His fascination for the piano came very early and way before his foray into Indian Classical music. The tonal quality, the sheer size of the instrument, along with the fact that every time one pressed a note, over 10,000 working parts sprung to life--- all these factors enthralled him even as a child, and he learnt to play the piano both by ear and formally from the age of seven.
Today,17-yr-old Utsav Lal, from Dublin, Ireland is not just any kid on the block. He has officially been recognised as a concert pianist and named as “Young Steinway Artist” by the world’s leading piano makers Steinway & Sons.
“The piano offers innumerable possibilities to explore soundscapes. It is one of the most expressive, versatile instruments and has what I call... regal grandeur .I absolutely love the Piano,” beams Utsav.
In the initial years, he played both Western Classical and Indian film music (mostly from yesteryear films) on the piano. It was some of the strong classical based Indian film compositions by Naushadji (Madhuban mein radhika...), Shankar- Jaikishen (Laaga chunari mein daag...) that first introduced him to the challenge of playing Indian classical music on the piano. As he got deeper into it, the power and challenge of the music completely overwhelmed him. “I believe Indian Classical Music is the most evolved form of musical expression. It is the music of my roots and one that I am most inspired by and closest to. The transcendental nature of Ragas as well as the infinite creativity that it offers… touches my heart.”
Isn’t it difficult to express the intricacies of Indian music through a conventionally western instrument, you may wonder! Ustav believes that to translate the music you hear in your mind, onto your instrument, requires technical mastery over your chosen instrument. So, like all musicians, he too first worked at developing his individual musicianship along with efforts to attain mastery over the piano, side by side.
However, he admits that the biggest challenge of playing Ragas on Piano is the "meend" stretching of notes that is practiced in Indian classical music and also, the shrutis or microtones which are not possible on the piano. “Well, it was most certainly, a stumbling block for me too initially. Therefore, instead of trying to bring the Piano to Indian Classical music and trying to adapt or modify the Piano.......I’ve tried to bring Indian Classical Music to the Piano i.e. use the many strengths of the piano to beautify my rendition of a Raga,” he explains.
His western classical training allows him to have dexterity and technical control over the instrument and that helps me with his expressions and improvisations in Raga renditions. Jazz training on the other hand has helped broaden his mind tremendously and also enhanced Utsav’s sense of harmony and chords. “I try to fuel in all my learning’s back into the expression of a raga. In addition many of the techniques I use, while playing Hindustani Classical on Piano, are influenced and created, based on my listening to renditions by traditional instruments like Santoor, Sarod, and Sitar etc. Some of these are perhaps myself developed piano playing style & not what classical pianists would do.....so in that sense, it is a new way of playing the instrument.”
Utsav’s guru Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar has greatly influenced his rendition as per the Dhrupad style. “He has always taught me that my aim when I play Ragas on the Piano should be to get it to sing, what my mind is singing. The instrument is only a tool for expression…the music has to come from within. I totally believe that this simple approach is the key to combat any hurdles.
The young enthusiast is determined to take “Ragas on the Piano” to music lovers across the world. “I trust in the power of Indian Ragas and the potential of the Piano and believe that this music appeals to people of diverse genres like Western classical, Indian classical, jazz & world music fans.”
Utsav hopes that his efforts will contribute to popularize and generate an interest both at an international level and also amongst the Indian youth to explore & enjoy our classical legacy. “In five years’ time, I would like to see my efforts fructify with an international standing and recognition for Indian Classical Music on Piano. I hope to secure a respect for the power & scope of this unique combination from both Western Classical & Indian Classical purists.”
Above all, Utsav enjoys collaborations and sharing of ideas. It opens up a fabulous new unexplored plane whenever two instruments....two musicians work together, he says. “In the future I see myself deeper into western classical, Jazz and other varied genres...and exploring exciting areas of meeting points with Indian classical music.”
Summing up, his journey so far, Utsav shares one of his most humbling experiences. In Jun 2008, he was invited to perform a memorial concert for the Maharajah of Gwalior, Madha Rao Scindia at a 19th century Church in Cork, Ireland. Called the “Music amongst Mosaics” concert series, this was in honour of the support that the Maharajah had shown for construction of the church for his personal physician Dr.Alymers Croft.
“Performing “Ragas on a Piano " in a Church.... at the altar...under the stained glass window with Jesus looking down, I was surrounded by an international audience who greatly admired & respected the Maharajah and all things Indian. It was very unique and ethereal…. a once in a lifetime moment. A moment to be proud of India & a moment to do India proud! To me it was a humbling experience and gave the strong realisation that music has no geographical, cultural and religious divides. It can speak one language and is an incredible tool for communication.”
Here’s wishing the young ambassador, a very bright and musical future!
My Little Magazine