Ariyakudi and Mani Iyer

An article by Allepey P Venkatesan, vocalist-cum-auditor, who was also the disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.
If ever a singer and an accompanist were made for each other, they were Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Palghat Mani Iyer. They were the finest example of shared ideals, matching excellence and mutual admiration. 

Their first meeting is said to have been sometime in the early twenties in the house of one Rathnachalam Iyer in Trichy, a good friend of Ariyakudi and host to many musicians in those days. The introduction, heralding a unique partnership, was made by flute Sanjeeva Rao.

Ariyakudi seems to have had a special affinity for the mridangam and a feel for its potential for taking a concert to great heights. A fact which is perhaps not widely known is that Ariyakudi used to play the mridangam, for the love of it. And when he ran into Mani Iyer, it was as if he had found the very man he was looking for.

Mani Iyer instantly saw Ariyakudi as the trail-blazer of his times. The latter's aesthetic refinement, his adherence to wholly dignified methods of holding the attention of the audience, his natural & effortless voice culture and above all, his laya values created an abiding, reverential admiration which was to last literally upto Mani Iyer's last breath.

If Mani Iyer could play "the song itself" (and quite a few notes too), there is a simple reason for it. He made it a point to learn the songs inside out. Ariyakudi had not cut a disc which Mani Iyer was not thorough with, the next week. It was this habit of experiencing the melodies by singing that enabled him to reflect the mood of the music, be it sedate or spectacular. Reproducing the music on the mridangam is no small venture. Someone with less sangeeta gnanam might have made a hash of it for the main artist, for himself and of course, for the audience.

Once I asked Mani Iyer how Ariyakudi used to keep the beat for 'Ninnuvina Gamari' (Poorvikalyani) - whether it was Viloma Chapu or Chatusra Eka, Misra gati. The startling answer I got was, "I never really noticed. I used to look at his face, not his hand, when I played". It was a measure of his involvement in the music.

There were many occasions when Mani Iyer declined to play the Tani Avartanam, saying "I do not wish to change the great atmosphere you have created". This from the man who, with a few well chosen strokes, could evoke atmosphere at will. The fact is that his perception of the mridangist's role was essentially one of embellishing the music. To his mind, the Tani Avartanam was merely incidental.

Mani Iyer, the man of grunts rather that words, had for many years, kept his views strictly to himself, too polite to discuss his likes and dislikes. But once he was cornered. He was traveling to Trivandrum for the Navaratri Mantapam concerts with a number of leading vocalists (Ariyakudi was not among them). The fellow musicians decided to break down his reticence to satisfy their curiosity. They pressed him to be frank and promised not to take offence. Whereupon he confessed that Ramanuja Iyengar was the musician he admired the most. 

Even though Mani Iyer was a good 22 years his junior, Ariyakudi used to address him with honorifics even in the early days, much against his protests. But Ariyakudi insisted that Mani Iyer was born a Maha Vidwan and age didn't make any difference. The Tani Avartanams which were suffixed by Ariyakudi's rapturous exclamation of "daiveekam" (divine) are legion.

'Amba Nannu Brovave', 'Hetsarigagara', 'Koluvamaregada', 'Kandu Dhanya', 'Nadamadi', 'Dasarathasuta', are only a few of the songs one cannot recall without remembering the glorious fusion of melody and rhythm exemplified by the two stalwarts.

Mani Iyer used to claim that the only person who could have listened to Ramanuja Iyengar more that he (Mani Iyer) had, was Ramanuja Iyengar himself. Too, he acknowledged that his ideas of sense of proportion, sense of responsibility to the audience and disdain for artistic compromises were shaped by the Ariyakudi influence.

The death in 1967 of Ariyakudi was one of the most traumatic experience for Mani Iyer. He want so far as to say, "In his death, what has been lost is not only his great music but also my inspiration for creativity". Mani Iyer's rock-like composure was ruffled by emotion every time he recalled Ariyakudi's 'Entaninne'. It seems Ariyakudi used to call him 'Sabari' as a compliment for his sense of discrimination.

Even in the delirious state on his death-bed just before he passed into history, Mani Iyer was talking about getting ready for an Ariyakudi concert.

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