We got to know about Mridangam-maker Fernandes last week. We also saw that an award was instituted in his name and that it was his son Selvam, who received it first. Fernandes’ son was as unique and talented as his father was in making the mridangam.
Recalling his early days, Selvam said:
“My father was indeed a well-known mridangam maker; still I didn’t learn the art from him. I went to school and studied up to ESLC. Father was suffering from acute diabetics by the end of 1950, and he was struggling to carry on with his work. So I had to drop out of school and go to work. I got a job as a punkah-puller (punkah was a manually operated fan, which was prevalent before the advent of electric fans).
Palakkad Mani Iyer and his guru have supported our family a lot. Vaidhyanatha Iyer got us a piece of land for my grandfather Sebastian, whereas Mani Iyer helped to covert our hut into a pucca building. When we were enjoying such strong support from such eminent people, why should I be in such a lowly job, many asked me; but still I somehow didn’t feel like approaching them.
But Mani Iyer himself called me once.
‘Your father is busy with a lot of work, and so he is unable to undertake our jobs. Can you do them?’ he asked me.
‘Yes, I can,’ I replied immediately without hesitation.
‘What kind of skills you have i Mridangam making? Have you worked hand on?’
‘I have only observed my father and his younger brother working, but not done any, myself’, I said.
When the conversation was on, my father happened to come to Mani Iyer’s house.
‘Fernandes, your son is claiming that though he himself has not done any mridangam work, he will still be able to do it merely because he has observed you doing it. What do you think?’ Iyer asked my father.
‘If he says he can do, he will definitely be able to do it’, father replied with immense confidence.
Master (Mani Iyer) felt happy, and told me to proceed to the upper story of his house and start doing whatever I knew.
I set out to work, after praying earnestly to the divine mother of Velankanni, ‘please bless me so that master Mani Iyer doesn’t get any bad name because of my work and that I don’t become more famous than my father’.
But when I entered the room, I got scared since there were as many as 60 mridangams there. Most of those instruments had small pieces of paper attached to them, which contained small notes, wherein master had mentioned as to what work needed to be done in which instrument. Having only these as my guide, I started with my work.
My father used to stand up on merely seeing master. I used to sit next to him and talk to him without any hesitation, and he used to tell me a lot about father’s work.
‘Your father never worked just for the sake of money. When required to travel from place to place for concerts, I often didn’t get time even to come home. On such occasions, he has worked even sitting on railway platforms. If the work couldn’t be finished, I would buy tickets to the next station, and he would continue his work inside the moving train. You need to have such a commitment to work’, he told me once and I took that as a divine command.
I used to remain confined to the mridangam room, and when I felt sleepy, I used to lay down there itself in the midst of the mridangams and sleep. I can say that there is only thing that I learnt from my father. The moment you touch an instrument, your intuition should tell you what work needs to be done in it; which sruti would be appropriate; and how much tension needs to be applied to the var. If one manages to have that insight, then the work will be really good. Master’s notes helped me to develop that sensitivity and insight.
Soon, however, I started doing things in my own way and master saw this. Once when he was talking to father, he told him, ‘just watch, I am going to tell him now to do something in this instrument, and Selvam will quietly listen to it but do only what feels right to him’. Then he called me and entrusted that job to me; and as he expected, I prepared that instrument in my own style. Both were really happy to see that, and I took that as handsome recognition of my work.
Once, master had to play for Alathur Brothers’ concert in Bangalore. For some reason, they could not perform and instead Mali’s performance was arranged at the last moment. Alathurs’ pitch was about 1 kattai, but Mali’s Sruti was 5 Kattai. I altered the mridangam accordingly, in half-a-day. When the concert was over, master called me and said that Mali wanted to see me. When I met Mali he praised me a lot and said that the tone of the mridangam inspired him to play better.
For Mani Iyer, Selvam was practically family. Here’s what his son Rajaram has to say about Selvam.
‘Father (Mani Iyer) and Selvam, both evinced a lot of interest in using instruments like the geometric compass in mridangam-related jobs. Once, Selvam approached my elder brother and asked him for a compass so he could draw a circle and cut the “vettu thattu’ (a portion of the mridangam), but my brother was apparently busy. When he didn’t respond even when Selvam called out to him twice or thrice, Selvam felt offended, and proceeded to cut it with free hands, and we were all surprised to find that it had turned out to be in a perfect circle’.
Though he was an expert in his work, Selvam could be mischievous too.
‘Once, father felt that the tone of a mridangam was not what he wanted. He was telling Selvam to make changes repeatedly. Selvam kept doing what father wanted, but at one stage got tired of it and started off, telling father that he will do exactly what father wanted, the next day. Selvam brought a mridangam the next day, and the sound it produced matched precisely with what father wanted. But when father tried playing in it, he didn’t feel comfortable with it and said to Selvam, ‘there is something wrong in this. I think you have played some mischief, tell me what it is?’
Selvam smiled and replied that he had used leather made from pig skin, and told father that the sound he wanted can be produced only from that material. Selvam was bold and forthright that Fernandes was not.
When Mani Iyer shifted residence from Thanjavur to Chennai, Selvam too followed him there and continued with his profession. However, most unfortunately, he lost his right arm in a road accident in 1995.
Selvam passed way in 2017 February. His sons are keeping the mridangam-making tradition alive even today.