Extract from Inaugural Address of the Palghat Mani Iyer Memorial Art Centre on 8th October 1981 By Sri .S. Y. Krishnaswamy I.C.S., (Retd)
The first thing about Palghat Mani Iyer was that he understood the importance of being an accompanist. Nowadays, the fashion is for the accompanists to dominate the show, so that very often the sound of the musician is drowned in the sound of Pakkavadyam. I have noticed this in many concerts. It may be that the main musician is not a champion. He may be an ordinary musician. It may be that the accompanists are very eminent artistes. But once the main musician sits in the centre and the two accompanists sits on the two sides, their duty is to accompany the artiste and not to show their own expertise when the artiste is singing. Of course when they have their own opportunities to play by themselves, they can show their expertise. Even then I would say that a certain amount of RETICENCE is called for in accompanists. Supposing the artiste sings a raga for five minutes, it will be ridiculous for the violinist to play for fifteen minutes, even though he may be a much greater artiste than the main musician. His duty is to make the katcheri, the concert a success. It may depend on the co-operation of all the three of them or four of them. I notice an unfortunate tendency nowadays for the more eminent accompanists to show their greatness when they perform alongside of a perhaps not too eminent artist in the centre.
Now Palghat Mani Iyer by any standard was greater than most of the people whom he accompanied, especially in the later days. The earlier days, of course he accompanied Chembai, Ariyakkudi, Maharajapuram, GNB, Madurai Mani and other artists, who were very eminent in their own right and Mani Iyer took his place as an accompanist and played for them, but he never transgressed the principle that it was the duty of an accompanist to accompany, and not to show his greatness, except when playing the `thani’. For example, I will give you two ways in which he did this. The first is, if a person is singing in a particular kalapramana, tempo, as you would call it then the beauty of the katchiri will be enhanced if the accompanist follows the same kalapramana and not go on beating the drum at a much higher speed, although he may come to the thala at the end. That is an unfortunate tendency which I notice today. As far as possible I have heard the greatest of percussion artistes in South India. Dakshinamurthi, Azhaganambi, Tanjore Vaidyanatha Iyer who was the guru of Mani Iyer, all of them, when they accompanied the artist, they took care to see that they picked up the same tempo, the same kalapramana, as the artist. At the same time, they also helped the artist. It is sometimes a vocalist- after all the human voice will not be the same everyday and artists, as you know, like to eat well and sometimes the voice may fail in the upper region. For example if the artist wants to give what is called a ‘karvai’ in the upper sadja and his voice is not quite up to the mark at that time, it is the duty of the accompanist to give a good sound effect so that any defect is not marked and if the artist is very true to the upper sadja, to improve it by playing in a higher tempo so that the two together may create a first class sound effect. Now both these points were characteristic of Mani Iyer. He never indulged in upper kala/above that of the main artiste when accompanying a song or even when singing the swara, some times in the upper sadja he may help the artist and God knows that many artistes require that help nowadays. That was a great characteristic. The second was that he once told me that a ‘thani avarthanam’ however brilliant, should not last for more than 10-15 minutes. He never went on playing as some people do these days repeating themselves nausea. Reticence is a great characteristic and Mani Iyer knew that the time to stop was when people expected you to play a little more- to create that interest so that you will come again to hear him next time and not to go out when you start the thani avarthanam. As you know the normal fashion among the listeners as soon as the thani avarthanam starts they go out for various purposes, including a smoke or a drink or toilet or something like that. Mani saw to it that all the people remained in their seats when he played thani, partly because of his own inherent brilliance and partly because of his reticence that the thani avarthanam should not take more than a certain amount of time. The third thing is that he gave a status to the mridangam by introducing a number of new combinations which did not exist before. This was partly due to his having been born in Malabar where the instrument called Chande played by the artistes of Malabar had many sound combinations, not commonly used by Tanjore artists in the earlier period. Especially the chande was suited for playing mridangam with the right hand and not so much with the left and Mani introduced many new combinations that were unknown before. Now I can go on and speak for a long time about him as I know him very well but proof in the pudding is in the eating and not in the describing of the pudding. Now what I propose today is to introduce you to the playing of Mani Iyer. I have taken extracts from two concerts of his. This will show two aspects of his greatness. The first is a very old one. it was played when he was fairly young nearing middle age and he was full of exuberance, enthusiasm, vigour, anxious to show off his brilliance, his technical ability, his vyavahara, the first does that. And in that thani he is accompanied by a Kanjira artist who was so good that when you heard the Kanjira, sometimes you will wonder whether is mridangam playing or his Kanjira playing and that Kanjira artist in one hand was able to show most of the things which Mani did with two hands – a remarkable piece of playing. I brought that to show how Mani Iyer played in his exuberance, in his enthusiasm, when he was young and fully vigorous inventiveness. But as people grow older they realise the uselessness of many things. As you grow older you sometimes wonder why you did this when you were young, why you did not do the proper thing. This self realisation – this ‘swanubhava’ comes to all artists at a certain stage of their life. Of course some people die without getting it. We need not worry about them but persons who have attained a certain degree of eminence at one stage they feel that there are many non-essentials, which are not important. Now what is important is the art of Mridangam – there are 2 aspects – one is that it is thalavadya – it is a percussion instrument – it gives the beauty to the music by accompanying in a particular time measure. So much so in the Sangeetha Ratnakara the vadya is taken as an integral part of the sangeetha.
They do not envisage music as such without thala, without the percussion instrument, the thala instrument is as essential as the song. But there is another aspect of the Mridangam. The Mridangam is not merely a percussion instrument, it is a shruthi instrument. It is tuned to a particular shruthi as meticulously and carefully as the human voice, or the veena or the violin is tuned to a particular shruthi (pitch). Now Palghat Mani Iyer came to realise later in life that the value of the Mridangam as a shruthi instrument, as a musical instrument, and rather than as a thala vadya, was more important, more in consonance with its potential as an instrument than merely displaying the percussion or the thala capacity of that instrument
I have brought one record to show how at one stage he realised this and where he has given up most of his vyavahara. He concentrated purely on the melody; the result is that sometimes you wonder whether he and the tambura have joined together in such a way that it is the tambura that is being played or the Mridangam that is being played. He reached that greatness. So I have brought two records – one to show his percussive greatness and the other to show his melodic greatness.
More than that, I do not want to say very much because as I said earlier – the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I hope and trust that after listening to these two aspects you will realise the potential of Mridangam as an integral part of the Carnatic musical experience.
A few words about Manjunathan; He is a very good Ghatam Vidwan. Although he plays only on a mud pot, he is capable of giving it a certain resonance by the way in which he uses his thumb and his fingers. It is very difficult to give proper resonance and he is one of the few Vidwans who has got several Ghatams to suit several sruthis. This is also important. You cannot go to bazaar and buy a ghatam these have to be specially made and he has shown that it is also a musical instrument and that it has its proper place in the concert. I have seen that he is amongst few Ghatam Vidwans who join beautifully in a concert at the present time. I have known him accompanying very eminent artists including Ariyakudi and others and I know that he always improves the concerts and I know that he always impresses. I am very happy today felicitating him.
Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer
The First Appearance
Mani was completing his eighth year and then practicing the fundamental lessons. Mridanga Vidwan Viswanatha Iyer, a close friend of Mani’s father often used to visit him and encourage young Mani to play the Korvais and Moharas of advanced stages. Though difficult to reproduce with his tiny fingers, Mani would not give up the task. He would be practising them again and again to reproduce them to Viswanatha Iyer the very next day with the utmost precision possible in those tiny fingers. Viswanatha Iyer would find no end to his joy and happiness.
On that night sitting with his friends, Mani was enjoying the Harikatha Kalakshepam of the famous Mukkai Sivaramakrishna Bhagavathar in the Vinayakar Temple at Kalpathy Village, Palghat. Viswanatha Iyer was accompanying him. Mani could not understand why when suddenly Viswanatha was calling him from the stage. When the young boy was within his reach he suddenly gave the instrument to him and got down from the stage. Mani could not do anything. He was puzzled, surprised. Sivaramakrishna Bhagavathar stopped his katha. Mani’s father, Seshambhagavathar, a disciple of Sivaramakrishna Bhagavathar, who was rendering vocal support to his guru then, was spell-bounded. The people had their own excitement. Yes, it is a boy, just a boy not even touched his ninth year is to accompany a famous top-ranking Bhagavathar! Will he be able to meet the challenge? The people of Kalpathy Village were in utmost tension. It is a boy from their village sitting on the platform with a leading musician at the centre. As long as they knew Mani would be during most of the time practicing. If not he would be taking an active role in quarrelling with elders or mocking with his friends at the hawkers coming to their village. Any way their prayer at that moment was to give the necessary “STUFF” and strength to this naughty boy of their village so as not to spoil the programme and save them from the accusation of the people from the other villages.
It was when he was fifteen years old Mani went to Salem to accompany Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. The great Tavil Vidwan Panchami was to play on the Kanjira with Mani. When the concert was to start, Mani noticed that some of the admirers of Vidwan Panchami had kept the Kanjira in the place of the Mridangam. That is, Mani was to sit behind Kanjira.
Mani refused for this. But the people were adamant that Mani should sit only at the back. Mani’s stand was “give the instrument its place.” But his words carried no weight. Realising this Mani said “if that is so, I am not playing and let me go back.” But the situation became tense.
In a moment Mani’s Mridangam was hidden. “Now let us see how you are going to return without playing,” the “extremists” challenged. Finding himself in a helpless situation, young Mani started weeping.
Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar who was keeping himself tight-lipped, all this time was watching how young Mani tackled the situation, now interfered. “Mani” he called him affectionately with a compromising tone, he continued, “you need not sit at the back; you sit with me, here by my side.” Mani accepted. Mani played the concert sitting by the side of vocalist in between Chembai and Panchami and facing the audience. But later during the concert Mani was able to “achieve” his usual seat with Vidwan Panchami sitting in the usual Kanjira place.
But God blessed them with something more. Young Mani started to play only to surprise the audience as well as the artist at the centre with his timely strokes with the utmost clarity possible at that age. Everyone was thrilled. Within a few minutes Viswanatha Iyer, at the peak of his happiness and pleasure who in fact was trying to hide from others, the slight hesitation he had after seated the boy on the stage , soon recovered and leaving the place said in a proud voice “he will manage the rest.” Yes he did. Not only that concert but many hundreds of other concerts also later to the effect that the people coming never got disappointed even when it was not a very fortunate day for the artist sitting at the centre.
Mridanga Vidwan Thanjavur Pakkari Pillai (1869)
Thanjavur, famous for its cultural treasure, has ever been a granary of musicians; particularly Mridangam players. The talk of the ‘Old Tongue’ as regards to the field of Mridangam is a ‘tripartite’-Narayanaswami Appa, Thanjavur Pakkiri Pillai and Kumbakonam Azhaganambi Pillai.
Govindaswami Nattuvanar of Thanjavur was a great dance-master, who demanded respect and regard from every quarter of music. Kuppuswami Nattuvanar and Ammalu Ammal were the children of this Govindaswami Nattuvanar. Kuppuswami was an expert in Bharathanatya and Mridanga, who domiciled in Baroda Samasthanam, as the first Nattuvanar to go there from Thanjavur. Ankanna Naicker, the Asthana Mridangist of Karvetnagar, was a disciple of Kuppuswami Nattuvanar. The latter had six children – three boys and three girls. They were Lakshmi Ammal Vadivelu Pillai, Nagammal, Chinnaiya Pillai, Krishnammal and Mahalingam Pillai, in that order.
Vadivelu Pillai, a good Mridangist spent almost all his life in Baroda. Nagammal was married to Vazhuvoor Manicka Nattuvanar, the uncle and guru of Vazhuvoor Ramaiya Pillai. Chinnaiya Pillai was a famous dance-master. Mahalingam Pillai was a good vocalist but equally a reputed Mridangist, whose son is Thanjavur M. Thyagarajan, the popular singer.
Thanjavur Pakkiri Pillai, the hero of the present article, was the only son of Ammalu Ammal, sister of Kuppuswami Pillai. Born in 1869, Pakkiri was imparted tuitions in Mridangam by his uncle, who soon turned out to be a virtuous artiste. He made his debut on the musical platform of Thanjavur Pattikrishna Bhagavathar’s Harikatha performance. The “Harikatha-Pithamaha” was a fan of Pakkiri and used to praise him as ‘Sunaada Boopati.’ Pandit Lakshmanachar, Thiruppazhanam Panchapeska Sastrigal, Soolamangalam Soundraraja Bhagavathar and Palghat Anantarama Bhagavathar were some other Harikatha artistes who sought after Pakkiri’s Mridangam.
Patnam Subramania Iyer was the first person to take over Pakkiri to the dais of a vocal concert. From then on, Pillai started to share the platforms of Maha Vaidyanathar Iyer, Ramanathapuram Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Sarabha Sastrigal of Kumbakonam.
The sound produced by the nimble fingers of Pakkiri Pillai was so sweet and sophisticated that the great Narayanaswami Appa imbibed a craze to attend the performances, whenever locally Pillai’s performances occurred. The love and regard was reciprocated that Pakkiri, if in station, never missed to step into Appa’s house for the Saturday Bhajana. It was an enthralling experience to the fortunate assemblage to listen to Pakkiri’s singing Ekdas to the mridangam accompaniment of Appa. Pakkiri would take over the instrument, when Appa started singing Abhangs etc.
Every main artiste, whether a vocalist or instrumentalist or Kathaka, would request Pakkiri to render one or two Ekdas, in the midst of the performance. He had a mellifluous voice bringing out nothing but melodies. Encomiums were showered upon him by Appa and such others as “Kuralum Teen-Viralum Teen” (VOICE is honey, as also the fingers.) while rendering Ekdas, his voice and fingers would share the melody, which was wonderfully appreciated. Pakkiri, short-tempered, by nature would rise to the boiling point, if the remuneration due to him was not settled at the Railway station, on the return of the concert party. Even in times of anger, he never knew how to pour abuse, the greatest of that being “Sillaraippayal” (silly fellows). Generally, he was a man of few words always preferring seclusion with a pensive look.
Many musicians of the recent time and of this day have not heard of this veteran artiste because of two reasons, he was not born in the age – where one could do anything, the only goal being ‘popularity.’ Another reason was that he was affected by some sort of mental derangement at about his 36th year of age which prevented him from partaking in concerts for some tears. Even later, when he returned to the field, he would get up from his seat when the elaboration of raga commence and come back at the start of the Keerthana, or even shortly after. All the eminent artistes were enamoured of his playing, but many didn’t dare to approach him for a concert, because of the above reason.
Pakkiri Pillai’s lifetime companion (even at his bed-time) was his “dear old umbrella.” None has ever seen him without it. He married Krishammal, daughter of his maternal uncle Kuppuswami Nattuvanar, and had two sons and two daughters. Eldest Keeravani Ammal was a teacher. The next, Govindaswami, a mridangist, now lives in the Bangalore City Railway Quarters with his son-in-law Ranganathan, Controller of Signals. Danalakshmi, the third, passed away three years ago. The last one, Srinivasan, is a mridangist residing at Thanjavur.
Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer used to often tell the present writer; “Panner thelitharpol Pakkiri Mridangam” meaning Pakkiri’s mridangam playing is like the sprinkling of rose water. Both the hands of this versatile artiste were honoured with golden Thodas by the Maharajah of Mysore, when he accompanied Veena Seshanna. It was the earnest desire and request of the Maharajah that Pakkiri should stay at the Palace as a guest, at least for some days. But the shy mridangist took to his feet the same night, unnoticed by anyone and un-informed!
At the time of lunch in a function (Kankana-dharana to his eldest daughter) held in June 1922, Pakkiri Pillai got up and went out, no one knew where. This was usual for him and a common experience for his relatives; hence the search was not undertaken. After a few days he was sighted at Vennar bank, which lies in the border of the town, where all his relatives had congregated for some important religious function. He usually chatted with every kith and kin, released peels of laughter and was very brisk. A few moments later he fell down and the swan set to sail.
Thanjavur – The Fountain-Head of Mridangam
Mridangam plays an important role in a music concert, may it be Vocal or Instrumental. The greatness and value of Mridangam has been extolled vividly in our epics and treatises on Music. Apart from the major puranas and the Upa-Puranas, we come across an age old ‘Mridangam purana’
Mridangam, as an accompaniment to music, does justice, to the truthful saying of the Sangeeta Pitamaha – “Tala Beku, Takka Mela Beku.” Even at the present day, when a Bharathanatya performance missing a Nattuvanar has become common or in an instrumental concert, for example, a Veena concert, which omits a violin, the rhythmic accompaniment of Mridangam occupies its place.
The very name ‘Mridangam’ suggests two meanings. One being, “an instrument made out of earth,” as those of the olden days. Another meaning is, we shall say, ‘Mridhu-Anga’ – soft role. Playing on the mridanga should be so soft and dexterous – “Sogasuga Mridanga Talamu” – sang the bard of Panchanada Kshetra.
Tavil and Mridangam are the two important percussive instruments, as far as our South Indian Classical Music is concerned. Let us, at present, limit ourselves with the subject on Mridangam. A lot of ink has been spilt on the methods of the instruments manufacture, so on and so forth, by various writers since early times of our history.
Mridangam was prevalent in South India, with its ancient names – Tannumai, Maddala etc. from time immemorial. But Thanjavur, the greatest cultural seat of music, has a very close and unique relationship with Mridangam, than any other place. Maratha rule in Thanjavur tightened this relationship more.
This instrument had a part only in the daily routine of worship in the temples, during the period of Cholas. The Bharathanatya performance, once again enjoyed the same privilege in the temple worship, naturally entered into a good partnership with Mridanga. It was considered that all the Jathis, Solattus and such other rhythmic and cross-rhythmic passages, could be precisely presented only on the Mridangam from that un-ascertainable day. This instrument continues to be an inevitable companion to the dance performances.
It was during the Maratha rule over Thanjavur principality and other areas connected to it, the great Natyacharyas the Tanjore Quartette, who were themselves experts on Mridanga also, shaped and codified the repertoire of a Bharathanatya performance, by creating dance pieces like Alarippu, Jathiswara etc. Varnas and Sabdas, in eulogy of the patron-ruler also came to existence. Bharathanatya, so far crawling in the darkness of the temples, saw a new ray of light in the Royal court. For every two students of Natya, in proportion, one came up to learn and practise Mridanga. This paved way in Thanjavur for the Mridanga players, not only to flourish under the Royal patronage, but also to systematise the method of playing, suitably, occasion-wise, song-wise.
The credit of introducing Harikatha Kalakshepa in South India goes to Marathas. Meruswami, a Harikatha exponent, who later went to and settled at Trivandrum to become the Rajaguru to Maharajah Swathi Tirunal, who was Maratha of Thanjavur. Prior to the arrival of Ramchandra Bawa of Moregaon, only Purana-Pathana and Pravachan were in vogue. Only this Bawa, who came to Thanjavur on an invitation from the king for a performance on a Vijayadasami day, introduced and propagated the art of Harikatha. Ramchandra Bawa spent the rest of his life at Tanjavur and his mortal body was laid there to rest itself. Harikathakalakshepam, in the regional language with a new Paddhati, assimilating the Maratha tradition, came to existence from the “Harikatha-Pithamaha” Patti Krishna Bhagavathar of Thanjavur.
The Bhakti Land of Maharashtra gave birth to many saint singers, who untiringly spread the Bhakthi cult through their Bhajans to the accompaniment of Mridanga. Those of that lineage who settled down in Thanjavur innovated the special method of playing on the Mridanga for Abhangs, Bhajans and so on. Almost all Maratha rulers of Thanjavur were adept in playing on this instrument. Likewise, one member at least, of the entire Maratha families, was an expert in this art. The unique features like Araichappu, Teka and Gumki etc. were exclusively the hereditary treasure of Maratha-mridangist.
Narayanaswami Appa, whose name itself has become a legend in the history of Mridanga, was a superb and sophisticated artiste, being the disciple of Asthana Vidwan, Sivaswami Appa, , Tukaram, “Jatkavandi” Bapu Rao, Doss Swami, Sethuram Swami, Bavanni (son of Tukaram), Vithal Rao (who later switched over to Dholak), Thanjavur Ramdoss Rao, were some other experts in the art. Heeroji Rao, Gopal Rao and many other names have been mentioned in the Palace records, as great Mridanga players. Kamakshi Bai was a skilful lady-mridangist of the Thanjavur Royal Court. There are plenty of Mathams and Bhajanasalas at Thanjavur. And one could witness, even today, Mridangam played so well by even a new entrant to the art. Some sort of inborn adherence between the instrument and a person of the Maratha clan is obvious. The sound produced by them on the Mridanga definitely differs from that of others.
Kathakalakshepam gave much scope for the accompanists to improvise the unique pattern of play when Abhangs, Dindis, Ovis, Dhrupads, Ekdas and such other pieces were rendered. Playing for “Usi” tala is another remarkable feature. This has now declined and passed into oblivion since the present day Harikatha performers themselves dispensed with this type of tala.
A strong belief prevailed among all the musicians of the bygone days that one would be able to play on the instrument in a perfect manner, if only he had gained experience having accompanied either in Harikatha or in Bharathanatya performances. The aforesaid Mridangists of the Maratha community earned name and fame only through Kathakalakshepams.
Now, coming to all the non-Maratha artistes, we could very well say that every Nattuvanar (Natyacharya) was also a good Mridangist.
Thanjavur Kannuswami Nattuvanar and Vadivleu Nattuvanar, the both descendants of the Tanjore Quartette, were mainly dance masters with no equal. Sangeetha Kalanidhi K. Ponniah Pillai, son of Kannuswami Nattuvanar, though a vocalist was equally a Mridangist, so also his son, Kittappa Pillai, who is at present residing at Bangalore. Another family of Nattuvanars with great repute is that of Govindaswami Nattuvanar. Not only he and his brothers but his descendants also like Chinnayya Nattuvanar, Mahalingam Pillai were experts in Mridangam. Sangeetha Kalanidhi T. M. Thyagarajan, of this descendancy is not only a famous vocalist but also a good Mridangist. Vazhuvoor Sundara Nattuvanar, a disciple of the great composer, Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai and his son Chidambaram Jayaraman (a popular singer of cine-fame) could handle the instrument very well.
Speaking of the great Mridanga artistes who secured fame for Thanjavur, some names have to be mentioned here. Thanjavur Pakkiri, of the Govindaswami Nattuvanar family, was an outstanding artiste. Kumbakonam Azhaganambi Pillai was another. Those who sought to learn the art of playing the Mridanga flocked to Thanjavur and no wonder this place came to be a “factory of Mridangists.” The great personality, whose name has to be inscribed in golden letters in the annuals of Mridanga art, was Thanjavur V. S. Vaidyanatha Iyer. Born at Vaiyacheri; the birth place of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer which lies a few miles away from the town. Vaidyanatha Iyer came to Thanjavur to learn the art under the tutelage of Kannuswami Nattuvanar and his illustrious son, Ponniah Pillai. The training took place only in the Silambakootam (hall of dancing) of these Nattuvanars. Vaidyanatha Iyer aroused to be an accomplished Mridangist and his career included accompaniment to the great artistes of the day. Later, he was honoured by the Travancore Royal Court with the “Asthana Vidwan” tytle.
As a master having no parallel he used to teach the intricacies of the art to his students, who were from various parts of the country, in a convenient method that would suit the fingers of the taught individually. About 90% of the popular Mridangists of this day belong to the school of Vaidyanatha Iyer. M. L. Veerabhadrayya of Bangalore, Venkata Raju of Andhra Pradesh, Palghat Mani Iyer of Kerala may be cited as some names of his disciples from out of the state. Though the list of his students would become voluminous, Mangudi Duraija Iyer, Tiruvaiyaru Krishna Iyer, Harihara Sarma, Thambuswami (youngest brother of T. M. Thyagarajan, who passed away while young) T. K. Murthi and Thanjavur Rajam Iyer may be given as some among the innumerable disciples of his Master.
Palghat Mani Iyer, who had his initial lessons from Chathapuram Subbiar, started his career by accompanying some Harikatha artistes of his own State. With a great desire to develop the skill of his son, Seshan Bhagavathar came to Thanjavur with Mani Iyer to entrust him to Mylattoor Sami Iyer. Since they missed the correct address of Sami Iyer, it so happened that they knocked on the door of Vaidyanatha Iyer’s house. That was the will of the Divinity. On seeing the young boy with a tiny mridangam in his hands, the Master received them in and learnt about the boy and his burning desires. He fore saw the future of the boy and immediately suggested to Seshan Bhagavathar that the boy would thence be under his own care and nowhere else. The correct door was knocked at and the great road was thrown open to Mani Iyer, in which he marched gallantly only to reign the domain of Mridangam till he breathed his last.
Extract from the ‘Presidential Address’ of Palghat Mani Iyer ON 18-12-1966 at The Music Academy, Madras
Whatever he wanted to say as President of the Conference, he was not saying from his study of the general books on music or special books relating to his own speciality of Mridangam. He was going to say things born of his own experience over the long period of forty years during which he had been an active exponent of this instrument. In fact, he was not a learned man, what little education he had having been stopped at the 5th standard.
The first thing which he wanted to emphasise was that this was an art to which only those who were born into it and had native gifts could come. They could be classified into three kinds: (1)those who had according to their traditional belief continuity in the practice of the art from their previous birth, for whom study with a Guru results in a perfection within the boyhood itself. So that at the tender age they were able to entertain a gathering of over a thousand people and make them immersed in a joy which makes them forget all their cares and anxieties. Such were indeed a rare phenomenon in the history of the art – very few indeed were of this class. In several generations we might perhaps come across one or two of this class. Secondly there was the class of persons to whom nothing would come however strenuously they might be coached and taught. Thirdly there was a class in between these two. It was about them that we should speak. They had something of a gift and according to that they might benefit by proper teaching and training under a Guru. It was with reference to them that they had a scope for speaking about how to learn and practice.
Those who come to this art had to start their training while they were very young. I would say that to start before they were ten would be best. No intention of making a profession of it or making money through it should form the incentive at that stag. For ten years they should remain with the teachers. Then they should start listening to performances and for about four to five years they should have this kind of further experience by observation and listening.
There was not much in this art to be talked about. If it was to be discussed it was only those who had practical knowledge and performing ability that could enter into the subtleties of the art and speak of it. Others could only make mere general observations in a superficial way, but it would not be proper of them to speak about the intricacies of the art. Nor was there much to be known about this art by merely reading books. Whatever little one had learnt of this art, if one practiced daily with devotion, concentration and regard for his teachers, which would be the most necessary thing to do. Just one word about the way to practice. Taking Mridangam, for example, any short lesson could be learnt and that has to be mastered by playing it often, varying the tempo so that in whatever tempo one played, that lesson would come off with its perfection. It was only after this mastery was gained that one had to quicken the tempo. It was after gaining good dexterity of the hand that the variation in three tempos should be tried. No new lesson should be taken before the older ones had been completely mastered and mastering one after the other was best. Playing the same things over and over again produced perfection. Take for example a devotee doing the same pooja for his Ishta Devata day after day. Even so was the cultivation of a lesson that had been taken on.
There were no new things or innovations in the art, but within the same thing new experience and realisation of joys could be realised as one went on practicing them. What is their novel in Gayathri or Rama Nama? The more they were recited and repeated the newer and newer revelations came.
In current Carnatic Music there were a number of unnecessary things which were being introduced. How to find what was unnecessary? It was only possible to indicate this to some extent. For example, we could separate the variations or improvisations which was characteristic of voice and those which were peculiarly fitted to instruments; Nadaswara, Violin, Mridangam, Tavil, Veena, Flute. In accordance with the structure of these instruments, Sangatis, Brigas etc. have been according to the experience of the great musicians recognised as belonging in a characteristic manner to these instruments. In his experience, he had found that the basis of everything was in vocal singing and according to him it would be proper not to introduce into vocal singing the sangatis which were characteristic of instrumental playing. On the other hand, to introduce the sangatis of the voice into the instrument and make it sound as if it was the voice was a praiseworthy thing. Whatever the instrument, it was a great thing to play it like the voice. On the contrary, it was not desirable that the voice should imitate the instruments. This was his opinion.
Further, in every raga or a large position there were sangatis which were seminal, old and rooted in experience, there was also the characteristic individual form of each raga. Neither of these should be changed. Merely to lay claim on some originality, if something was to be added, there the thought came what he considered to be the unnecessary element. To this category belonged the attempt to reproduce in the voice, sangatis belonging to instrument.
What was the definition of a good artiste or vidwan? I think that we can say he was a good artiste who could hold an audience composed of lay as well as the erudite for over three hours and make them without any difference of opinion, forget their own pre-occupation and be immersed in the joys of music. Although one might be performing daily for decades, if he could sing in a manner which would not satiate the listeners and only add to their joy, such a musician might be called great artiste, a Mahavidwan. He indeed enriched the Nad Vidya. It was no use if a few performances were apparently good and gradually there was a decline in the Rasa. Unfortunately, such was the experience now and hence their anxiety to look into the causes of this decline. To him it appeared this was due to lack of proper and true training and the anxiety to pander to the taste of the public and win easy applause by introducing whatever he had earlier referred to as unnecessary things. He would warn young musicians in this respect. It was no easy thing to lay one’s finger on what is unnecessary, but it was in recognising this unnecessary element that he would say that real music culture lay. That the executions which brought forth applauses gradually wore away and became insipid was known to them very well in their experience. He would give the analogy of protecting crops from pests.
He might be asked ‘what you have emphasised is but a small quantum of the art. Why are ten years Gurukulavasa and practical experience needed for this?” He would answer, “These are absolutely necessary.” As he had already said, these durations and this intensity of training were necessary if one should hold the audience of both the lay and the learned for over three hours and make them engrossed in enjoyment of the art and completely forget their own cares. He then said that he wanted to point out one or two things of interest to those who would practice on the Mridanga. The Mridangist should not go on playing all the time till the vocalist stopped his singing. The Mridangist should not start off his playing as soon as the vocalist opened his mouth, without even waiting to know the tempo and the measure. He should at the beginning of the concert set Tekas of the slow tempo and then according to the situation proceed to the medium tempo and use pharans etc. Solo improvisation in Mridangam would be alright for duration of five to ten minutes. To protract it longer affected enjoyability. He would say there was indeed nothing to play beyond that duration. He was not saying this only for Mridangam instrument, even for voice, he thought the development of a raga for a duration of more than ten minutes, which was minus the time taken by the violinist, could make it only stale. The solo interlude on the violin sailed in the same boat. What he said would apply to all instruments.
Till about twenty years ago, only those artistes whom he had described above were forefront. Others received respect and opportunity according to their standard. Now the situation was changed. There were colleges of Music and there was All India Radio with its round-the-clock programmes. Naturally, a very large numbers of singers were necessary for this situation. Even those of modest attainment were able to gain a status by reason of an employment or a post in an institution which they got. This added to their standing although this was not to be welcomed and could not be accepted when it was attended by steady lowering of the standard of our art. Governments were giving scholarships to music students and young musicians were also given opportunities to perform. Much money was now being spent for the music, but all such grants and stipends went, in his opinion, to those who were not fit for this. To some it added to their income, to their social and other purposes, but it could not be said to help the art as such. It might be said that it would not be possible to amend this completely, but to him it appeared that in a way to effect some improvement in this was possible. In Music Colleges or in the selection of students and young musicians for scholarships, in fact, in all matters concerning the art of music, the authorities concerned should appoint the outstanding expert artistes to the Selection committees or al least the majority of the members of Selection Committees should be the leading artistes. To have the minimum of the artistes and to continue the same persons did not seem to be proper.
The young musicians who wanted to perform with distinctions before the public and gain a reputation must have faith in one thing, namely, if they had not been able to make a mark, it was due to some short coming in them and that it was better to have an introspection and attempt to improve ones self. If one’s art was pure enough and if one’s conduct and bearing were also good, there was no doubt that one would be able to make a mark and build up hid career. That was his firm belief that to build one’s self up there was no need to see anybody. On the other hand, what one sought would come of itself.
A great responsibility was on the Music Academy, Madras. For the past forty years, how it had been endeavouring in the field of Carnatic Music and what it had been doing in that field had been watched eagerly by the public as well as the other sister instruments. Real art should be searched and fostered and what was of lower standards should be eliminated. In the field of Carnatic Music there was no other Organisation except the Music Academy which had such comprehension and which, with an eye to every department of Music, organised the work of the Conferences through demonstrations etc. and honoured the votaries of the different aspects of this art.