Mali - The Wizard of Carnatic Flute

The history of the flute is as old as man. The simplest instrument created by us but with an exuberance and a dynamism in producing melodies that are seemingly unparalleled. In its utility in playing compositions in the sphere of Carnatic music, the flute was long looked at as simply an instrument fit only to accompany illustrious vocalists or violinists, not one to take center stage. Thought of only as being able to play straight notes without the incorporation of gamakas (referring to succinct modulations or the compound harmonic oscillation of single notes that are used to embellish classical Indian music compositions), it was a lesser instrument in the eyes of the doyennes at the zenith of Carnatic music performance, during those times.

All this was changed with the advent of Tiruvidaimarudur Ramaswamy Mahalingam, fondly called Mali by all. Born into an austere, religious Iyer (a category of Tamil Brahmin) household, he was steeped in devotional, classical music from the day he was born, in November of 1926. A long story cut short, he did not adhere to his father's wishes of learning only vocal (as he was seen as too frail to pick up the flute) but in secret, earnestly picked up playing that very instrument by himself, all at the tender age of five. He was hard working yet prodigious and learnt a very difficult composition in three speeds completely on his own. At this point, all those around him were amazed by his genius and that left an infallible impression even on his rather reluctant father who thereby acknowledged his incredible talent.

Being a musical family, his next of kin knew that they were witnessing the origins of a versatile, musical prodigy and immediately called as many of the music greats they could get a hold of, by word of mouth, all to listen to young Mali. Among the many Vidwans who came, a key person was Vidwan Palladam Sanjiva Rao, who during those times was the foremost of renowned flautists all over the South. He played what was thought to be the only style of learning flute called the Sarabha Sastri style (named after his teacher who devised a system for learning Carnatic music on the bamboo reeds). This style was characterized by playing straight notes in short bursts and at a frantic pace, that had dominated the Carnatic scene for multiple decades. What Sanjiva Rao witnessed next from Mali left him amazed yet flummoxed. This young boy had managed to incorporate gamakas into his playing that weer previously though of as impossible on the flute. The enraged Vidwan stormed out of the concert and when questioned proclaimed that what Mali had played was no flute! However, in the back of his head, even he knew that what this child had just achieved was a just a little showing of what was to come and something very, very special.

Along those lines, Mali transformed the very face of the style in which the flute was used to play Carnatic music. Later on, he included an additional eighth hole to increase his control and expand the range of notes he could incorporate while performing. This new style that he had devised came to be the only style of learning Carnatic music on the bamboo flute, even to this day. He held his flute in a different manner as well, in a style labelled today as the cross-fingered hold or the 'Parrot-Clutch'.

Coming to the most important aspect that was his tone and sound when he played; it could be described in a multitude of ways. One would be to attribute it as warm and nuanced, as he delved deeper into the bosom of the ragas, exploring all their facets and what constituted their essence. He was traditional yet not wholly bound by custom. While performing aalapana (slow, non-rhythm bound elucidation of the set of notes that comprised the raga), he would play set phrases wherein the order of notes would be interspersed and not adhered to in the least. Yet what he played bore the feeling that the raga was meant to personify. He had an incredible repertoire as well. Mali's varied machinations made him a hard musician to accompany as a percusionist, with very few who could match his tempo for the entirety of his concert performances.

He could be wild or collected, invigorating yet solemn in what he played, making him an erstwhile, eccentric person as a whole. His personality would appear warped and uncontrolled with him always seeking refuge with his drink and yet that did not impeded his virtuosity. He was not a figure of a balanced approach either, with erratic behavior that was almost petulant at times, but all would be forgiven and forgotten when he played. Droves of people would wait hours at a stretch to listen to just twenty minutes of his exemplified genius and would leave with immense satisfaction as listening to Mali was considered as the same as listening directly to god play. His performances would range anywhere from fifteen minutes to hours upon hours, all dependent on his mood but regardless, was an absolute joy to behold.

Once again, his music is always hard to put into words and many have tried quite hard, so you must listen to it to believe all that is said about him because he was one-of-a-kind in the realm of Indian classical music. His sound an experience in itself, he was one of the all time greats of Carnatic music leaving behind a magnificent and unforgettable legacy.

Article by,

Rajeev Harsha Shreedhar - Devoted listener of Indian classical music and an astute metalhead.


Video credits go to Manikandan V -

Picture credits go to

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