet another display of virtuosity ending with a roar indicating that the pallavi ought to be sung. Chembai sang it, only to have Mani begin on the mridanga.
This went on for two or three rounds with the laya fascinated audience lapping it all up. Chembai brought it to a close by laughingly telling both the artists that he was enjoying himself and as far as he was concerned they could go on forever and he would sing the pallavi line as many times as they wanted him to.
It was a head on collision, but over the years, the relationship ripened into genuine affection and respect.