Palghat Mani Iyer - Mrudangam Wizard

By Ashok Madhav


Palghat Mani Iyer (1912-81) was a colossus on percussion. He was called the proverbial Nandikeshwara for his uncanny ability on the art of playing mrudangam.


He was born in Tiruvilvamala, a small town in Palghat District. His father and grandfather were harikatha musicians. He had his initial mrudangam tutelage from Palghat Subba Iyer and Kalpathi Viswanatha Iyer. For his advanced training, he moved to Tanjavur to learn from the reputed mrudangam maesto, Tanjavur Vaidhyanatha Iyer. Vaidhyanatha Iyer was a power house in Tanjavur bani of percussion. Many aspiring students came to Tanjavur to learn from him. T.K. Murthy is also one of the prominent disciples of Vaidyanatha Iyer.


Palghat Mani Iyer’s concert with Chembai Vaidhyanatha Bhagavatar was an important event, which propelled his career. This concert established him as a good vidwan in his own right.  He was still in his teens. His performance as an accompanist was an added attraction to the concert goers. He has accompanied stalwarts like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, G N. Balasubramanian, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathoor Bros, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and others. He admired Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s music and he felt Ariyakudi was the model of an ideal gayaka.


Ariyakkudi and Mani Iyer made a good team which was a big draw for the rasikas. Mani Iyer had become a very respected and popular mrudangam vidwan. He teamed up with Palani Subramania Pillai playing Kanjira in a few concerts. They both developed warm regard for one another, appreciating each other’s skills.  Mani Iyer himself has acknowledged that Palani was better in ‘gumuki’.  Mani Iyer had the knack of anticipating the main artistes singing sangathis and swara patterns and playing accordingly. He was never the one to outshine the main performer. He always felt mrudangam is an accompaniment.


In the late 1940’s onwards Mani Iyer and GNB formed a formidable pair and also he with Alathur Brothers. Later on he began accompanying the next generation of musicians like KV. Narayanaswamy, DK.Jayaraman and others. At this time, he was averse to using microphones for the concerts and he made a plea to abandon it in concerts. But it fell on deaf ears. In the late 70’s, he joined the Rishi Valley School in Madanapalli and continued his mrudangam lessons to aspiring students.


He was honoured by many music organizations all over India. He was given the coveted honor –Sangitha Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy- the first for a mrudangam vidwan. He was honoured with the President’s medal, Padma Bhushan etc.


He trained a few students. Palghat Raghu,  Palghat Suresh, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Kamalakar Rao, his own son, Rajamani and others. Mani Iyer left a legacy of great proportion with his mrudangam.