Song of Surrender

Monday, 28 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

T.R. Mahalingam (1926-1986)

TR Mahalingam was a child prodigy who started playing the flute on stage at the age of seven. He revolutionised flute playing in Carnatic music by reproducing on the instrument all the gamakas the voice can produce. Even Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and his guru Sarabha Sastri, the giants before Mali as he was known, played only discrete notes in a staccato style. In fact, it was believed before Mali that the flute was incapable of reproducing numerous ragas. He pioneered the innovation of lower register or mandara sthayi playing of the flute and new fingering and lipping techniques, besides a new grip. He redesigned the instrument using a thicker reed and smaller bores, to produce a richer tone. His flutes also had eight holes instead of the traditional seven.

Over and above his path-breaking initiatives, Mali was a great musician, pure and simple. His imagination was extraordinary, and he did not concern himself too much with grammar, which however was inborn in him. Raga bhava and perfect sruti came naturally to him, and his sense of laya made even a genius of rhythm of Palghat Mani Iyer’s stature sit up and take notice. Mali and Mani Iyer were a hugely successful pair on stage.

His father Ramaswami Iyer of Tiruvidaimarudur in Tanjavur district had not wanted the child Mali to play the flute for health reasons, but Jalra Gopala Iyer, his uncle and music teacher of Mali and his siblings, found Mali to be a gifted flautist in the making. Later, Ramaswami Iyer took Mali around displaying his virtuosity and getting him concert engagements galore. He was in short a meal ticket to the family. This probably explains Mali’s eccentricities on stage, tendency to cancel concerts without notice, cocking a snook at authority, his frequent headaches and “mystic experiences” and his alcoholism throughout his adulthood. Throughout a troubled life, his music continued to be divine—whenever he chose to perform.

Mali was a seminal influence on the flute in Carnatic music, with every flautist after him, not only his sishyas—Sangita Kalanidhi N Ramani is one of them—following his manner and style. He was phenomenon, cult hero, maestro and iconoclast rolled into one.

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