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Memories of flute Mali & mama
How time flies! And springs surprises!

I knew him as an erudite music lover.

Above all, I came to know him as a die-hard fan of flute Mali (flautist T.R. Mahalingam).

It’s been quite a while since I had met him.

Now I hear Mama is no more! Sad, very sad, indeed!

Bangalore music circles will surely miss Mama ( Shri K.S. Ramnath ).  Actually,  thepatrons of The Sree Ramakrishna Bhajana Sabha. And, of course, the regulars at the Odukathur Mutt hall in the picturesque Ulsoor Lake area where he used to be a conspicuous, towering presence!

The void left by Mama is difficult to fill. I, too, miss him a lot.

For, he used to regale me with many stories on Mali. He was not just a fanatical fan of Mali but also his very close friend.

There are many vintage anecdotes. Mama would shed tears at the very mention of Mali’s name. He would reminisce closing his eyes and go into something of a trance.

After a brief pause, he would recapitulate the wonderful days spent with Mali—the kind of eccentric genius that Mali was, his style of playing, and his attitude to music and people.

As one who has been quite a fan, I had also followed Mali’s life and times over the years. I recall some interesting anecdotes with Mali as the main persona, some from what Mama had said, some from our uncles’ comments and some as told to me by friends.

My brother Sivaraman has already given an excellent account of our family’s interaction with Mali during our Lakshmipuram days in Chennai. The agility with which Mali countered my uncle’s comment “adhey Bhairavi” with a poser “adhey Bhairaviya?” revealed how quick he was on the uptake. Being branded or perceived as ‘static musician for over two decades’ was the last thing he wanted! Even if the remark “adhey Bhairavi” was wholly unintended in that sense!

I recall what Mama had told me in Bangalore about how he came into contact with Mali in 1965 and got bowled over by his mesmerising music. Playing flute became a passion with Mama and he studied it for eight years, first under Gnanasekara Rao in Palghat and later under Mali’s disciple Dindugal Natarajan.

It was not long before Mama became a personal friend of Mali and over the years attended scores of Mali’s concerts all over the country.

“There is no one who can ever be a patch on Mali, both as a musician and as a person.” he once observed going into a sort of reverie. "Above all Mali was a good soul," I remember him saying. And adding: “you could always notice him being pre-occupied with something or the other, be it music, politics, sports or other subjects. He was an excellent conversationalist with a select few with whom he had developed kinship."

How different was Mali from others in playing the flute? Mama had explained: "Before Mali came on the scene, flute was being played by many. There was the famous Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and earlier his guru Saraba Sastri. But with them, flute playing was similar to playing on harmonium keys -- flat and jumping from one swara to another without the gamaka which can be imparted to a swara.”

“It was Mali on his own who transformed flute playing with effective gamakas - he had the uncanny ability to play madyamam (the note Ma) without actually touching Ma directly. This he did by oscillating from Gandhara (note Ga) in a smooth, melodic way and stretching it to touch Ma, with telling effect. The gamaka playing of the notes was the closest to one that can be achieved by the human voice, best suited to do this with clarity. Mali is the only musician those days to have achieved that clarity."

Mama had also recalled another peculiarity of the enigmatic Mali who wanted to psyche himself into playing the flute in a free-flowing manner before a concert. It was typical of Mali's eccentric nature to go for the difficult way to get into the mood.

To motivate him to do well, he used to keep a thick and heavy bamboo stick (of 4” to 5 " diameter) which he had cut and drilled holes giving it the appearance of a flute. He kept the big bamboo shaft by his side while playing his "anju kattai shruti flute" and that apparently gave a boost to his morale. Just seeing the heavy bamboo punched with holes lying by his side would give him the confidence that he too could blow properly into the heavy-toned flute he was playing for the concert.
Mali, according to Mama, had an original approach to playing the compositions. While vocalists would start the anu-pallavi of a kriti at a higher pitch, say with the panchamam of the upper octave, Mali would start the anu-pallavi at the lower panchamam.

For example in the kriti “Manavi nalakimcha” of Thyagaraja in raga Nalinakanti, vocalists or violinists generally would begin the anu-pallavi "Ganudaina Ramachandru nee" at the upper panchamam while Mali would start the phrase at a lower Pa, giving it a distinct and ethereal beauty as he felt playing the phrase at the upper Pa in the flute would be unmusical.

The entire concept of playing the flute, Mama had noted, was revolutionised by Mali. In those days, it was generally said no one could play the Bhairavi raga gamaka-laden varnam Viriboni in three speeds.

In fact, a Vijayawada-based uncle of Mali had pooh-poohed the idea when talking with Mali one day. But Mali liked challenges and said he could easily do it with full justice to the gamakas as well.

He demonstrated it without a single flaw to his uncle. Believe it or not, Mali had won a one-anna bet for doing it. That was Mali. He was eccentric, yes. But he was also a genius!

Mama also often spoke about Mali's mental makeup. "Generally Mali liked to be a recluse and didn't bond easily with people. But with those whom he became friendly, he used to gently tap the shoulder to draw attention to a point he was making or touch and hold hands while talking.

“When introduced to someone, he would just nod and often raise both of his clasped hands across his face in an awkward angle and look askance at the person being introduced. Only if he knew the person well would his face light up with an infectious smile.”

One unforgettable anecdote which Mama had narrated related to an incident which happened sometime during 1967 when a well-known veena vidwan who was on his honeymoon had come to stay with Mama as his guest in Bangalore.

The vidwan was to give a concert at the Town Hall and on the day of the concert, he urged Mama to bring along Mali to attend the concert. This was a difficult job as Mali hated attending someone else's music concert.

Somehow Mama had persuaded Mali to attend the concert that evening and with great reluctance, Mali had come along. But he was not the type to make any grand entrance and so he covered his head with a shawl as he entered. Someone had spotted him entering the hall and soon the word got around that it was indeed Mali.

To recall Mama’s words:" It was a dramatic moment, for as soon as Mali entered the hall, the entire audience stood up and gave him a standing ovation. Mali was embarrassed but I was thrilled to find that my "maanaseeka guru" get such a wonderful reception. The Veena vidwan stopped playing, stood up and bowed with a namaste. to Mali who acknowledged the greeting in his usual fashion by clasping his hand together in a twisted angle in front of his face and making a small gesture of namaste.

“The vidwan resumed his concert and soon Mali got fidgety and kept on nudging me and saying “let's go!”

"We had hardly sat at the concert for 15 minutes or so but Mali was insistent that we should leave. Finally, I had no option but to go out with him and Mali was silent during the drive back to his residence at Devanahalli. But as soon as he got out of the car he remarked, 'Ananda Bhairavi, Ramnath, is like a mid-ocean wave!"

Mama had immediately understood the real import of what Mali was trying to convey. He also knew then the reason why Mali wanted to leave the concert. It was clear that Mali didn't like the way the vidwan had handled raga Ananda Bhairavi.

Mali's comment made it evident that in his book the raga Ananda Bhairavi had to be handled delicately with proper gamakas and cadence and poise and dignity just as the mid-ocean wave bobbed along in grace in a cadence of its own without creating any turbulence or rippling effect.

Mama had noted: "I at once knew what Mali meant. And, also the reason why he detested attending anyone else's music concert. He had his own ideas of how to play a raga or a kriti and didn't want to be influenced by someone else's style of singing or playing. Mali was an original and he wanted to remain an original, a creator of unique music!"

But Mama is no more. While this is as much a tribute to Mali as to Mama, I move on to recounting another funny anecdote narrated by my uncle.

Apparently once when Mali was playing in a Madras sabha, the accompanying violinist was playing rather loudly. My uncles who were sitting together whispered about the violinist, commenting to the effect “konjam adakki vasicha nanna irukkum” (Translated it would mean “it would be nice if he played in a little subdued tone!”).

No sooner was this said than they were horrified to see one of their elderly relatives standing up and saying openly to the violinist: “Oyi, konjum adakki vassiyum. Naanga flute Mali kekka vandirukkom!” (Hey! Play in a subdued fashion. We have come to listen to flute Mali”.)

For my uncles it was without a doubt one of the most embarrassing moments in a Mali concert.

Another incident I recall relates to the concert Mali was giving in the famous Shanmukhananda Sabha of Bombay. In the midst of the concert, there was a remark by Mali to the violinist: “No! That is not right!” The violinist played again and again Mali pointed out it was not correct.

Miffed, the violinist said: “Each instrument has a range. What I can play on the violin you cannot reproduce on the flute.” Then he played on the violin the highest note in the upper octave, the sharpest pitch you possibly could hear.

Mali put down his flute and joined the audience in applauding the violinist and said: “you are right!”

But the sequel is even more fascinating. Mali, it is said, continued the concert playing another raga but started it at the highest possible pitch, winning a round of applause from all present. That was Mali’s genius!

Over the years I had heard many Mali concerts. While his flute playing technique has been enshrined for ever, the melodies he used to conjure up and his unique sound quality remains afresh.

Not many may be aware that Mali was an excellent violin player as well. Once I had seen him essaying a beautiful Sankarabharanam raga at his Chennai residence when I had gone there with my uncle early one morning. He smiled and welcomed us but continued to play for some more time till he was satisfied with his effort. We were naturally thrilled to the core to discover a new facet to this musical wizard.

Sometimes I wonder what sort of a violinist he would have turned out to be had he taken to playing it full time? Accomplished, most certainly! But would he have been as brilliant as he was on the flute? A moot point best left to the realms of one’s own imagination, isn’t it?

I have also witnessed the violinist and mridangam vidwans squirm and sweat it out with effort. when accompanying Mali. He used to put super-fast sangathis or swara-prayogas in double-quick beats. He would set a frenetic pace and they were made to work hard and do overtime.

Like a mischievous little boy, he would often move his cupped fingers over the thick lock of hair falling on his forehead in an attempt to push them back in place. He would look at the listeners and smile and sometimes even wink. The audience simply loved seeing him do this!

Mali everyone knew had an astounding grasp of laya and its intricacies. I recall two melodies: one an astonishingly original conception of Kapi raga. This tape I preserve for the sheer pleasure it gives me every time I hear the raga.

Another favourite of mine is the “magudi” piece he used to play towards the end of the concert on public demand. That he revered tradition is also reflected in the exquisite rendition of the Tirupugazh ‘naada bindu kaladi namo namo’in raga Chenchurutti and unbelievably moving portrayals of ragas like Bhairavi, Pantuvarali, Kamboji, Kedara Gowla, Anandha Bhairavi, Khamas, Todi, Kalyani and Sankarabaranam, to name some.

Occasionally he would also essay an exquisite but crisp Kanada, Sahana, Saraswathi or a delectably racy “Raghuvamsasudha” in the raga Kathanakuthoohalam, bringing indescribable but copious joy to listeners in keeping with the mood of the raga.

To this day, I recall the joyous “Nalinakanti” raga which was one of his favourites. To me, they all epitomise the inventiveness of this genius who was truly and emphatically much ahead of his times.

The innovations of the sangathis that he used to produce in flute playing in general were simply astonishing and one must listen to his music attentively to know the dynamics and interplay of notes he managed to cull out.

There will be many flautists, no doubt. Many indeed play very well. But for me and scores of other music lovers, there can be one and only one Mali, a living legend...

For he brought rich listening pleasure with his heavy but slow-paced and steady delineation of the ragas - what in Tamil one could say “ghanamana, saukya nadam” and “nidaanam”, two of Mali’s qualities unmatched by any contemporary flautist!

Mali was the rare combination of a traditionalist endowed with pure inspiration. In short, he was a boon to carnatic music with his unmatched melody, texture and tonal quality. His music will ring for ever with joy in our memory!

Flute Mali – A trail-blazer

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