When T. R. Mahalingam (“Mali” to his fans) passed in 1986, he left behind a body of work as playful and mystifying as his own eccentricities. A prodigy since early childhood on the venu, or south Indian bamboo flute, Mali became known for his rejection of strict Carnatic musical convention in favor of a newer playing style that he developed himself. The music represented on this two-volume reissue alludes heavily to the influence of folk and devotional music on Mali. His polyglot compositional tendencies (often combining elements from several raga forms within the same piece) and his rapturous religious devotion come across throughout the program. The liner notes cite a “traumatic” spiritual experience that Mali had at age 16, which he claimed resulted in his ability to see and commune with God, sometimes within five minutes of a performance’s start (after which he would often end the show, to the audience’s dismay). It’s also said that he believed he could communicate with birds through his music — and given the fleetness of his playing and his instrument’s timbre, perhaps this isn’t too far-fetched a claim.
The first thing that one might notice when listening to Mali — or to players of the venu in general – is the instrument’s higher-pitched register and shriller tone as compared to the mellower north Indian bansuri. Think of it as a piccolo vs. a flute. In the same spirit of innovation that led U. Srinivas to modify the western mandolin for greater versatility in Carnatic music and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt to add sympathetic strings to an archtop guitar to create his Mohan Veena, Mali drilled an extra, eighth hole in the simple bamboo body of his instruments to allow for an expanded range. His mastery of emulating vocal-like phrasing through the glissando-like gamaka (similar to the north Indian meend) between notes becomes evident at the first strains of Ragamalika. This amalgam of several ragas finds Mali leading an ensemble of violin, buzzing tanpur, mridangam (dual-headed drum), ghatam (an earthenware pot percussion instrument characterized by a resonant, "pinging" tone) through a number of melodic and rhythmic forms, both lilting and introspective, over its 20 minutes. A recurring melody derived from a devotional tune links the segments in a fashion reminiscent of a “head” in jazz. The composition sets the tone for the six tracks that follow, which don’t deviate much from this track of light classical/devotional/raga fusion, ebbing and flowing from piece to piece in a way that reveals more with each listen.
Sadly, the other musicians in the ensemble are not credited, a shame since it’s due in large part to their contribution that these compositions live and breathe as convincingly as the birds they perhaps sought to imitate. Throughout, the group sounds positively possessed by one mind in their improvisation according to the open, yet regimented, raga structures. Fortunately, you need not be an expert — nor even to know your “sa” from your “dha” — to appreciate the transcendent beauty of Mali’s music.