In April 1998, a self-taught pianist named Brian Silas played for the first time at a concert at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium. Silas had been nervous before the performance — he wasn’t sure he could pull it off. “I had never played for the auditorium audience, the kind that concentrates on every note presented,” says Silas, 61, sitting behind a grand piano in his home in Chhatarpur, Delhi. When he did hit the ivories to the SD Burman classic Piya tose naina laage re, the crescendo began to build. He would soon leave his stage fright behind.
Sitting in rapt attention in the packed hall was the late author Khushwant Singh, who had discovered Silas’s music some years ago over lunch at Dum Pukht in Delhi’s ITC Maurya and felt he “deserved more”. Two evenings every week, Silas would recreate the music of composers Salil Chowdhury, OP Nayyar, SD Burman, Madan Mohan, among others, on the piano amid chattering guests and clinking cutlery. “He makes the piano sing… He is a magician of the keyboard,” Singh had written in a leading newspaper then. For a man who never formally learnt the piano, this was an unusual feat. But there would be many such unusual moments in his life. That year, Silas went on to play at the UN Hall in New York on the occasion of India’s 51st Independence day; at a charitable fund-raiser at the Rockefeller Center, in 1999, where the evening was attended by Bill Clinton. A number of tours followed in the US, Europe, India and West Asia.
Earlier this month, Silas was back at the grand piano, recalling the evening, before breaking into that same melodious Piya tose naina laage re at Hyatt Regency’s ballroom in Delhi — an event marking 20 years of him as a concert pianist, after a decade of playing at leading hotels in the Capital. “It has been overwhelming,” says Silas.
In the early 1980s, while working in the technical department of Appu Ghar, one of India’s favourite theme parks, Silas would first get drawn to the piano. There was a live band stationed for entertainment there. Silas had grown up in Kanpur in a musical family. After graduating in commerce, he had moved to Delhi for work in 1984. He did some number-crunching for the ITC group and VIP suitcases before landing the Appu Ghar job. “I had grown up listening to all kinds of music at home. My grandfather was the principal of Christ Church College and played pipe organ in the church. He would teach me. But for many years after that I was not into music. I began experimenting on a keyboard with the Appu Ghar band while working with the cultural department of Indian Trade Promotion Organisation. That’s when I realised that I wanted to be a musician,” says Silas, who was in his 30s then and decided to train himself to play the piano.
“But I couldn’t afford one,” says Silas, who would go past the instruments shop A Godin and Co. in Connaught Place on his way to work. One day, he went in, sat behind the grand piano and gingerly began playing it. Afterwards, he would return every day to practise. Initially, the owner Stephen Godin ignored him, but soon he asked Silas to pay rent for using it, which he couldn’t afford. But Silas’s music pulled the crowds into the shop and this made Godin relent later.
“Everyday, before going to office, I would practise at the shop. That was the best hour of my day,” says Silas. Years later, Godin gifted him the piano.
Soon, word spread about the piano man in Godin’s shop and Silas landed a job in 1989 at Le Meridien as their principal piano player. They put him up in the lobby where he was asked to play Western songs. “Every pianist plays Western tunes in hotels. I told them to put me in their Indian restaurant as I was playing Hindi film songs. But they didn’t agree,” he says. ITC Maurya did and Silas found a spot at Dum Pukht. Two days in a week, he would play at the restaurant, his fan base growing over time. “I wasn’t playing the notes to the song that existed. I was embellishing it, adding my own creativity, making it fuller,” he says.
But the journey wasn’t easy. The concepts of microtones (shrutis) and meend (glissando) which are imperative to Indian music aren’t there in the piano, which otherwise has the entire orchestra compiled in its 88 keys. “The system of Indian music is based on continuity, while the sound of the piano breaks two seconds after a key is pressed. I felt there was so much to do on piano with Indian film music, a lot of which is based on Indian classical music,” says Silas. He met one too many pianists who told him his technique was wrong. One of them was his future wife Ravinder. “I had learnt to play Western classical and realised that the technique — right from the way he put his hands on the instrument to the way he moved them — was all wrong. Many others said the same. But the result was sheer magic,” she says.
In 2004, The Brian Silas Show became popular, giving him his first TV break. On listening to his version of his composition Jaane kya dhoondti rehti hain, legendary composer Khayyam had exclaimed “Tumne toh hamari rooh pakad li (You’ve captured my soul)”. In the years to come, Silas recorded a number of piano albums. Today, he either performs or teaches students at home. Breaking into Madan Mohan’s Unko ye shiqayat hai, he says, “I don’t get to do the sad ones too often as people always ask for happy numbers. But I find sad ditties equally soothing.”