The Grand Illusionist

UK-based Utsav Lal,who was in the city to perform at the Jadhav Gadh Music Festival,has carved a niche as a raga pianist

Written by Rushil Dutta | Published:September 22, 2013 4:34 am

Cutting a debut concert at the age of nine in Delhi,Utsav Lal — now 21 years old — was hailed as a child prodigy. Trained in western classical piano,Lal says he encountered a true calling in old Hindi music early in life. “I was enamoured by old Hindi cinema songs such as Poocho na kaise,which was composed in raga Ahir Bhairav,and Madhuban mein radhika in Hameer. Soon I started covering such songs on my piano,” says Lal,who was in the city to perform at the Jadhav Gadh Music Festival.

These songs were a portal into the fluid world of ragas for a young Lal. “I wanted to be able to improvise while playing the piano and realised the potential of various ragas,” says Lal. “It seemed natural to play this music on an instrument I was well-versed in,but it had to be tried nonetheless and the process of being able to do so gave me a kick,” he adds.

Over the years,Lal — also a Young Steinway Artist — has carved a niche for his music and has styled himself as a raga pianist; probably the first of his kind without a prominent predecessor. “Some have dabbled with this concept but never went deep into it. But I saw a lot of potential in this form of music,” says Lal.

Debacles came aplenty when Lal started out. “I was in India till the age of 13,after which I moved to Dublin,Ireland. I had almost finished my grade exams in classical piano and was en route achieving my piano diploma from Trinity Guildhall,London,which I eventually did at the age of 17 with distinction,” says Lal. But it was hard to find a mentor to sharpen his Hindustani classical skills. “Most learning happened through listening to recordings and watching videos on YouTube,” says Lal.

During vacations in India,Lal began training under Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar,who helped him explore the realms of dhrupad. Also violinist Sharat Srivastava deconstructed the instrumental approach to Indian classical music for Lal. “During my sessions with Dagar,he would sing something and I would reproduce it on an electronic piano. I would then come home and run the notes on my grand piano. With Srivastava,I understood the rhythmic nuances of Hindustani music,” says Lal,who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in jazz from Glasgow,Scotland.

Lal believes that he has a lot to learn. “One has to spend a minimum of six months to understand the basics of a raga,which keeps revealing something new,” says Lal. He also acknowledges that the piano isn’t a quintessential instrument for Indian classical music,primarily because it does not allow one to bend notes. “But I believe one must have the notes in the head and then communicate them. It is the creation of a grand illusion. Plus,the piano offers a fantastic range with eight octaves,” he concludes.

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