Here is a special tribute to the mighty legend, Flute Mali (November 6, 1926 - May 31, 1986) on the occasion of his 16th death anniversary. This is actually a review of two of his radio concerts that appeared in Shankar's Weekly on February 10, 1963, and was written by the well-known art-critic Aeolus.
There were two broadcasts of Mali’s (T R Mahalingam) music last week. On Monday, the Trichur station of the AIR broadcast a recital which had evidently been taped earlier in Delhi. On Tuesday, there was a programme of Mali from the AIR Bangalore, which, considering the rather vocal plaudits that punctuated Gururajappa’s violin passages, seemed to be a live programme. If it was, the Bangalore AIR must have taken the courage into both its hands, before venturing on a live programme of Mali’s music. His erratic ways have unnerved even his admirers.

A flute recital by Mali is always a profound experience. He creates music right before us. Each note is called up from its retreat in the abysm of silence, and one can almost see its fugitive ascent to articulation. Mali caresses them and gives them sustenance with a wooing affection which only an artist of his genius is capable of. They are bodied forth in single notes which hold trembling emotions in a state of gestation, or in phrases that circumambulate the empyrean with the swiftness and luminosity of an angel in flight. At moments they soar with the grace and majesty of a hawk, at others they come tumbling down in a silver cascade. His music never disputes, never wrangles. It always affirms and acquiesces in a single unitive act. Both the affirmation and the acquiescence are statements of the same truth.

The music of Mali is Dionysian in character. It is warm, vegetative, organic. A single note, pregnant with the potential energy of countless forms, quickens to life and movement and organic pattern, tentatively at first, but soon with the assurance of inevitable form. The bones and tissues, the muscles and nerves, build up in one ordered sequence and in mutually sustaining nourishment. Strength is built into parts by the holding in tension of polar notes or by the delicate balance of concordant ones. The music is born and it lives as truly as living things do.

It is not surprising therefore that Mali considers every concert of his as a trial. When last year he failed to appear in a concert at the Sapru house, in a note which was read out to the assembled audience, he had given it as a reason that he was nervous. One can understand nervousness of this kind and sympathise with it. Mali is not afraid of the audience, of whom, for the duration of the concert at least, he is supremely oblivious. He is not afraid of his critics, who blame his eccentricities upon his music. He is afraid of his own capacity to stand up to the pain and suffering of creation. The fear is all the greater because he realizes that he might be tempted into the meretricious when his artistic conscience would not accept anything less than the real. If he feels a crisis, it is the crisis inherent in his vocation of creativity.

Another extraordinary thing about Mali is his mastery of laya. Musical texts (kritis, pallavis etc) are for Mali of secondary importance. They appeal to him only in so far as they afford a rhythmic framework for the sallies of his fancy. The intricate patterns of rhythm he can work into this framework are breath-taking. As for example in the Bhairavi Varnam in Ata tala. In the swara pattern following the charana (the third section of the composition), Mali broke the rhythmical pattern of fourteen counts in quadruple timing, followed by six counts of triple timing, which was again followed by one and a half counts of quadruple timing in the doubled frequency. The smoothness of its rendering was marred by Gururajappa’s playing. He of course did not know what Mali was aiming at, nor did he seem to realize that he could have rendered greater service by not playing at all. He seems to consider it a matter of prestige that he should be heard whenever he could edge in a bit of his own playing.

Mali, I think, can be at his best only when he is unaccompanied. It is not only that his accompanists do not have his mastery of music. They do not also have the same order of imagination.

The Nattakuranji in the Trichur concert was superb. The exquisite grace of his plunge into the lower tetrachord is beyond all description. This was followed by a piece in Senchuruti. When after ten minutes interruption, he took up Bhairavi for elaboration, he was all set for a memorable recital, but he had a bare twenty minutes in which to do it.

The Bangalore recital was to some extent listless. His creative mood had been marred as early as in the varnam by Gururajappa’s intransigence. However, he skipped through two or three pieces of which the Dhenuka and Hamsanadam kritis were rendered beautifully, before he took up Mohanam for the piece de resistance. The Pallavi which he played in it has already become familiar to listeners of Mali, comprising only the ascending and descending sequence of the modal notes. But even here Gururajappa would not cease to be exhibitionistic. It is a hard toll Mali pays, having such accompanists. But it is harder for the listeners.


Posted May 31, 2002


Tributes to other great masters


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