An indispensable part of temple arts forms of Kerala such as Kudiyattam, Koothu and Nangiar koothu, Mizhavu has the grandeur in appearance that no other percussion instrument can boast of. Mizhavu and Koodiyattam are inseparable, yet Mizhavu has its own sphere of musical ecstasy when played in a group. Indeed a rare percussion symphony, the reverberating beat of the Mizhavu is bound to redefine the way you appreciate the subtlety of rhythm.
One of the talented exponents of the instrument Mizhavu is Kalamandalam Iswaran Unni. He learned Mizhavu under Mr. P.K. Narayanan Nambiar, a master percussionist who is a dean in the clan of ‘Mizhavu’ players and an authority on the intricacies of Mizhavu playing. The deft fingers of the genius on the Mizhavu had enthralled many a Koodiyattam performance.
Iswaran Unni's rendezvous with Koodiyattom was quite incidental. Even as a child, he was drawn towards percussion. So it was but natural that his parents wished him to get trained on the 'chenda'.
During the screening test for admission to Kalamandalam, a center for Performing Arts and Culture in Trichur, Kerala, Narayanan Nambiar persuaded Unni's parents to admit him to the Department of Koodiyattom for learning the mizhavu. But his parents were puzzled because they belonged to the Warrier community. For, Koodiyattom and mizhavu had been the exclusive preserve of the Chakiyar and Nambiar communities.
A living monument of the secular outlook of the institution, Iswaran Unni is also the first non-Nambiar student to get a scholarship for his studies and also the first non-Nambiar teacher of the mizhavu. He is presently the head of the mizhavu department at Kalamandalam,
Equipped with an amazing gift of the gab, Iswaran Unni has become a much sought-after Koothu exponent in recent times. He had under taken a deep study of a number of Sanskrit prabhandhas under Unnikrishnan Elayath. Well-versed in all the percussion instruments of Kerala, including the timila, he was associated with his guru Narayanan Nambiar in designing 'mizhavil thayambaka'.
In 1989, he was invited by Farely Richmond to the Stonybrook University, New York, where he had trained 36 graduates and undergraduates for seven months. Today, `Jatayuvadham,' `Soorpanakhangam' and `Balivadham' are part of the syllabus of the theatre department of the university, he says.
Kalamandalam Iswaran Unni was selected for the title of ‘Paanivaadaratnam,' instituted by the Paimkulam Rama Chakiyar Smaraka Kalapeedhom in the year 2005.