T R Mahalingam – God at One’s Fingertips
It is early in the day; early in the year 1986.
I stand outside a house in a suburb of Chennai. A nondescript house that resembles the houses on either side in its very faded ordinariness. There is a metal gate. I feel a sudden shiver of anxiety as I open the gate and step in.
I reach for the calling bell. It rings once. There is no response. I wait for a few minutes and ring again.
I continue to wait. After a long while, someone opens the door and through a crack between wood and wall peers.
“Is he here?” I ask.
“How did you know he is here?” the girl asks me.
“The magazine said I would find him here,” I say.
“He is not well. He doesn’t meet people anymore,” she opens the door a further fraction of an inch.
The day is already warm. I feel sweat pop up on my forehead. I can’t give up now, I think.
“I won’t take long,” I say. “I promise. I will go away the moment he is tired and wants to rest…”
“I don’t know. I have to ask him,” she says.
He is hunched on his bed, plump cushions piled around him, elbows leaning on bare steel table in front as he nurses a drink and chews disinterestedly on a soggy pappad. At 9 in the morning, T R Mahalingam, 60, Flute Mali, as he is known and revered, is bleary eyed and uncommunicative.
“I am not interested in awards and fame.” He says abruptly. (Fans and musicians shrugged resignedly when Mali returned the Padma Bhushan awarded to him recently; they have become inured to the genius’ eccentricities.)
His face softens slyly as his niece comes into the room. “Let me have another drink.” He wheedles.
She refuses and he becomes momentarily garrulous. “I am naturally inclined towards philosophy and such things like awards hardly count. I don’t know if the award is for my musical merit or something else. Anyway I don’t care at all.”
He lapses into a moody silence and suddenly pulls at his sleeve to show a surgical scar on his upper arm – a fall had smashed the bone and it had to be grafted. “It’s going to take six months to heal.” He says laconically. It gives him another excuse not to play.
It has become legendary, the way Mali plays truant at his concerts. Later his chief disciple Sundaram explains, “Mali says he sees god within five minutes of playing – he thinks it is meaningless to continue after that and stops.
“Though it is not always for such divine reasons that he plays hooky.’ admits Sundaram. “He is an egotist. At the Krishna Gana Sabha concert, on New Year’s eve, he was upset because Yagnaraman, the secretary, said in his welcome speech that he hoped Mali would play for four hours and usher in the New Year.” (That time, Mali played a flawless Anandabhairavi, then gave the mridangist a crash course in tala techniques, finally withdrew into himself and wrecked the evening.)
Mali does not care to talk about it. Why the 14 year absence from the Music scene in Madras? “I was just away from the Madras scene.” He says impatiently. Then why this sudden and prolonged visit to Madras? (Living in the US for the last fourteen years, Mali is in the habit of visiting his hometown once in three or four years). Mali shakes his head morosely. “He couldn’t take the cold.” puts in Sundaram. “He will be going to the US to see his wife, but he will come back, in six months.”
Mali becomes suddenly animated, talking about state of the art music. “Carnatic music has become commercialised and unethical.” Says the man who is reputed to be the highest paid Carnatic musician today. (Krishna Gana Sabha is reported to have paid him Rs.10,000 – and Rs.2,000 in expenses – for wrecking their New Year’s eve concert; ten years back, Mali turned down an AIR offer of Rs.40,000 because the producer seemed pleased that he had got Palghat Mani Iyer for the accompaniment.) “The lack of creativity, and a rigorous set of rules for rendering concerts, have affected the popularity of music. And these jugal bandhis – they claim to bring about national integration. That,” he spits out, “is plain impossible.”
He lies back, exhausted. “He has not been well for three days,” says the niece. From the bed, Mali rambles tiredly, “Once I start, I can’t stop, but once I stop, I don’t touch a drop again.”
Twenty one years ago, I sought a foothold in journalism. A certain impatience had begun to gnaw within me in the university years and so in my last year, I decided to get my foot in the door of any newspaper/ magazine that would have me…
If I had heard of Tom Wolfe then, I would have aspired to have been him; taking Madras in a white suit and a homburg. But I was quite happy to have instated Harry Miller as my deacon of journalism. And a lesson learnt was be-where-the action-is.
Unlike the bigger newspapers then in Chennai who asked for a postgraduate degree and some experience perhaps, the city magazine ASIDE didn’t mind that I was technically a college drop out. They let me cut my non fiction teeth on stories big and small. I very seldom said no to any assignments offered to me.
What I lacked in experience, I made up with enthusiasm. In retrospect I assume it must have been that combination of my inexperience, enthusiasm and an unwillingness to relinquish a lead until I was virtually shaken off that must have prompted them to ask me to trace, and if he would be willing, interview this famous and difficult recluse.
All I had was a door number and a street name in the suburb of Ambattur. Somewhere in me I knew that this could be chasing an ephemera. Firstly, he could refuse to see me. I didn’t have an introduction or an appointment; I wasn’t a seasoned journalist or a well known critic, someone who could discuss the foibles of the artistic world or the intricacies of a raga or even evaluate a performance. But I was armoured with what seems to me now a heartbreaking wide eyed naiveté. No one had ever said no to me before. So why would he?
And an inner resilience that told me: well, he could refuse to meet me, so what? It wasn’t personal. I would just go back home then…But I wouldn’t know until I had tried.
Later that afternoon when I called the editor to tell her that I had met the recluse and would file my story in a day or two, I heard the surprise in her voice. It was then I realized that it was a coup of sorts.
A few months after the magazine ran the story, he died and they ran the story again. It was his last interview. And one he had liked very much the editor said. He had called the magazine to register his appreciation.
Ever so often, I think of that brush with Flute Mali. What I came away with that morning was to later fashion my own understanding of artistic integrity. Of finding that perfect balance with one’s art. An instinctive understanding where you know at that point in time, you have been at your best. Thereafter what does it matter how the world perceives you or your art?