Madurai Mani Iyer
Madurai Mani Iyer was born on October 25th 1912 at Madurai to Ramaswami Iyer and Subbalakshmi Ammal. Both parents were very knowledgeable in music. But it was uncle Madurai Pushpavanam who was the star of the family. In his time he was acknowledged, as the emperor of music and it was customary for all aspiring musicians to be measured against him.
Hailing from such a musical family it was no surprise that Mani Iyer dreamt of a career in Carnatic Music. His father trained him from an early age. He then apprenticed under Rajam Bhagavatar, a disciple of Ettayapuram Ramachandra Bhagavatar for two years. In 1924, Rajam Bhagavatar became a member of the faculty of the Tyagaraja Sangeetha Vidyalaya that was begun by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar. Mani Iyer enrolled in the school and was to become its sole stellar product. The school folded up in three years, but not before Mani Iyer had benefited from the tutelage of Muthiah Bhagavatar. He was also to be greatly influenced by Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar, whose style of singing swaras he admired greatly.
The first concert opportunity came about in 1925 at Alavakottai during a temple kumbhabhishekam. The audience sat up and took notice of a new star on the horizon. In the next year, the Paramacharya of the Kanchi Mutt, Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi, a formidable expert in classical music himself, invited Mani Iyer to perform and was greatly moved by his music.
Mani Iyer made his first appearance in Madras in the year 1927 when an All India Music Conference was held in conjunction with the All India Congress session that took place. Mani Iyer?s father presented a paper on shrutis and swaras and young Mani Iyer sang a concert. Both father and son were awarded prizes and with that Mani Iyer was all set to take Madras by storm. A concert arranged by KV Krishnaswami Iyer, a prominent lawyer of Madras in 1929 further established his reputation. That year Mani Iyer moved to Madras with his family. His father had however passed away by then.
Living in Mylapore, Mani Iyer was influenced by Papanasam Sivan and he made popular several songs of his. He also learnt several Dikshitar kritis from TL Venkatarama Iyer. Mani Iyer based his formidable reputation in music on certain rock solid principles. His voice was forever aligned with sruti and this made his music sweetness personified. He firmly believed that music was a joyous exercise and thus he eschewed all unhappy songs from his concerts. He also felt that a musician ought to only sing songs that he believed in. So being a firm believer in astrology he never sang songs such as grahabalamemi which questioned the power of the planets in controlling life. He also never sang Tyagaraja?s nidhi cAla sukhama as he felt that a musician who sang for a fee had no right to sing such a song. Mani Iyer however simply rejoiced in singing and the fee held no importance for him. Yet he adhered to this tenet.
Mani Iyer?s swaras were unique. As Kalki Krishnamurthy once wrote, Mani Iyer wove garland after garland of swaras. His alapanas comprised short phrases with significant pauses that only enhanced the musical atmosphere. Mani Iyer firmly believed in encouraging all his accompanists and many were the exclamations of appreciation that would come from him while the concert was in progress. But on one count Mani Iyer was firm. His concerts would have only one mike and that was in front of him. Some accompanists objected but finally Mani Iyer had his way.
Mani Iyer shifted to Mayuram in 1942 when Madras was evacuated by the order of the Government following the war scare. His family then comprised his sister Gomathi and her husband TS Vembu Iyer who was Mani Iyer?s life long accompanist. In 1945 was born a son to this couple and he was in later years to become the torch bearer of the Mani Iyer bhani, namely TV Sankaranarayanan. The shift to Carnatic Music?s heartland further solidified an already powerful reputation and he was to become the toast of music circles. All the fame and adulation never went to his head and he remained a simple man right through his life, with few worldly wants. A strict adherent to Gandhian principles he wore only khadi and was ever gentle and charming in his speech and demeanour.
In 1954, Mani Iyer moved back to Madras along with his sister and her family. He took up residence in Kennedy Street, Mylapore and such was his popularity that the bus stop outside his house was soon dubbed as the Mani Iyer stop. In 1958, he built his own house in Karpagambal Nagar in Mylapore and the residence still stands and is lived in by TV Sankaranarayanan, thereby continuing a musical tradition.
Many awards came to Mani Iyer in his life. The Gana Kala Dhara was conferred on him by the citizens of Tanjore in 1943. The Sangita Kalanidhi of the Music Academy came in 1959. He received the Isai Perarignar of the Tamizh Isai Sangam in 1963. But perhaps the award that he really cherished was the sight of the thousands who thronged to hear him sing. By 1964, Mani Iyer was in indifferent health. Battling this he gave of his best in concert after concert. He continued singing for such was the demand for his music and he was ably assisted in this by TS Vembu Iyer and later by TV Sankaranarayanan. Mani Iyer passed away on 8th June 1968, but not before hearing a full length private recital performed for his sole benefit by TV Sankaranarayanan. He approved of his nephew?s singing and permitted him to sing in public in February of that year.
Mani Iyer?s death never diminished his popularity. His fan following continues to grow. His rendering of songs such as sukhi evvarO (kAnaDa, Tyagaraja), kA vA vA (varALi, Sivan), karpagamE (madhyamAvati, Sivan), vELLai tAmarai(bhImplas, Subramania Bharati), the English Note and EppO varuvArO (jaunpuri, Gopalakrishna Bharati) has never been surpassed.