Breath of the Almighty

MUSICAL MAVERICK: T.R. Mahalingam seemed to pluck notes from an impregnable abyss.

MUSICAL MAVERICK: T.R. Mahalingam seemed to pluck notes from an impregnable abyss.  


Had the flute wizard T.R. Mahalingam been alive, he would have turned 80 on November 5.

It's Ramanavami time in the early 1970s. The Fort High School ground, Bangalore, is packed with expectant fans. The adjacent Makkala Koota is filling up too, but the enfant terrible of Carnatic music has not arrived. Calls to his residence go unanswered. My father, a close friend and fan is as usual bundled into a car to try and cajole the man. I tag along. Mali smiles at me, scowls at my father. "I have severe stomach ache and cannot play today," he says firmly, aware of my father's convincing powers. He lies on his bed, looks at me and says: "These people will not understand," as if I, a mere kid, was the only one who would empathise.A lesser artiste would have been lynched, but you could expect the same crowd when the next concert was announced. Mali playing truant was not new. He did not get vicarious pleasure nor was he afraid of satisfying his fans of whom he became blissfully oblivious when he closed his eyes and put mouth to flute. His fear stemmed more from not being able to meet the stringent standards he set for himself. A concert was not another day at the office. It was his way of paying obeisance to the Almighty. He seemed to pluck notes from an impregnable abyss; sewing them seamlessly into dazzling swaras with a tone so rich it moved people to tears.

Pangs of pain

When he performed, Mali suffered pangs of pain close to procreation. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, while listening to a young Mali play remarked to a senior vidwan, " I think we have to look for an alternative profession," to which the vidwan remarked, "I'm educated. What will you do?"Genius is a personal perception. To me it's a lightning briga from Mali or his plunging into the "mandhara sthayi," meandering around and mesmerising you with notes dipped in divinity. To traverse the scales that Mali did with his tiny flute other flautists need a bag full of them in various sizes! My uncle, who was with HAL, bumped into Mali in the foyer of a Calcutta hotel as he was leaving to perform. He reluctantly refused an invitation to the concert because he was travel weary. Late at night my uncle sought the source of mellifluous music that wafted by. The door to a room was ajar and there was Mali, sitting on the cot playing to a sole waiter sitting on the floor. "The concert was okay but this man requested a raga and I didn't want to disappoint him," said Mali to my incredulous uncle.To many Mali was a musical messiah, a maverick, a mystic and a melancholic. To me he was the indulgent uncle with loose purse strings. We played cricket in his vast compound and not once was I a victim of his tantrums or moods. He was short, dark with resplendent eyes and unkempt hair, which he flicked back with crooked fingers. He had an impish sense of humour and when he laughed his shoulders shrugged continuously. He was a school dropout but had a way with words and excellent handwriting. He borrowed books written by George Bernard Shaw, from me. Authoritative sources say he was a mathematical wonder and that explains his expertise in laya. He was a simple man, mostly misunderstood. Left to himself he would have liked people to listen when he played rather than performing when they wanted him to. He confessed that he played only when his bank balance was zilch. His intolerance for incompetent accompanists was mistaken for arrogance. He was a pied piper. There were scores of people like my father who followed him wherever he played. His fans were from various walks of life, from Maharajas to Ministers, actors like N.S.Krishnan and Nagesh, R.K.Narayan and R.K.Laxman, and G.R.Visvanath, who promised Mali every comfort if he settled down in Bangalore again.Was he a genius as a flautist or as a musician? L. Subramaniam was more than eager to talk about Mali. "Nobody else can produce that kind of tone, depth and power with that tiny flute. God knows how he did it. He had a cracked flute when he performed in Los Angeles. He swathed it in scotch tape and believe me there was no vibration at all. He was definitely a genius as a musician. I don't think there will be another musician like him at least in my lifetime." Umayalpuram Sivaraman recently referred to Mali as an Avathara Purusha.

Servile flute

No musical instrument was as servile to man as the flute was to Mali but strangely he considered himself a better violinist. My father recalled how Mali picked up a battered violin lying in N. Ramani's room and produced the most haunting of music. He would have been 80 years old on November 5. I miss the man and the charged atmosphere at his concerts. I kick myself for skipping a tryst for a lengthy interview he had promised. It's vivid how he dragged me from my father's earshot and assured me any help when I first started writing. "He need not know," he said with a twinkle in his eyes. What remains is my collection of his incomparable music, a legacy I love to share, be it his unique take on Begada or his haunting version of "Sukhi Evvaro." It is like the breath of the Almighty, piercing the air.

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