As mentioned in the title, one of the themes of this blog is music. I thought I might as well start the musical posts now…
Carnatic (classical south Indian) music is very close to my heart, having studied it for the past 17 years or so. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest systems of music in the world, due to the exquisitely structured and scientific formulation of rhythm and rhythm cycles, as well as melodic scales. An even higher premium is placed on the ability to improvise in this style of music than in any other style in the world; this leads to the expression that “no two Carnatic concerts are ever the same”, even if they have the same artists performing, and even if they sing the same songs!
On this note, the topic for today is the legendary mrudangam vidwan Shri. Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer.
I start with Shri Mani Iyer because I am reminded of an incident several years ago. During the December music season in Madras some time ago, Karaikudi Mani had arranged a talavadya (percussion only) concert with Palghat T. R. Rajamani (Mani Iyer’s son) and Bangalore N. Amrit (kanjira). Before the concert began, Karaikudi Mani gave a speech in Tamil, in which he said, “Just like how we pray to Ganapathi before any undertaking to remove all obstacles, whenever we take out the mrudangam, before we start playing, we should always take a moment to think of Palghat Mani Iyer. He was the man who brought mrudangam artistry to the forefront of Carnatic Music. He brought gauravam (dignity) to the profession. He demonstrated the dazzling possibilities of music possible on the mrudangam and brought it to the status it has today”. It is in this spirit that I start this series of musical posts with Palghat Mani Iyer.
(For those interested, Part 1 of the aforementioned concert is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5IQPsu_0bg. All 5 parts are online).
Some details about Shri. Palghat Mani Iyer can be found at the wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palghat_Mani_Iyer. His entrance to the Carnatic music scene in the early 20th century was dramatic, to say the least. He was blessed with hands and fingers that could do his bidding, and his style of accompaniment was a sea change from the existing norms at the time. He introduced the concept of actually actively playing along with the main artist, rather than just supporting like a human metronome. This became so popular that it is still the approach used by mrudangam artists today. It is with enormous pride that I can trace my gurus (teachers) back to Palghat Mani Iyer, and say that I belong to his parampara (school). My own guru has taught me several of Mani Iyer’s phrases, moharas, and korvais, and I treasure all of these very deeply.
He was the prime disciple of the legendary guru Shri Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer (other disciples include Shri. T. K. Murthy, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, V. Nagarajan, and Thanjavur Krishnamurthy Rao), and brought fame to the Thanjavur school of percussion back in the day. Back in those days, people used to say there were two main schools of percussion in the Carnatic system – the Thanjavur and Pudukottai banis. Artists belonging to either school had very different traditions, and the styles were very distinct. Since then, there has been a lot of blending and overlap between the styles. In fact, Mani Iyer’s prime disciple, Shri. Palghat Raghu, was an ardent fan of Shri. Palani Subramania Pillai (who belonged to the Pudukottai bani). Raghu sir even adapted a lot of the Pudukottai techniques into his own playing style! In fact, there is a story (recounted by Palghat Raghu himself), where some rasikas, after hearing Palghat Raghu play in a concert, went to Mani Iyer’s residence and complained, “Sir, your student is not playing like you at all! He is playing different things!”. To which Mani Iyer replied, “Ok, so what? Is he doing anything wrong? Is there anything unmusical in his playing? No? Then let it be!”. This speaks volumes about his character and confidence in both his performing and teaching skills.
Palghat Mani Iyer introduced several refinements to the mrudangam that are still in use today. He preferred to use the kappi type of mrudangam, rather than the kutchi type that others used. The kappi mrudangam has a flatter tone, but strokes on the meetu (outer skin) on the valanthalai (right side) become more prominent. This results in additional responsibilities when it comes to tuning the instrument to keep at the proper sruthi (pitch). When the instrument goes abasruthi (off-pitch), it becomes much more noticeable. Both the meetu and the karanai (inner black patch) have to be tuned perfectly to achieve the best sound, in contrast to the kutchi mrudangam, which is a bit more forgiving. He was a stickler for perfection of the naadam (musical sound) of the instrument. His efforts resulted in the standardization of the sizes of mrudangams that are used today; shorter length, smaller diameter instruments are used for higher sruthis (such as youngsters and female vocalists), while longer length, larger diameter instruments are used for lower pitches (instruments and male vocalists).
Towards the end of his life (from the 1960’s till 1981), he encouraged and promoted several younger artists, including Lalgudi Jayaraman, Palghat K. V. Narayanaswamy, the violin trio (L. Shankar, L. Vaidyanathan, and L. Subramaniam), M. D. Ramanathan, Ramnad Krishnan, and others. He also started accompanying female artists, including D. K. Pattamal and M. L. Vasanthakumari.
(A young Sudha Ragunathan can be seen sitting behind MLV, and A. Kanyakumari is the violinist)
Mani Iyer’s thaniavarthanams (solos) were a thing of beauty. His reputation and skill were so famous that the common exodus of the audience that usually occurs during the thani would not occur; in fact, people would often come with the sole intent of hearing only him! Because of his prodigious skill, he was also able to incorporate aspects of the Kerala percussive traditions into his playing, in particular the sounds of the Chenda and Edakka. Initially, he used to be very flamboyant, showing off the extent of his skills with abandon. Later on, he was quoted as saying “the thani should only be 7-10 minutes maximum. If you cannot play it during that time, don’t bother”. This was because he began to notice the phenomenon of decreasing laya (rhythm) awareness among the median Carnatic rasika (which, unfortunately, has continued to this day).
It should also be mentioned that Palghat Mani Iyer’s fetish for purity of sound carried into his professional engagements as well. He was against the use of microphones for amplification in concerts, as he believed that it detracted from vocal tonal production resulting from full-throated singing. He believed that too much dependence on the microphone would result in wimpy, weak sound production from vocalists (which is something I agree with). Uneven amplification of the artists on stage would also lead to an unpleasant listening experience for rasikas. He would only accept concerts if the organizers would not use microphones.
Unfortunately, I was never able to see Palghat Mani Iyer live, since he passed away before I was born. A lot of what I am recounting here is anecdotal, gleaned from various sources, including biographical sketches, personal websites, my own experiences listening to his concerts, and conversations with various people who had met him. There are lots of audio recordings of his playing, in varying sound quality depending on the age of the recording. Fortuitously, some video recordings of his have also been recovered and are available on Youtube, as shown by a simple search: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=palghat+mani+iyer&oq=palghat+mani+iyer&aq=f&aqi=g2&aql=&gs_sm=3&gs_upl=623l623l0l1350l1l1l0l0l0l0l44l44l1l1l0