Palghat Mani Iyer was arguably the greatest mridanga vidwan known to Carnatic music. He was the first exponent of this percussion instrument to be awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi and the Padma Bhushan.
Mani Iyer became renowned in his lifetime for the innovations he introduced in mridangam playing. For instance, he was the first one to shadow the musical phrasing of the vocalist or instrumentalist he accompanied on the mridangam, now the standard followed by every mridangam exponent. He not only reproduced all the subtleties of the musical composition on his instrument, but also stressed the strategic importance of silences, knowing when not to play as much as when to play. He adopted different approaches for vocal and instrumental music, and the various types and moods of songs as well. The length of his tani avartanam was tailored to the occasion, restrained and rarely a loud display of fireworks.
He was born and grew up Palakkad, Kerala. Displaying an early aptitude for drumming, he first learnt mridangam from Palghat Subba Iyer and Kalpathy Viswanatha Iyer, both local gurus. He later did long gurukula vasam with Tanjavur Vaidanatha Iyer, the doyen of one of the two major mridangam schools of Carnatic music, with Manmundia Pillai leading the other, which produced another great in Palani Subramania Pillai.
Mani Iyer accompanied all the leading artists of his era. His partnership with such legends as Ariyakudi, TR Mahalingam and GN Balasubramaniam was of the stuff of fables. A stickler for ethical conduct, he played a major role in elevating the status of percussionists. Even as a lad, he refused to trade places with kanjira or ghatam players on the concert stage—even if the other percussionists were senior to him—insisting that the mridangam be given due primacy.
He was an opponent of the use of microphones for the mridangam and the violin, and at one stage started refusing concert engagements where mikes were used, only relaxing the rule when he was satisfied that improved technology ensured the prevention of the distortion of the sound of his instrument. Constantly intent on improving the quality of the instrument, he was a passionate and expert mridangam maker.
Mani Iyer was a most sought after, revered guru. Among his many outstanding disciples two—Umayalpuram Sivaraman and the late Palghat Raghu—became Sangita Kalanidhis.