In 20th century, Carnatic instrumental music has certain landmarks to assess its growth. In Nagaswaram it was Rajarathnam Pillai, in Veena it was S Balachander and later in Mandolin, it was U Shrinivas.
The one name that stands out when you mention flute is Mali. Flute music changed forever after the genius of Mali dominated the scene for several decades before his untimely demise. This weekend, Mali would have turned ninety years old.
T R Mahalingam was born on 6th November 1926 to Ramaswamy Iyer and Brihadambal in Thiruvidaimardur. The local deity of that village was Shiva in the form of Mahalingaswamy and thatâ€™s how the child got his name.
Mali was one among six children. The family later settled in Trichy. Mali and his siblings began taking classes in Carnatic music from a very young age from a friend of the family a certain Gopala Iyer. Gopala Iyer was fluent in vocal music, playing the flute and harmonium. His brother Gautam was learning the flute and a sister Devaki was training in vocal music. Mali was a frail boy with bad health and was sent to learn vocal music.
He got attracted to the flute and began practicing it by himself secretly. However Maliâ€™s father disapproved of this because he was worried over the boyâ€™s health.
Maliâ€™s secret practice continued and he once played the complicated Viriboni Varnam in Ragam Bhairavi in three speeds and surprised everyone. The teacher said he would make for a better flautist and the father finally agreed, albeit very reluctantly.
Listen to a later recording of the same Varnam here:
Mali might have taken lessons from a Guru in flute but he was largely a self-taught man.
He had the power to grasp and reproduce any music through his flute if he heard it once. It was this quality in him that kept everyone wonder struck. Mali soon became a child prodigy to reckon with.
The father, who was by now convinced about his sonâ€™s talent decided he should take the boy to seek blessings of veterans. The only great name of flute in that era as that of Palladam Sanjeeva Rao. Maliâ€™s father organized a little concert to show Rao his sonâ€™s talent. After the first piece in the concert, Rao stormed out of the place without any rhyme or reason.
It was only later they got to know that Rao was extremely jealous that this little boy could do with his flute what he himself couldnâ€™t in terms of music. For a little Mali to make such a giant of a stalwart musician feel jealous was one of the first sign of success. This kind of situation was to happen several times later in his life.
Maliâ€™s schooling education stopped when he finished seventh grade. His father decided the boy would henceforth do only music.
Mali was taken around several towns and presented at various music festivals. He became a bread-earner for his family. At one point Mali was the only earning member supporting the whole family!
Maliâ€™s father even took him to Vizainagaram in Andhra where the famous college of music was a place to reckon with for many students of Carnatic music. It was headed by the legendary violinist Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. Dwaram didnâ€™t admit Mali into the college as he was underage. However he encouraged the kid to continue music and even accompanied him in several local concerts by playing the Khanjira!
Mali finally debuted in Madras, the grand capital of Carnatic music in 1933! His concert was held at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore.
Mali in a concert accompanied by Palghat Mani Iyer on Mridangam and TN Krishna on violin
The world of Carnatic music was crammed with great stalwarts of that era. Great legendary vocalists like Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers and many more. Among the instrumentalists were greats like Rajarathnam Pillai, Violin Chowdiah, Palghat Mani Iyer and so on. Maliâ€™s early performances began attracting all their attention.
Many of them predicted this little kid was one day going to rule the world with his flute.
Mali was encouraged by many of these stalwarts who generously promoted him. Many of them volunteered to accompany him in his concerts. One of the foremost Mridangam artistes of the era Palghat Mani Iyer became a long time friend and accompanying artiste for Mali.
For the first time in 1939 Mali began to display his eccentricity. This was to only increase in the years to come. He would cancel very important concerts or not show up the last minute. His habit of drinking would go out of control.
From an early age Mali would also complain of regular headaches. In a later interview he claimed that in his sixteenth year he had a strange experience. He said an overpowering light entered his head and that was followed by an excruciating headache. Whatever one might make of these claims, no one boiled down to what his exact health problem was. It only seemed to make him more eccentric.
One can go on listing out a whole set of long stories and anecdotes around this.
Maliâ€™s health began to deteriorate early. Several students who were learning from him took care of him. However in a true Mali style he declared that these students had learnt everything from him except the flute!
He married one of his American students Ellen Chadwick in 1980 and shifted to America. After living there for five years he decided to return to India and moved to Bangalore. The end came the following year in May 1986 when he was struck by a cerebral hemorrhage.
Mali was only fifty-six years old! The Carnatic world lost its greatest genius flautist. He was a legend who blossomed early, achieved what he had to early and left the world early.
On November 6th, Mali would have turned 90 if he were alive. He was a legend in his lifetime and continues to be one even three decades after his death! For as long as connoisseurs love the Carnatic flute, the name of T R Mahalingam aka Mali will remain immortal!
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at email@example.com)
Image Credit: Selva Kumar, Krishnamurthy