New York based Indian explains why he plays Indian classical ragas on the Piano   

He freely admits that many facets of Indian classical music are almost physically impossible to bring alive on piano. But New York based Utsav Lal explains why he persists on playing ragas on piano

New York based Indian explains why he plays Indian classical ragas on the Piano   

Sukant Deepak

He freely admits that many facets of Indian classical music are almost physically impossible to bring alive on the piano. But Utsav Lal, in his late twenties, has been playing Indian Ragas on the piano with varying degrees of success.

‘There is a certain mystery, wonder and relief in knowing the goal cannot ever be achieved,” he says. “And yet, the joy is in finding ways to create the illusion of meend and do things like re-tune a few notes on the instrument to get the super beautiful peaceful Gandhar of Raga Yaman,” he adds. For the New-York based musician, whose work on the piano has been deeply influenced by Dhrupad and Indian classical music, putting in the rigour to do the impossible makes him push the instrument in a very different direction to the way other pianists have chosen to go.

“I want to make my own personal kind of virtuosity, the direction of which comes from getting closer and closer to the fluidity of the voice,” said the musician who has to his credit around six albums and has collaborated with Indian musicians including sitar player, Hidayat Hussain Khan, violinist, Sharat Chandra Srivastava, percussionists, Talvin Singh, Pt. Samir Chatterjee, and flautist, Rakesh Chaurasia.

This 28-year-old, currently on the teaching faculty of Piano School of NYC recalls that it was the sheer size of the instrument that attracted him initially. “Post formal training, I fell in love with the sound, the feel of the keys and the tonal range. It’s one of the instruments where you don’t need any training to make a sound. But you need a lot of work to get further than the basics, which I found super challenging and fascinating,” he said.

Recently a part of HCL Digital Concerts, LaI says that it was raga-based film songs that got him attracted towards Indian classical music. That was the time when he was learning Western Classical. “The improvisational nature of the Indian classical music drew me initially. I loved the idea of being able to play what I want to play, when I want to play it. Subsequently, the biggest grounding force for me in my musical journey was my guru Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar and the incredible Dhrupad tradition which I am obsessed with. As I learnt more about the rules and boundaries of each raga, I felt magnetised in the long form and the patience of the music and the way each note in a raga has so much personality.”

Considering the fact that Jazz has been a long standing part of him, the young musician has an interesting take of how both Indian classical and Jazz complete him.

“They have had a lot of conversations in the past 60-70 years. There are obvious similarities with regard to the improvisational aspects, but I see Jazz as being a lot more expansive as there are many styles, instruments, forms that all come under its general bracket, and it’s an ever-expanding universe. Ultimately, no matter whether I’m playing ragas following the strict rules, or playing some Irish reels or jazz standard, every single musical experience of my life is there as a resource.”

Talking about the Fluid Piano, on which he also recorded an album, Lal said, “It’s a groundbreaking invention --- a piano that can bend notes, achieve the correct shrutis very easily and is incredibly satisfying to play. I went over to meet Geoff Smith who invented it in 2010 and ended up recording the first album on it in 2015. I hope to go back and work with the instrument more and more, but unfortunately there is only one in existence and logistics take a while to figure out.”

“I will say though, it’s not the piano as we know. It has an identity of its own and there’s only one of its kind in existence in the world. That does affect the feasibility of playing on the instrument and lends it more as a research subject.”

For someone who has received training in both Indian and western systems, the experience of the two worlds has been otherworldly. “I am grateful to have so many different mentors and teachers at different points in my life and particularly in Indian music, my guru Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, Sharat Srivastava ji, and Warren Senders. Some teachers are excellent at giving craft advice- technical skills, repertoire etc. Others are brilliant at the philosophical and critical theory side of things -- giving meaning to why we play music and understanding where music fits in with society. The balance between all of these is probably what I’m the most grateful for in my life.”

Hoping to release a new Indian classical album by the end of the month, Lal, though missing live concerts, said that companies like HCL were doing a commendable job through digital concerts in the time of a world-wide pandemic.

“One of the greatest skills of an artist is the ability to adapt, and the current times offer a good chance to hone those skills.”


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