This Biography was written so comprehensively by V.Vishnuramprasad sir on his website that we did not see fit to change anything in it. You can read the biography on his site here
Madurai Mani Iyer (Original name: Subramanian) was born to Sri Ramaswamy Iyer and Smt.Subbulakshmi in Madurai on October 25, 1912. His father Sri.M.S.Ramaswami Iyer, a Sub-court Clerk, was the brother of the famous Vidwan Pushpavanam, who, like a meteor flashed across the musical horizon during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Sri M.S.Ramaswami Iyer himself a great connoisseur of Carnatic Music, wanted his only son Mani to follow the legacy of Sri Pushpavanam, who passed away at a very early age of 32 in 1916 with glorious name and fame. Mani's tutelage in music started at the tender age of nine. His first guru was Sri Rajam Bhagavathar (Disciple of Ettayapuram Ramachandra Bhagavathar). Since Sri Rajam Bhagavathar happened to be the neighbour of Ramaswami Iyer the tutelage of Mani was almost like a gurukula vasam. It is to be noted that Shri Pushpavanam also learnt under Ettayapuram Ramachandra Bhagavathar. Simultaneously, Mani was sent to school for primary education. Mani was also sent for Vedic Studies which he pursued for a couple of years.
Rajam Bhagavathar was considered as a specialist in swara singing, which he thoroughly imparted to the young Mani. The Sarali, Janta and Thaatu Varisa Notes (the swara notes taught for students), were peculiar in Rajam Bhagavathar's school, as against the traditional Mayamalavagoula based training (the method of swara exercises based on the raga mayamalavagoula).
Mani was made to practice various permutations and combinations of the swara in many different ragas with basic rhythm. Rajam Bhagavathar chose major ragas like Shankarabharanam, Kalyani, Harikambodi, Pantuvarali for the Sarali varisa exercise, which helped Mani to master the swara sthanams (placement of Notes) and swara prayogas (usage) of each raga. Rajam Bhagavathar emphasized the importance of Raga Bhavam while singing swaras. Mani was simultaneously trained in Akaara Saadhakam (singing all the swara notes in Akaara sound without uttering the Swaras), in each raga that was used for swara exercises. He was then introduced to various apoorva ragas and the same exercise continued for these apoorva ragas as well.
Mani devoted his entire time in practicing in the lines of his guru Rajam Bhagavathar, unmindful of learning compositions. It was this method of training that facilitated young Mani to handle any raga, be it apoorva raga or rakthi raga effortlessly.
Mani Iyer in his Presidential Address at the Music Academy conference stressed the importance of basic tutelage before entering into keerthana singing. "The standard of our music had gone down, it was due to lack of proper training in the early stages. Without the foundations of Sarali, Alankara Gita and Varna, the singing of Kirtanas and ragas got defective. I would stress on students the need to practice Sarali and Janta in four measures of speed, Alankara in three and Gita in two before passing on to Varna. At least fifteen varnas should be learnt in two measures of speed before proceeding to Kirtanas. The teachers should also insist on this strict training if the present day shortcomings were to be rectified".
Mani was then studying his First Form (Secondary School), when Sri Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, the great composer and an authority in Carnatic Music, started a Music School called Thyagaraja Vidyalayam in Madurai. Sri Rajam Bhagavathar was appointed as one of the teachers in the school. This brought our Mani into the Music school as one of its first batch students. Ramaswamy Iyer having seen the keen interest and meticulous practise of the young boy, decided to engage him completely in music and thus Mani's education was stopped at Secondary school level.
Mani continued to learn under Rajam Bhagavathar and Sri Muthiah Bhagavathar. Having noticed Mani's maturity in singing at a very early age, Muthiah Bhagavathar took special care in shaping his voice and impressed on him the importance of Sruthi shudham. Apart from the regular school lessons, Muthiah Bhagavathar used to give special lectures to the students about the various aspects of Carnatic music, the grammar, the application and above all the hidden values of this great art. He used to organize short trips to the nearby temples whenever great stalwarts performed there for the students to listen to their music. He himself gave many concerts and Harikatha kalakshepams (Religious Discourses) during those times.
Mani never missed those wonderful sessions of Muthiah Bhagavathar. Besides learning music, he also learnt the meaning underlying the lyrics of the great compositions that were taught to him by his gurus. Muthiah Bhagavathar, who was an outstanding composer of great repute, taught many of his compositions including Varnams, Thana Varnams, Krithis and Thillanas to Mani.
The greatest influence of Muthiah Bhagavathar's music on Mani was Sruthi shudham. Muthiah Bhagavathar used to sing with 3 to 4 tamburas, perfectly aligned with Sruthi, effortlessly render the ragas and keerthanas with subtle nuances. Even while he paused between his singing to explain the nuances, he used to insist on continuing the tambura Sruthi. Thus the Sruthi sense was emphasized to Mani, who later became the hallmark of Sruthi shudham in Carnatic Music.
Another major influence of Muthiah Bagavathar's music is Laya. Bagavathar was an excellent Mridanga Vidwan and he trained his students in the intricacies of laya, the purpose of which was to give sukham and sowkhyam. Mani rapturously listened to his guru and understood the true value of the sublime music. He learnt all the laya intricacies and also learnt how to use them and where to use them.
Within a short span of training from Thyagaraja Vidyalayam (for about 15 months) Mani got well qualified in all the nuances of music - Ragam, Thanam, Neraval and Swaram. Mani was instructed to listen to the great stalwarts of those days for obtaining and developing creativity in concert music. Ramaswamy Iyer spared no pains in exposing Mani to the high quality music performed by the masters of those days in and around Madurai.
Mani regularly attended the concerts of the great Nadaswaram Vidwan Madurai Ponnuswamy Pillai (another disciple of Ettayapuram Ramachandra Bhagavathar), during the temple festivals. He used to listen to the great nadaswaram stalwarts by walking behind the performing vidwans, during late night processions of the deities during festivals.
He also listened to the Veena concerts of the famous Karaikudi brothers, understood the greatness of the instrument and also realized that a singer should follow the path of the Veena padhathi (style) of singing to attain perfection in ghamakas.
Subbarama Bhagavathar, was a landlord and did not take up music as a profession like some of his contemporaries. He had a slow-paced husky voice. Subbarama Bhagavathar's music was much appreciated by both the critics and the rasikas. He sang mostly in all the temple festivals in and around Madurai. He also sang at the King's court at Ramanathapuram but declined the offer of the king to be his court musician. He lived a simple life and his music was simple and elevating.
Mani was totally absorbed by the music of Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavathar, who used to perform regularly during festivals and the auspicious days at various places in Madurai. Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavathar was an expert in apoorva ragas and was very popular for his flawless and effortless rendition of the ragas like Malavi, Janaranjani, Rudrapriya and Manirangu. Subbarama Bhagavathar could sing swaras for all these ragas for hours together without boring and repetition. Besides this, Subbarama Bhagavathar never indulged in swara calculations which would spoil the mood of the song and the raga. The unique swaraprasthara method, which was familiarized to Mani by Rajam Bhagavathar continued to dominate the music of Subbarama Bhagavathar. Mani, who got highly influenced by this sarvalagu (unique swara patterns for all thalas) style, chose to follow the method, improvised with his manodharma (creativity) and was all set to become the unconquered master in singing kalpana swaras.
Nagaswamy Bhagavathar belonged to the Thyagaraja swamy sishya parampara (disciple of Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavathar) and was an authority in Thyagaraja Krithis. Once Mani Iyer, in his radio interview, said that Sri Nagaswamy Bhagavathar would not sing the same Krithis that he sang in his previous concerts. Such was his repertoire. Mani was able to get familiarized with most of the Thyagaraja Krithis from the concerts of Nagaswamy Bhagavathar. This helped him to learn many Krithis even while listening to the concerts. He later sang those Krithis in the presence of his father and Rajam Bhagavathar to get them embellished.
Muthiah Bhagavathar had great respect to the compositions of Muthuswamy Dikshithar. He would suggest his students to only learn them after some years of experience in singing, as he felt that only then a student can do full justice to Dikshithars Krithis. In his early days, Mani Iyer did not sing many Dikshithar Krithis, he learnt them only after a few years of concert experience as per his gurus advice.
Apart from the above vidwans, Mani Iyer heard the concerts of many top ranking vidwans of those days. He was a great fan of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and remined as a Maharajapuram fanatic till his last day. He had a group of friends who also were Viswanatha Iyer fans. They would all go together to listen to Viswanatha Iyer. Mani was so deeply inspired by Viswanatha Iyers music that he never allowed anyone to criticize it. One could find the influence of Viswanatha Iyer on Mani Iyer's rendition of Mohanam, Shudha Saveri and Durbar.
Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who was another doyen, the ideal for all the younger musicians, had a great impact on Mani Iyer. Like all his contemporaries, Mani Iyer hailed the concert pattern set by Sri Ariyakudi and followed the style meticulously. Infact, Ramaswamy Iyer wanted to send Mani to Ariyakudi for tutelage, but due to certain turn of events, it did not happen.
The other great musicians whom Mani Iyer never missed to listen are Veena Dhanammal (the Friday sessions at her residence), Kancheepuram Naina Pillai, Thiruvaduthurai Rajaratnam pillai (who in turn was a great admirer of Mani Iyer's music), Mridangam Dakshinamoorthy pillai and the list does not end there.
Mani Iyer developed a strong base by listening to all these stalwarts, enriched himself with the various aspects of music to evolve a great style of his own.
Ramaswamy Iyer had many music-loving friends and most of them respected and hailed him for his knowledge. Moreover he was the elder brother and supposed to be one of the gurus of the great Pushpavanam. He had many friends in the nearby towns of Madurai. Mani used to accompany his father to meet his father's friends. On every such occasion they used to ask Mani to sing at their house and gave their words of encouragement. On one such visit to Sivagangai and Alavakottai (a temple shrine), in 1924, Ramaswamy Iyer's friends gave a pleasant surprise to both the father and the son by informing them of the proposed arangetram of Mani at the dias of Alavakottai temple on the auspicious day of the Kumbabhishekam.
In Mani's first concert, Nattam Sitarama Iyer accompanied on the violin and Thiruvaroor Rajagopala Iyer played on the Mridangam. Mani had not even completed the age of 12 when he sang his first concert. His Sruthi was 5 ½ kattai (a high pitch like that of S.G.Kittappa). The concert was well attended and went on for nearly two hours. The rasikas were delighted to watch the young boy singing with confidence and maturity, inspite of the tender age. Soon, Mani shot into fame as the emerging torchbearer of the Pushpavanam tradition. Mani, recalling the initial days of his career, admitted that he got many good opportunities to perform as he was hailed as the prodigical nephew of Pushpavanam, and the fans and followers of Pushpavanam at Madurai motivated the young Mani. Years later, in a Radio Interview, he admitted that he had greater responsibility to perform well rather than striving for concert opportunities as opposed to other youngsters of those days who had to strive hard to get a single chance to perform.
Mani was invited to perform in most of the temples in and around Madurai. On one such occasion, Mani had the golden opportunity to perform in the presence of the great saint and seer of Kanchi, Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathy Swamigal in 1925 at the Devakottai temple festival, while the Acharya was on tour to all the south Indian temples on his way to Rameshwaram. Having got the blessings of the Acharya, Mani Iyer never looked back in his career. He became an ardent devotee of the Acharya since his childhood and performed before the Guru at various places from time to time.
Mani Iyer, came to Madras in 1927 and gave a concert under the auspices of the Music Academy on its first conference at the Congress grounds. His father gave a lecture about the 72 Melakartha ragas and Mani Iyer also sang in assistance to the demonstration. Ramaswamy Iyer was awarded a medal for the lecture and Mani Iyer too was given a medal for his concert.
On this occasion he came to the notice of the leading music critics who hailed him as a new star. Success came to him very quickly and he became a leading musician.
From 1927, Mani Iyer sang at the Academy on all the annual conferences till 1967 without break!
Madurai Pushpavanam with baby Madurai Mani
Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar
The Majestic Maestro
Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer
Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar
Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai