The Legendary Mirdangist


Born on the 12th of June, in the year 1912, in the little town of Pazhayanur, in Tiruvilvamala Taluk, in the Palghat district, Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer could be considered as one of the greatest Mirdangists of all times. He was born to the well-known musician Tiruvilvamalai R. Sesham Bhagavatar (his father) and Anandambal (his mother) as their second son. Sesham Bhagavatar worked as a vocalist in the Harikatha troupe under the guidance of Mukkai Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, who was a popular exponential musician of the art form. Mani Iyer was one among the four children who survived into adulthood of the many children (died at an early age) the couple had given birth. Mani Iyer is commonly referred to as Palghat Mani Iyer. He was named after his town Palghat, the town, where he was born. Nevertheless, he was christened Ramaswami (named after his grandfather who was both a reputed schoolteacher and exponential Carnatic singer) when he was born.

When he was about 9 years old, Mani Iyer started to study under the tutelage of Chathapuram Subbier. At the age of 13, he made his debutant performance along with the virtuoso singer Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar (one of the most eminent professional singers). The audience was thrown into a tizzy by Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar’s association with a beginner like Mani Iyer. Hardly was he able to keep in track of the singer’s often-blistering pace. Later, a new talent rose up inside Mani Iyer, which led on to make him an exponential Mirdangist of all times.

Along with the passage of time, he started to learn music under the tutelage of one of the greatest Mirdangam performers, Vaidyanatha Iyer of Tanjore. He underwent a rigorous training under the guidance of his Guru Vaidyanatha Iyer, which led to the further refinement of his knowledge as a Mirdangist. After few years, he was exposed to another significant Indian family with high influence in the field of music. He started collaborations with Dakshinamurthi Pillai of Pudukottai in a number of musical recitals. These engagements with such exponential musicians earned him a higher reputation and it spread to other areas of musical abilities. He was widely referred to as a drummer who paid utmost attention to even the slightest use of space. Not only did he master the art of playing Mirdangam, but also became a talented vocalist. He strongly felt that the Mirdangists could become better at playing the Mirdangam if they could understand the vocal parts of the songs in which they were engaged.

Many of the Indian critics of Classical music had often commented that Mani Iyer’s attention to even the slightest details and his vast expanded technical knowledge of the whole ensemble’s music served as an aid to make a beginning for what would be considered as a just out era in percussion playing in this genre.

Palghat Mani Iyer’s contribution to the field of Carnatic music has been inestimable. He brought in many new refinements to the Mirdangam, which is in existence until today. He taste in choice was very different from that of his other contemporaries. While the musicians of his period preferred the use of the Kutchi type, Mani Iyer begged to differ for he preferred the use of the Kappi type to the kutchi type.

The Kappi type preferred by Mani Iyer has a flatter tone in comparison to that of the other types. However, the strokes on the Meetu (the outer skin of the Mirdangam instrument) produced in the Kappi type on the Valanthalai (the right side of the Mirdangam) is more clear and defined. As a result of this prominent production of the sound, additional attention is required when it comes to tuning the instrument to maintain it with the proper Sruthi (the pitch).  Hence, the musician must give utmost attention to tuning the instrument because it becomes clearly noticeable when the instrument goes Abasruthi (off-pitch). In order to achieve the perfect sound, both the Meetu and the Karanai (the inner black patch) will have to be tuned to perfection. This form is in contrast to the Kutchi Mirdangam, which is a bit more forgiving. He always made sure to pay utmost attention to the perfection of the Naadam (the musical sound) of the instrument. His tireless efforts were not in vain, for it resulted in the standardization of the sizes of the Mirdangams, which are in use until today. The instruments with shorter length and shorter diameter are used for the higher Sruthis (for the youngsters and the female vocalists); while the instruments with longer length and longer diameter are used for, the lower pitches (the instruments and the male vocalists).

He served as an inspiration for several younger artists like Lalgudi Jayaraman, Palghat K. V. Narayanaswamy, the Violin Trio (L. Shankar, L. Vaidyanathan, and L. Subramaniam), M. D. Ramanathan, Ramnad Krishnan, and many others. He also accompanied many female artists like D. K. Pattamal and M. L. Vasanthakumari. He highly influenced all the Mirdangists who succeeded him.



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