T.R. Mahalingam was fond of the races, he was a recluse, he was a cricket maniac, he loved George Bernard Shaw. He ran away from concerts, he was hypersensitive to being slighted, he had a troubled childhood. We all know this already. We all know that he was “eccentric”, that he was a “tormented genius”. We know about his “thousand arrows” pain. Most profiles of him centre around all this and anecdotes of his antics, and the piece in The Hindu dated 31 December, 2012 (“The eccentric flautist who blew hot and cold”), was no different. Today, his music, sadly, is almost ancillary to his legacy.
He was, in his unexampled style, both chaste and original at once. His shruti was impeccable — an achievement in itself on the flute.
His gamaka-s were beyond perfect, especially when it came to handling traditional raga-s like Bhairavi, Mukhari, Yadukulakambhoji, Ahiri, Begada, Neelambari and Anandabhairavi. He had such an intuitive feel for the core of these raga-s that he could deliberately stay away from trademark phrases without ever losing the flavour of the raga. For instance, there is a Kalyani recording where he plays for almost fifteen minutes without touching the prati madhyamam, and it never feels like anything but Kalyani.
The unhurried pace of his raga alapana-s made them so distinct. He would play two phrases of, say, an Anandabhairavi, and then fall silent for a while, almost as if he were saying, “Think about what I just played. Immerse yourself in the raga.”
Even the silences sang in the same raga — such was the power of his precise phrasing. His meanderings were not the sign of a cluttered mind, they were a result of a mind freed from the rigour of strict structures, they were a result of a highly evolved musical sensibility.
And when he decided to drown the audience in a deluge of brika-s, often towards the end of his alapana-s, the clarity of each note and microtone was jaw-dropping.
His Shankarabharanam was peerless. There are many recordings of him playing this raga on online fora and file-sharing websites. The way he glides in the space between the mandra panchamam and the panchamam, up and down, back and forth, round and round, revealing newer hues of Shankarabharanam in every turn of phrase is breathtaking. No interpretation is like the other, and you can see that he bends boundaries without ever breaking them. His control over laya, like many other child prodigies, was extraordinary.
He loved executing convoluted mathematical patterns — a trend that can be seen amongst his students and their students as well.
He loved the tishra nadai, often switching between chaturashra and tishra nadai-s during swaraprastharam-s. The pinnacle of his mastery of his laya was in maintaining the beauty of a raga even while executing kanakku. While he is known to have a preference for the slower tempo in his later years, there are a number of recordings where he has played kriti-s, especially weighty ones like ‘Elavatara’, ‘O Jagadamba’ and ‘Evari mata’, slightly faster than usual. While playing compositions, he was prone to flights of fancy, noodling around everything familiar, now introducing a rapid flash, now an unusually plain phrase, an odd sangati here, an exaggerated gamaka there. This variety made his music thrilling and ever-fresh.
He changed the way the flute was played for ever. His was a most intricate system of fingering, involving a number of “false” fingering techniques, many precise, small movements to mimic the more minute oscillations, and a lesser reliance on the thu-thu-kaaram (clicks of the tongue) and more on fingering.
His blowing was amongst the cleanest in history, he used heavier flutes, producing a weighty yet sweet tone, most suitable to explore the heavier raga-s. Even a cursory survey of flautists before and after him will reveal how novel his technique was. Mali was not special because he played truant. He was special because his music had no parallel.