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Flute Mali – A trail-blazer
By T.M. Sivaraman
T.R. Mahalingam (16-11-1926 to 31-05-1986), popularly known as Mali, was and continues to be the "God of celestial flute", whose playing was the epitome of all divine music as embodied by Lord Krishna himself. There never was and it is highly improbable that there ever will be another flautist to equal him in sheer brilliance, virtuosity, creativity and evocative genius, capable of transporting listeners to an out-of-the-world experience, when he was in his element.

My own association with the legend dates back to my early childhood days in 1947 at Lakshmipuram in Madras (now Chennai), when our family landed as refugees of partition from Karachi, where I was born. My father left my mother and my four siblings with my maternal grandmother's family in Madras and went in search of livelihood to Bombay.

My uncle Venkatraman - along with N.Ramani, his friend and colleague - was at that time a disciple of Mali. While Ramani later on became a torch-bearer of Mali's school of innovative flute and went on to become Dr.Ramani, my uncle Venkatraman did not make a career of flute. Mali was not only his Guru, but also his close friend and mentor and used to visit our home at Lakshmipuram frequently and spend hours discussing Carnatic music, sports and various other topics. Mali was an interesting conversationalist. Though not formally educated, he was brilliant in English. He could talk authoritatively on any subject in addition to music. Another little known fact about Mali was that he was a great carrom player and frequently used to play carrom at our home. He was a master of many brilliant double strike ideas in carrom, where he used to pocket coins from almost impossible-looking situations. He used to beat all of us hollow at the game, often starting the first strike and going on to finish the game at one go, without allowing his opponents any chance to strike. Such was his mastery at the game! Mali's mastery at Carrom was only a reflection of his inborn genius, capable of quickly grasping anything he chose to concentrate on. The apex of his genius talent was his celestial flute playing.

Mali never had formal training in music. His mother taught him the rudiments of Carnatic music. And, he took a liking to flute-playing in his childhood, when he heard great flute vidwans of those days, Palladam Sanjiva Rao and his Guru Saraba Shastry. He started playing on his own and became very proficient. His parents wanted him to be trained by Palladam Sanjiva Rao and took him to his home. But when Sanjiva Rao asked Mali to play, and heard his celestial notes, he told him, "I have nothing to teach you. You are a born genius. Go back. Just practice intensely, hear all great masters of music, and use your own imagination, you will become the greatest flautist of all time."

Sanjiva Rao's words proved to be prophetic and soon Mali rose to become a darling of rasikas, who thronged his concerts to be enthralled and held in captive by his sheer genius. An eccentric genius, Mali often played truant at a number of concerts, choosing to ditch his numerous exasperated fans, eagerly waiting for him to arrive at the sabha and perform only to return home with disappointments. When a close friend and disciple of Mali asked him why he ditched his fans at various concerts, Mali, in his typical nonchalant style, replied, ``for me, every music concert is an act of giving birth to my creativity. I suffer labour pains and birth pangs on every concert day.I set very high personal standards. On the days, when my creativity runs dry, I am afraid of not being able to meet the high personal standards I set for myself, and thus, I would rather play truant at those concerts than perform with mediocrity, bereft of creativity."

This showed that Mali was a true perfectionist at his craft. He was grossly misunderstood by many of his critics. They dubbed him arrogant, egoistic and what not, little realising that he really worshipped music in all its divinity and chose not to compromise on absolutely supreme standards he set himself.

On the days when his creativity was at its zenith, he used to play celestial music, often plucking unheard of and impossible notes, seemingly out of thin air, sending his audience into rapturous delights and transporting them to an emotionally charged musical bliss never heard before.

Here I must recall my nostalgic memories of a divine concert that Mali gave at my eldest uncle Late Ramasubramaniam's marriage reception, way back in the 1950's. He played a scintillating Bhairavi and sent all of us into divine raptures. Many years later, my uncle Venkataraman, complemented Mali for playing a memorable Bhairavi at yet another concert. However, my uncle inadvertently said, ``"Mali sir, neenga en anna kalyanathil vasicha adhey Bhairaviyai, innikkku marubadiyum ketten. Romba magizhchi" Mali stared at him with a disdainful look and said, "adhey Bhairaviya?", implying that his creativity was such that no two Bhairavis he played could be the same, being the genius he was, and that he was capable of rendering the same raga with two entirely different range of creative ideas in two different concerts.

It is 22 years since the eccentric genius and legend passed away, but his immortal and trail-blazing music will continue to transport forever countless music rasikas to a celestial world of divine bliss.

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