By V Ramnarayan
(Text of speech at Mali Day event organised by N Ramani on 3 June 2013)
Thirtyfive years ago, when I started writing for magazines as a cricketer, people thought my wife, a college lecturer, did the writing for me. Later, when I contributed to Sruti magazine, my friends attributed my articles to my uncle and Sruti founder Pattabhi Raman. When I took over as editor of Sruti in 2006-07, my predecessor said I was the right choice for the post. After all, I was Pattabhi’s nephew. I’m sure I have been invited here today as I am Swaroop’s friend, thanks to the warmth and affection Sri N Ramani has for him, his other disciples and for me. Today, I am proud to call myself Swaroop's friend, after his wonderful flute recital. I congratulate him and his excellent accompanists Vijay and Arjun Ganesh on the violin and mridangam.
Carnatic music has had no shortage of mahavidwans. It has known child prodigies galore. Why, according to Chitravina veteran Narasimhan, every child is potentially a musical prodigy. We often ascribe such precocity to vasana, the memory of an earlier birth, reincarnation even, as when we describe a brilliant young musician as an avatar of a past great. Some of these extraordinary individuals make their musical debut at absurdly young ages, at a time when we ordinary mortals are barely able to lisp or take a few faltering steps around the house.
Sangita Kalanidhi N Ramani was one such child prodigy, making his debut at the age of eight. He has gone on to achieve greatness in his mature years, completing more than 70 years as a concert flautist, guru, and even grand-guru, to coin a word. He has achieved every distinction there is to achieve in Carnatic music. He has been accompanied by all the stalwarts of well nigh three generations of musicians—Lalgudi, MSG, TN Krishnan, M Chandrasekharan, Palghat Mani Iyer, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Trichy Sankaran, TK Murthy, Vellore Ramabhadran, Karaikudi Mani… the list is long and distinguished.
During the 1950s, he was a part of a team that composed and played music under Mysore Vasudevachar for the Kalakshetra dance-dramas. He has composed music for operas for such institutions as the Kanchi math, and taken part in several lecture demonstrations over the decades. Along with Lalgudi Jayaraman and R Venkataraman, he pioneered the violin-venu-veena concerts that took the music world by storm in the 1960s.
Travelling to the USA for the first time in 1962 on a concert tour with Veenai S Balachander, he is now a veteran globetrotter, a regular fixture at such festivals as the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana.
In the seventies, he accompanied his guru TR Mahalingam in a series of concerts. He performed jugalbandi concerts with Hariprasad Chaurasia, in which he passed up countless opportunities to upstage his collaborator, thanks to his intrinsic humility and large-heartedness. His other jugalbandis featured artists of the calibre of Ram Narayan, VG Jog, Vijayaraghava Rao, Sultan Khan and N Rajam.
Ramani Sir is arguably the most popular and successful living guru in his field, with his sishyas numbering several hundreds and spread far and wide. His RAF is now a true force, 30 years old and fighting fit, piloted lovingly by him. In addition to his musically accomplished siblings, he leads a proud trio of flautists, with his son and grandson.
For all his wonderful attributes and accomplishments, Ramani will be the first person to admit that he is not a genius like his guru, though a child prodigy he certainly was. The label of genius fits but a handful of musicians like TR Mahalingam and Rajaratnam Pillai. For true genius can be flawed—in more ways than one—and for all his reverence and total guru bhakti, Ramani will admit that his own guru was a flawed genius.
In fact, many thought so, but as Sruti magazine said 30 years ago, the number of Mali fanatics far outnumbered the number of Mali detractors, despite his tantrums and shenanigans. That the world of Carnatic music has put Mali’s art right at the top of the many manifestations of its genius is proof that true greatness can make people forgive the worst of follies!
Mali’s life and career were also probably proof that the gene that makes a person a genius is perhaps the same gene that makes him an eccentric, fragmented, conflict ridden individual.
Among other things, that Sruti special issue said about Mali, “He moved his audiences, he did not just satisfy them. His music was like magic. It brought inspiration, almost a revelation to most people.” Sruti also called him the greatest flautist of India, and perhaps a mystic, too, as he himself suggested.
Mali’s art could move critics to write poetry. The brilliant writer SV Seshadri—who used the nom de plume Aeolus—did sometimes resort to verse to describe it. He said in an article in Shankar’s Weekly: Mali was the only artist who looked upon music as more than a vocation, as a mode of coming to terms with the dilemma of existence. He then went on to quote the poet TS Eliot to support his claim. According to Seshadri, Mali’s art sought to capture the human situation with all its choices and compulsions as obtaining in a single moment and thus proclaimed the uniqueness of the artist’s spiritual experience…
The greatness of such music as Mali’s lay in the irony that it could move listeners to tears, even though the musician himself was perhaps not trying to do anything of the sort. Whether he meant it or not, Mali often said that he performed only for money, and that left to himself, he would rather not go on stage. To him, music was not about cutcheris, which explained his many professional transgressions. Yet when he did come to terms with his obligations as a performer, he recreated the mystery of birth and growth and identity of swaras, to paraphrase Aeolus again. And blessed are the rasikas gifted with the faculty of listening, internalizing, drowning in the bliss of oneness with such music for even one moment, even if they can never reproduce a single note of it in their lifetime.
And in the evening of my life, I pray that the ability to listen to such sublime music survive even if night befalls my eyes.