If you look up the word mridangam or mridanga in the Oxford English Dictionary the master percussionist R. Raghu's name appears in the citations in a New York Times quote from 1968 – "Palghat Raghu on the mridanga and Alla Rakha on the tabla". When it came to popularising Karnatic music's defining double-headed barrel drum outside the subcontinent, Palghat R. Raghu was as significant as Alla Rakha was with the more familiar Hindustani tabla.
Palghat R. Raghu was part of the first wave of post-war Indian musicians to tour abroad. Thanks to the campaigning maestro Yehudi Menuhin, he performed at the Bath Festival and London's Royal Commonwealth Hall in 1960. Over his life he performed with many of the musical giants of the subcontinent's two art or classical music systems, whether the south's older Karnatic or Carnatic or the north's Hindustani tradition. He notably performed with Ravi Shankar at the Royal Festival Hall on the sitarist's "Indian package tour" Festival From India. On the 1968 album of the same name Raghu accompanies him on readings of raga "Vasanta" and "Mishra Gara" – the latter a North-South drum meeting with Alla Rakha.
A child prodigy, he gave his first concert aged 12. At 13 he was accompanying such major artists as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and the Alathur Brothers in concert. On one occasion his headmaster excused him sitting a key exam because he had a major concert that day. Later Raghu winged a BA in Mathematics with next to no preparation and typically had a recital on the eve of his Astronomy exam.
Raghu was born in Rangoon (Yangon) in 1928. At the time residents of Indian origin outnumbered Rangoon's indigenous Bamar (Burmese) and all other ethnic groups combined. His father, R. Ramaswamy Iyer, worked as a colonial government official, although Raghu cited his mother Ananthalakshmi Ammal's shaping musical influence on him. As a boy, he developed a remarkable musical ear and the ability to replicate complicated music heard on the wireless. It led to him taking lessons with the visiting vidwan (maestro) Thinniam Ventkatrama Iyer and it sealed his decision to become a musician. The family left Burma ahead of the Japanese invasion and first settled in Madras (Chennai).
Many a Karnatic musician's name acts like an identity card. In Palghat R. Raghu Iyer's case, following the southern naming convention of a son taking his father's name, the R. stood for Ramaswamy. Iyer is a Hindu caste name. While Chitravina Ravikiran and Mandolin Srinivas illustrate the convention of signalling their instrument, like his contemporary, the vocalist Palghat K.V. Narayanaswamy, Raghu added a place name connected with his guru. In 1940 his family expressly moved to Palghat, the anglicised version of Palakkad in modern-day Kerala, so he could study drumming with the mridangam vidwan Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer (whose niece Swarnambal he wed in 1948). "Becoming his disciple was, for me, a dream come true," he once remarked.
Raghu raised the mridangam's profile to new heights, whether as a musician, a visiting professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut – where he took part in the fabled "curry concerts" – and UC Berkeley or as an inspiration to new generations of musicians including his grandson, the vocalist Abhishek Raghuram.
Palghat R. Raghu Iyer: master percussionist, music teacher and academic: born Rangoon, Burma 9 January 1928; married (two daughters, one son); died Chennai, India 2 June 2009.