The eccentric flautist who blew hot and cold

T.R. Mahalingam, for all his genius, is believed to have lived a tormented life. "I have a thousand arrows shooting in my head," Mali would say.  

Renowned flautist T.R. Mahalingam alias Mali had once wanted a member of the audience at the Music Academy removed from the hall before the concert could begin.

The member is said to have put up a stiff resistance, but Mali stuck to his guns and refused to perform unless he had his way. Thereafter, the audience prevailed upon the person to leave; that person was none other than Mali’s father Ramaswami Iyer.

On another occasion, Natarajan, the late secretary of the Music Academy barged into the lodge where Mali was staying and demanded to know why he had even agreed to perform initially if he was cancelling the concert at the eleventh hour.

“How can I cancel a programme without first agreeing to perform,” quipped Mali.

Mali comes across to his audiences in many ways — weird, mercurial, erratic and humorous.

According to historian V. Sriram, the darker side of the child-prodigy and genius could be attributed to an over-ambitious father, who deprived him of his childhood and converted him into a “meal ticket” for the family of 13 members. He could not study beyond the second standard.

Of a weak disposition, Mali was considered unfit to play the wind instrument, which demands great stamina, and, despite showing early signs of genius, he was scorned by doyens such as Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and T.L. Sabesa Iyer, who advised him to learn the nagaswaram.

“In fact, there was very little humour in his life… he was a tortured genius,” Sriram said in his lecture at the TAG centre.

Mali’s family shifted to Chennai when he was seven and he was introduced to the people of the city as a larger-than-life exponent. Of course, he lived up to the titles, before floundering.

At a concert in Chennai, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Parur Sundaram Iyer left after listening to him for some time and returned with a shawl for him.

Sriram said Mali lived a tormented life, what with a thwarted love and the death of his sister, from whom he learnt a lot. “I have a thousand arrows shooting in my head,” was how he would describe his condition.

Mali lived in many places in Chennai and even after his stint in the U.S., he returned to India and spent his last days here.

He was a cricket fanatic and even had his own team, “Mali Eleven”, among residents of Nungambakkam. A fast bowler to begin with, he later become the team’s opening batsman.

While he had problems with big organisations such as the Music Academy and R.R. Sabha, he maintained a great rapport with small organisations in Ayanavaram and Perambur. There was a great understanding between him and Yagnaraman of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, where he gave his last concert.

“He would go to these sabha-s and offer to play. He was so punctual that Visalakshi Ammal, who organsied the Kasi Viswanatha Swami temple festival in Ayanavaram, could not believe that Mali would cancel performances elsewhere,” Sriram said.

Despite all his eccentricities, Mali was careful when it came to money.

“He was not a spendthrift and was able to buy an estate of 20 acres near Bangalore and shifted there when the Rajaji-led government imposed Prohibition.” If music was his profession, horse-racing was his passion. “If the horse he bet on lost, he would console himself by saying the kala pramana of the horse was not perfect.”

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 4:40:41 AM |

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