Follow us on
join us facebook
Flautist Sundaram - his esteem for Mali is boundless....
Sundaram recalls his golden days with flautist Mali in an exclusive chat with Sudha Jagannathan.

Born in 1927, S. Sundaram is one year junior to the flute maestro late Mali. Among a few privileged ones to have a close association with flautist par excellence Mali, Sundaram not only learnt the art the hard way from the genius but also transmitted the Mali's style of flute playing to his children.

Sundaram came to Madras in 1937 from Ladapuram, his native place in North Arcot district, to study at Ramakrishna Mission School at Mylapore. He recalled how Ramakrishna Homes those days used to conduct music concerts during Navaratri celebrations. In 1939 when Sundaram was 12 years old, he happened to listen to a Mali concert. Instantly, Mali made an indelible impression on Sundaram. And, he was struck by a burning desire to do like Mali. That saw him make a beeline for Nungambakkam where Mali lived. Sundaram pined to become a student of Mali. But he had to return disappointed. For, Mali's father sort of pooh-poohed at his suggestion. Since Mali was just learning, he advised Sundaram to come after six months. As time went by, war had seen him move out of Chennai. Sundaram vividly remembered a cover picture in the Tamil Magazine Ananda Vikatan with a title "Mali in the hands of Mali". The cover carried a picture of flute Mali drawn by the famous cartoonist Mali. Sundaram preserved the picture of Mali alongside Kumbakonam Rajamanikam Pillai. "I had it with me for many years until one day Mali took it away from me", Sundaram recalled. Sundaram returned to Madras in 1942. His search for Mali finally led him to an open ground near the All-India Radio in Madras where Mali used to play cricket. Hoping to meet the flutist, Sundaram had his first face-to-face encounter with Mali, the cricketer! "He remembered me. And also recalled how I was sent out by him father. He asked me to bowl. It was funny. Finally, he gave me his address", recounted Sundaram. He was living in Karneswaran Koil Street in Mylapore. His parents were living some 10 houses down from there. After enquiring about him, Mali told Sundaram, "I don't know how to teach. I am also not quite sure if I am playing myself right". At that point, Mali was studying at P.S. High School. Sundaram recalled how Mali asked him to get into his concerts using his name. "You can tell them that you are my student", Mali had told Sundaram. The principal student even today remembers how Mali used to address people with lots of respect, women even more so. Whenever he went out of the city, he would give Sundaram a task to finish (like cleaning the windows!). And, Mali never forgot to appreciate a good work.

According to Sundaram, Mali was not just the genius. He had a lovely heart, too. He narrated how Mali felt sad about the sickness of Padmanabha Rao of Mangalore, who had joined as his student. Rao was suffering from TB. None would go anywhere near Rao. "Are you sincere with me Sundaram"? Mali asked his student one day. "What you say is Veda for me", Sundaram had told his master. Mali then asked Sundaram to get Rao admitted at Royapettah Hospital. After a while, the hospital authorities asked him to be taken to Tambaram Sanatorium. "They asked for a payment of Rs.150. I told Mali. He instantly took his chain from him neck. I sold and paid the hospital authorities", Sundaram recounted. "I used to walk from Royapettah to Central and travel to Tambaram every day to see Rao", he pointed out. Rao was subsequently discharged and headed to his native place. He died soon enough. Rao used to play even the scales so very nicely on the flute. "I was the only one who never played in front of Mali. But often he would sit away from me and listen when I was playing", Sundaram said.

It was Mali who initiated Sundaram to flute making. Mali and Dhadapani Desikar together floated Purasawalkam Arts Academy. Mali used to play there every year. On a Friday when he was relaxing, his flute dropped off his hands and broke. "The lower Panchamam is gone", Sundaram recalled Mali telling instantly. That told a tale of Mali's amassing knowledge. "When I looked at lower Panchamam, it had gone indeed". Mali had then asked Sundaram to get a flute ready for the Sunday concert. That was how Sundaram was pushed to become a flute maker! He did manage to make a flute by then. When he gave it to Mali, he asked Sundaram to keep it in the box. "Even he did not play a `Sa' with the new flute", Sundaram remembered. Came Sunday, he took the flute and played Hamsadhwani. "Even today, it reverberates in my ears. He played three hours with the flute. In that concert, the then district collector of Chenglepattu Bhaskar was there. After the concert was over the collector asked Mali the flute and got it from him. "We can't see the music. We can only hear it. In Mali's music, you can see it also", Sundaram asserted.

For reasons other than music, Mali shifted base to Bangalore. That saw contacts between the two disappear except for some occasional letters. It was during his stay in Bangalore, he got into wedlock with L.N. Barbara from Rome. Barabara was instrumental in Mali playing lot of concerts abroad. Sundaram remembered how he used to visit Mali on his birth day every year and offer him `prasadam' from Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane. On his birthday in 1985, Mali had chosen to visit Sundaram! If Sundaram were to go by, Mali, many a time, used to spring surprise on people. "Once he asked me to send two kgs of 'ettikkai'. Quizzed why he wanted this he told Sundaram, "I am like 'ettikkai'. You have to like me beyond this. My wife wanted to see that. So I asked you".

Sundaram recounted how Mali was very much attached to his two sisters. He learnt quite a bit from one of the sisters, who played violin. One day, after a flute concert in a marriage, he was told of the demise of his violin sister. That had a telling impact on him. Once when he was performing on a stage, he suddenly remembered his violin sister. He picked up the flute and instantly walked away. It was, however, a different matter that Mali had adapted this (walking off the concert mid-way) method to keep the rasikas in surprise. That explained the moody nature of Mali!

Sundaram even today practices like a man possessed his flute. The word Mali strikes a passionate chord in him. Sundaram's sons may have become flutists of their own standing. His grandchildren, too, have become flutists by circumstances and practice. Yet, Sundaram still cherishes that one letter from Mali. "This is to certify that Sundaram has learnt flute for four years under my guidance". And, this indeed is priced possession of Sundaram, the principal student of genius Mali.
Interviews Archive