Remembering - Vidwan Karaikudi Mani
Guru Karaikudi Mani: Some Personal Reminiscences.
On that fateful day of 4 May 2023, the curtain fell irrevocably on the much sought after percussion wizadry of mridangam maestro Karaikudi R. Mani, to the utter sense of loss felt by musicians and music rasikas.
My first interaction with him was in the late sixties, when a music enthusiast in my wife's side of the family had arranged an informal concert by vidwan P.S.Narayanaswamy in my father-in-law's place in Chennai, with Karaikudi Mani's accompaniment on mridangam. I was stunned by the brilliance of the stroke play by such a young mridangist. Not only did his accompaniment to the music of the vocalist go perfectly with the flow of the music, but his tani avartanam was a class by itself.
My next occasion to interact with him was when we were in London and our son Kumar was keen to learn mridangam 'only from Karaikudi Mani Sir'. As required by Mani, Kumar sent him a sample of his mridangam play and a response was received, saying that Kumar could learn initially from Ramesh, Mani’s prime disciple. This phase later led to direct tutelage under Karaikudi Mani and thus was established a long-standing guru-sishya relationship, leading to Kumar starting a Sruti Laya Kendra in New Jersey, USA, with a mridangam school spreading Karaikudi Mani’s style of play.
A proposal was mooted in 1991 by some of the music lovers to bring over eminent artists from India for the benefit of the Carnatic student community in London. It was necessary then for any visiting artist to have a work permit issued by the UK Government for performance or teaching. A move spearheaded by a few percussion enthusiasts to bring a top class percussion ensemble from India initially failed, primarily because the authorities felt that these instruments were already being played in the UK and there was no need to get such a group! My help was sought in this context and I could use my diplomatic position in the Commonwealth Secretariat to intercede through the foreign office, explaining that the percussion style perfected by Karaikudi Mani was unique and would be welcomed by the local music community and further, this would boost the UK-India cultural relations. The work permits were then issued to five artists, Karaikudi R. Mani (mridangam), T.V. Vasan (ghatam), G.R. Harishankar (khanjira), Srirangam S. Kannan (morsing) and C.N.Chandrashekar (violin), all music maestros in their own time.
The Carnatic orchestral concert that took place on the 4 December,1991 was a historic cultural event in itself. It had been preceded by a meeting at our residence the previous day to discuss the logistics, with the lead artist Karaikudi Mani present. That was the first visit of such an orchestral group to the UK and the programme was held at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall. It drew a hall-full audience of 700, that had braved long London distances in the biting cold of a December weekday evening, a rare phenomenon for the metropolis. This was possible because of a few ardent music lovers, who, at short notice, managed this feat, which would have done credit to any long established organisation. The highlight of the evening was the ragam-tanam-pallavi in raga Todi, which brought out the fullest possibilities of rhythmic permutations and combinations in tala Adi. The main impact of the concert was that it paved the way for the establishment of the Sruti Laya Seva (UK) Trust, later renamed Sruti Laya Kendra, that is flourishing even today.
During our stay in London and later in India, my contacts with Mani grew. He always welcomed us to his concerts with complimentary admissions, his percussion support and tani avartanas being as scintillating as ever. He was a soft-spoken, kind-hearted man, who encouraged his students, giving off his best to them. His music appreciation did not rest with his students. In a concert of mine arranged by the Chennai Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, he made a surprise appearance and after the concert, came up from the first row to the dais and complimented me on my performance, which indeed gave a boost to my further pursuit of music. The last I saw him was at his place on 4 January, 2023, exactly three months before his passing away, when we discussed the current music scenario. It was only when I received a voice message from him about mid March about his visits from one doctor to another, that I knew something was amiss with his health.
He was a true genius in his percussive art and an epitome of what Thomas Alva Edison said, that ' genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration'. He converted his brilliant ideas into hard work, mesmerising audiences. He was great in his own chosen field, fully reflecting poet H.W. Longfellow's statement:
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time.”
He was indeed an embodiment of Lord Krishna's saying: Yogah karmasu kousalam- yoga is skill in action. His life's yoga was skill in mridangam, which he honed to perfection.