Song of Surrender

Monday, 12 June 2017

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer (1912-1981)
By Sriram V
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)

Sometime in the 17th century, a Raja of Palghat is said to have invited many Brahmin families belonging to the Tanjavur region to his principality. They were to inculcate learning and culture in the area. These families settled in 96 villages of Palghat district and greatly enriched the place. Many of their descendants rose to high positions in administration, business and other walks of life. Several shone as musicians. But the man who was to prefix the name of the district to his own name and make it synonymous with percussion was Mani Iyer, the mridanga maestro.

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.

Destined as it seemed Mani Iyer was to acquire fame in the field of percussion, the forces that control fates could not have selected a better place for his birth. Tiruvilvamala, a village on the southern side of the Bharatapuzha river, was well known for its Panchavadyam performers. ‘Maddalam’ Venkicchan and Konthai were famed practitioners of the percussive arts. Venkicchan was, in particular, greatly celebrated, receiving awards from the Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut. Speaking of Mani’s talents in later years, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar said that having absorbed the patterns of the maddalam and chendai in his infancy, he incorporated them in his own mridanga playing. Mani Iyer himself later said in an interview that from the age of two, the beats of the percussion instruments used in the neighbouring temple filled his being and entered his heart.

Accompanying Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar meant frequent visits to Palghat for Sesham Bhagavatar and so the family moved to Kalpathi when Mani was around three or four. Mother Anandambal noticed that it was percussion that attracted Mani as he invariably began jumping when his father sang and the intervals between the jumps were remarkably precise. He also had the habit of producing rhythmic patterns on any available surface. Father Sesham Bhagavatar began scouting around for a good teacher.

The first formal lessons were imparted by Chathapuram Subba Iyer, a well known mridanga vidwan of the area (see box, The Guru-s of Mani Iyer), when Mani was six. He was also sent to a conventional Malayalam school around this time. Within a few months, Mani made rapid progress on the mridanga and his talents were noticed by L.S. Viswanatha Iyer of Alappuzha, an amateur mridangist. Viswanatha Iyer, was known to be an authority on the finer aspects of laya and lent percussion support on the mridanga or khanjira whenever vidwans from the Madras Presidency came to perform at Palghat. He began guiding young Mani on performing in various kalapramana-s and for pallavi-s.

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