Carnatic musicians are generally known to be very conformist in terms of social behavior. This is perhaps best personified by MS Subbalakshmi, who we encountered in my previous post of the series — prim and proper, of impeccable manners, reaching almost god-like status through her graceful behaviour and accomplishments on stage. Then we have T R Mahalingam, or Flute Mali as he was popularly known, the one of a kind maverick genius who breaks that stereotype in every possible way, a man who cared for nothing except the quality of his music, and who left behind a legacy that was as rich for its music as for his antics.
Before Mali showed up Carnatic flute might as well have been a keyboard. The best flautists of the day used to play plain notes, thereby robbing the music of one of its most basic features — the gamakam, which is the fundamental concept that differentiates the Indian Raga from the Western Scale. Mali single handedly changed the situation, bringing flute playing as near the vocal style as imaginable, leaving everyone else in the dust and setting the style for every flautist who came after him. Talk of impact.
Colorful personalities are perhaps remembered for longer than those who play by the book. And Mali was colorful, alright. In fact if you Google for ‘flute mali’, the first auto suggest option is ‘flute mali stories’! Just to give you a flavor, here is one. Mali was known to cancel his performances at the last minute if he did not feel like playing. On one such occasion, not only did he cancel, but he also went to the auditorium in a disguise sporting a fake beard to hear first hand how people are cursing him and had a good laugh about it. On another occasion, he showed up very early when the previous performance by M. L. Vasanthakumari was still on. The organisers were super thrilled that not only was he in time but that he also appeared completely sober! They seated him in the front row so he could listen to the ongoing performance. Mali had great respect for Vasanthakumari and enjoyed the concert thoroughly. As the concert was winding down, he got up, bowed to her with respect and started to walk. The organisers thought he was going into the green room to get ready for his performance. But Mali just walked out and disappeared from the scene with not so much as a word to anyone!
There isn’t enough time or space to go into more of his antics. I would highly recommend historian V. Sriram’s awesome book ‘Carnatic Summer’, which profiles 20 amazing Carnatic musicians. The chapter on Mali was my favourite and had me in splits.
Due to his eccentricities, the Music Academy ‘dropped him like a hot potato’, as V. Sriram puts it. It is no surprise he did not receive the Sangita Kalanidhi award. But his fans would say it is the Academy’s loss much like it is the Nobel committee’s loss to not honour Mahatma Gandhi with the peace prize. It is an open question if Mali would have even accepted the award in the first place! He had a policy of rejecting awards, which he kept up till the end, including the Padma Bhushan offered by the Govt of India in 1986, the year he died.
The piece I have chosen here is a song called ‘Raghuvamsa Sudha’, which is very popular because it is light and peppy. This particular rendition brings out Mali’s genius brilliantly, but it will need some explanation. Indian classical music is all about improvisation, and the biggest stars are ones who have plenty of musical imagination and weave that into their performances. And in that department Mali was right up there among the best of all time. But for someone new to Carnatic music without having a reference point, it may be hard to tell where a given artist is improvising.
Another aspect to appreciate this piece is this — Indian classical music is all about a single melody set to specific rhythm (with a lot of improvisation thrown in). There is basically no concept of ‘harmony’ or ‘counterpoint’, which is an integral part of other systems like western classical. In this song Mali, ever the improvisational genius, and destroyer of convention, nudges the violin player to continue playing the standard melody of this composition, while he improvises a short counterpoint — start following at 4:30. The general effect itself is stunning, and is made all the more impressive when you know the above background.
To make it easy for you to appreciate Mali’s genius, I am linking two performances of the same song — the first by MS amma, and the second one by Mali. The version of MS amma is textbook perfect. The one by Mali is all improvisation and genius. Hope you enjoy both.
Rendition by MS Amma:
Rendition by Flute Mali:
Thank you, Sriram! The importance of listening to MS amma’s version before Mali’s cannot be emphasised enough. If her rendition is peppy and fun to hear.. follow that with Flute Mali and it blows your mind! Perhaps the right way to cherish such stalwarts is to spread their music to the max — so thank you for sharing him with us.
My favourite part: the fun ‘jugalbandi’ between Mali and the violin player at 1:50+ and then again at 3:00+ and then again at 4:30+.. this piece has absorbed me in its entirety. Thank you!