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Madurai Mani Iyer

Madurai Mani Iyer as a person

As divine as Madurai Mani Iyer’s Music was, His personality was equally divine. His concert dress, a Khadi White Shirt and white Dhoti, perhaps paints the best picture of him. It was utterly simplistic, totally devoid of any extravagance like Silk clothing or gold ornamentals which were so common among performers during his time.

Mani Iyer was hailed as a gentleman among musicians by his contemporaries and senior musicians. He generally kept to himself and did not speak when it was not necessary, was soft-spoken whenever he did. He never spoke ill about anyone and always appreciated the great qualities possessed by others, even though they might possess some undesirable qualities as well.

He gave paramount importance to his fans. For him, the fans were the king and he could not even dream of disappointing them. People would often request him to render some specific songs, especially at the end of his concerts and he always obliged. Even in his last concert, he rendered Nagumomu without hesitation at the request of a rasika, inspite of him being very ill. Often times, at the start of his concerts he would get numerous requests to sing certain songs by way of handwritten notes, and he sang those specific songs to make his fans happy. He felt that he should not disappoint the people who came to his concerts. Such was his dedication towards his fans.

His fans in return showered their admiration on him by thronging his concerts in large numbers. He was so beloved by rasikas that Sri K.V.Narayanaswami once said “Sri. Madurai Mani Iyer is my manasiga guru. No one has had the affection of Rasikas like him”.

Mani Iyer was remarkably humble and had no semblance of ego whatsoever. Once, he wanted his great friend Chitti. S. Sundararajan to read the presidential address on his behalf at the Music academy when he was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi. The Academy however, turned down this request by saying that ‘Chitti’ was not an artiste. Mani Iyer was incredibly disappointed, but was pacified by ‘Chitti’ and his friends to anyway accept the award. His nephew T.V. Sankaranarayanan read the presidential address that day. The Following year, ‘Chitti’ and his friends from ‘Manikkodi’ group decided to honor Mani Iyer and confer on him the title ‘Nadalola’. Mani Iyer, speaking on the occasion said “I would like to say something at this juncture. I apologize for the inconvenience caused to Chitti at the Academy Last year”. Stunning humility for an artiste of his caliber!! Mani Iyer would later make it up to Chitti by making him read his speech at the Tamizh Isai Sangam in 1963, When he was awarded the ‘Isai Perarignar’ title.

Mani Iyer would not ask about remuneration before the concert, nor did he bargain over it after the concert. He would just ask for the place and time before agreeing to the concert and would gladly accept whatever sum was given to him at the end. He often took it upon himself to arrange the accompanists from the same locality as the concert to reduce the burden on the organizers. He performed a large number of free concerts, including temple concerts. In fact, he probably performed the most number of temple concerts of any musicians during his time, in which he would refuse to accept anything other than the prasadham. There were instances where he would perform at a wedding, not accept any money and instead bless the newlywed by shelling out money from his pocket. Not only weddings, but many auspicious occasions were witness to such magnanimity from him.

He was a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles and approach to life. When Gandhi was assassinated, he could not bring himself to sing and cancelled all his concerts for a month. He requested his friend ‘Chitti’ Sundararajan to compose a song in honor of the mahatma. Thus, the pallavi Mahatma mani mozhi vazhi nadappom and the song mani mozhi, which he has rendered in many of his concerts, were born. Mani iyer remained a Gandhian throughout his life.

Mani Iyer was also open to ideas and suggestions from others. He never let his pride interfere in adopting good ideas and practices from elsewhere. In his early years, he used to sing a lot of rare ragas and rarely spent time elaborating the main ragas. Not many people attended his early concerts for this reason. At one time, the number of people attending his conncerts had dwindled to single digits. A senior Violin vidwan then advised the young Mani Iyer to take up main ragas for elaboration so that more people would come to listen. Mani Iyer realized that the suggestion was valid and reformed his concert practices to allow much more time for the main Ragas. His concerts never lacked in audience again.

He was unfazed if his accompanist overshadowed him in terms of performance and raked in the applause. Rather, he would complement them and enjoy their performance. He would constantly encourage the accompanists by expressing his admiration whenever they played any phrase extraordinarily well. These constant bouts of encouragement often pushed them to give their best during the concert. For him, concerts were not a competition to see who performed the best. The success of the concert ultimately mattered the most to him. Mani Iyer also made sure that his concert accompanists were compensated adequately. He would often give a part of his remuneration to all his accompanists to ensure the same.

Mani Iyer and his contemporaries

Mani Iyer maintained a cordial relationship with all his contemporaries and treated them with respect. He used to listen to the radio concerts of all the musicians-seniors, contemporaries and juniors. He used to only highlight the strengths of the musicians amongst his friends and never exposed the weaknesses of other's music though he might be well aware of them. After listening to each concert he used to analyze all the aspects of the musician and stress about what makes the musician's music appealing. He also used to attend concerts of his contemporaries regularly.

He had good friendships with fellow musicians like Sri.G.N. Balasubramaniyam, Nagaswara Chakravarthi T.N.Rajaratnam Pillai, Palani Subramaniya Pillai and Musiri Subrmaniya Iyer. Mani Iyer used to meet Shri GNB and Shri TNR and the three of them would spend lots of time together at Nageswara Park (Mylapore) discussing about music.

He also had great admiration for his senior musicians like Sri. Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai and T.L.Venkatarama Iyer. This admiration and respect that he showed his contemporaries, coupled with his courteous nature led violinist Sri. Chowdiah to call him “Ajatashathru” (He who has no enemies).

The respect, needless to say went both ways. All his contemporaries held his music in very high regard and was very fond of him as a person. Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer liked Mani Iyer a lot and used to encourage him to follow his unique style.He used to remind Mani Iyer about the importance of learning more compositions. Sri.Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar held him in very high esteem. When he spoke at the music academy conference in 1959 (on the occasion of Mani Iyer receiving Sangeetha kalanidhi), He appreciated Mani Iyer for his knowledge and humility. He said that Mani Iyer was a great "gnanasthar" and should have been awarded the "Sangeetha Kalanidhi" much earlier. On another occasion when asked to comment on Mani Iyer’s music, He remarked that “Mani Iyer’s music was indeed a Mani (gem)”.

Shri Musiri Subramaniya Iyer was also a good friend of Mani Iyer. Once at the end of a Mani Iyer concert, Shri Musiri fecilitated whole-heartedly "frankly speaking we all sing for others but Mani sings for himself. I can say that nobody else has got such a sruthi gnanam as Mani. His music conveys his greatness in personal character!" said the great Vidwan.

Sri T.R.Mahalingam, the renowned flutist would often point to Mani Iyer’s music when he was asked for advice on good music. In an interview to the Hindu soon after the demise of Mani Iyer, he said "Shri Mani Iyer was one great soul among the musicians, his music never failed to impress both Pamarars (less learned) and Pandithars (the learned)". Sri D.K.Pattamal, similarly in an interview advised the youngsters to follow Mani Iyer’s music.

G.N.B apparently refused his Sangeetha Kalanidhi award initially, since he deemed it unfit to receive such an award before Mani Iyer, who was his senior in terms of performing years. He later accepted the award only after Mani Iyer pacified him and the academy promised to honor Mani Iyer the following year. Semmangudi used to jokingly call Mani Iyer as “Communist” since communist speeches during those times attracted a large crowd, implying that Mani Iyer’s concerts always had a huge turnout. He also paid rich tributes to Mani Iyer at a rememberance function held at Krishna Gana Sabha during 1996. He said "Mani Iyer pushpavanathoda annaa pillai, avar kuralum pushpam maadhiriye irukkum. Avarum pushpam maadhiriye iruppaar".

Sri M.D. Ramanathan was also a great fan of Mani Iyer and often attended his concerts. When asked about opinion on Mani Iyer’s music, he would usually say that he was incapable of describing such a great music. Once, he refused to write about Mani Iyer’s music in illustrated weekly of india, saying that his music was beyond analysis.

His beliefs, views and opinions

Mani Iyer had some firm beliefs both in terms of music and otherwise. He advocated the minimal use of Gamakas and Sangathis while singing Kritis, since he believed that simplicity will have a better impact on the audience. Adherence to Sruthi was something that cannot be compromised with for him. He believed that one should always sing with raga consciousness so that each and every sangathi becomes an expression of the particular raga in its original form.

For him, elaboration of a raga must be done within the frame and bhava of the raga and should not be overdone as it will lead to confusion. He believed that expanding ragas like Saveri, Mukhari, Anandabhairavi, Atana, Sahana, Ranjani, Sama, Harikambhoji, kamas etc too much will create friction with closely related ragas and their bhavam will be lost. Therefore, he was very particular that only those ragas that offer ample scope for expansion should be expanded.

He was of the opinion that the singers should know at least the general meaning of the song they were going to sing in whatever language in order to convey the meaning of the song effectively.in Niraval phase, he emphasized that the words chosen for Niraval must have good and complete meaning.

He was a strong believer in the power of Navagrahas (the nine planets) and in his mid-career began to sing these Navagraha Kritis regularly in his concerts. This is the reason why he did not sing the Kriti Grahabalamemi as it went against his faith in Grahas. Similarly, He did not sing the Kriti Nidhi Chala Sukhama because the song talks about the futility of possession of wealth, and he was of the view that it would be hypocritical to sing the Krithi when he was accepting money for his concerts! “How can I sing that song when I am accepting money for my performances?” Mani Iyer would ask.

Mani Iyer was happy with the concert pattern that was established by Ariyakudi at that time and has openly expressed his admiration of the format during an interview. Though he followed the Sarvalaghu style of singing swaras, He was not against the Arithmetic (Kanakku) style of swaras. His view was that as long as the Arithmatic style does not lose sight of sukha bhavam and raga bhavam, he would be happy to listen to it. Shows his open mindedness!

He usually did not plan what he was going to sing in concerts, so whatever he sang was more often than not a spontaneous choice. He felt that any rigidity that comes with excessive planning will spoil the mood of the concert and make it a rigorous mechanical exercise for both the performer and the audience. Many times, he would say that he was going to sing a particular Raga while arriving for a concert but would end up singing something else during the concert.

He had absolutely no reservations about letting people record his concerts. In fact, he was happy that more people would be able to listen to him this way. Once, someone asked him permission to record his concert, and he replied “you’re the only person asking me permission to record my concert” and predicted there would be about 20 tape recorders on the dais. He was right of course!

Mani Iyer also had a very liberal view on the fan following commanded by himself and his contemporaries. There is a recording available where he expresses his views on this topic. He says “What is wrong with being a fan of a person if you like his/her music?”. However, he adds that fans of any particular artiste should not look down upon others for following a different artiste. Again shows his broad-mindedness!

His other likes and interests

Madurai Mani Iyer loved his mother immensely. During his Mayavaram days, he would step out of his house to go to a concert, and once all the instruments were loaded in the car, he would again go back inside the house to seek his mother’s blessing. He remained a bachelor all his life.

Mani Iyer was fond of cricket. He would listen to radio commentary during matches and often update others enthusiastically on the score and other significant events as the game progressed.

He loved nothing more than a good filter coffee, which he consumed multiple times a day. He used to enjoy the traditional Tamil food comprising of Vathal Kuzhambu, Sutta Appalam and Paruppu thogayal.

He loved nothing more than a good filter coffee, which he consumed multiple times a day. He used to enjoy the traditional Tamil food comprising of Vathal Kuzhambu, Sutta Appalam and Paruppu thogayal.

He had a great interest in the English language. Though a school dropout, he was able to master the language. He would walk all the way from his house in Mylapore to the Connemara Library to pick up and read English books. He was a great fan of Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin.

Perhaps the only object of extravagance in his otherwise totally simple life was a Rolex wristwatch, which he coveted. Since his eyesight was not up to the mark, he would often bring the watch close to his eyes in order to deduce the time.

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