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An Indian Sonata

Pianist Utsav Lal on making the blend possible and breaking into the big league.

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
April 4, 2015 1:50:51 am

talk, express talk, Painist, Utsav lal, paino palyer, new jersey, Hindustani classical system The black and white keys of a piano have never looked monochromatic to 22-year-old pianist Utsav Lal. “They somehow acquire a million colours, million thoughts, where I find expression through trial and error,” says Lal in a telephone conversation from New Jersey. The 88 keys of the instrument also come with the idea of double infinity — something that has goaded Gurgaon-based Lal to create a variety of permutations and combinations all this while, exploring the beauty the little pedals unlock, the vibrations that the hammers nail.

But Lal isn’t your usual pianist, bringing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven alive at his concerts. The young pianist’s expertise lies in keeping allegiance with the Hindustani classical system and creating whimsical world of ragas for his audiences on a piano — an instrument which has rarely had ragas for company. The musician combines these with unpredictable harmonies intrinsic to the western classical system to deliver performances with a range of dynamics. The same technique and dexterity will resonate on the Seventh Avenue in New York today as the musician takes stage at the prestigious Carnegie Hall for a concert along with vocalist Anurag Harsh. The white and gold hall, in the past, has had performances by some of the most legendary musicians including Judy Garland, Pt Ravi Shankar, Ut Zakir Hussain and Ut Amjad Ali Khan among others. “It’s one of the more exciting opportunities that has come my way. The organisers are very particular about the quality of what comes out as an album from the hall, so there are a lot of discussions which are constantly going on about how we will be progressing,” says Lal, about the concert, which will be streamed live on In the 124-year-long history of the venue, this is the first time that a concert is being streamed live.

The concert will begin with the sombre and pentatonic Maalkauns and go on to a short composition in another powerful and serious raga Mian Ki Todi followed by the famous Doordarshan tune Des raag. Mile sur in Bhairavi will also be a part of the performance. The concert will conclude with Vande Matram, Pt Ravi Shankar’s famous tune, which has been sung for over half a century as the national song.

But for Lal, it hasn’t been an easy road to travel with the piano because of piano itself, its construction and its sound. The concepts of microtones (shrutis) and meend (glissando), which are imperative to Hindustani system are hard to create on a piano. There is also the issue of oral legacy of Hindustani system versus the written music sheets.“It would have never been easy. But I kept tinkering with the instrument and eventually as I played more, I kept coming across ways to include Indian classical elements in some way,” says Lal, whose style is influenced by his guru and dhrupad maestro Wasifuddin Dagar and his days in Dublin where he studied played a lot of jazz. “It is the improvisations of both the systems which are similar. My performances take me a step closer to making sense of piano as a Hindustani instrument,” says Lal, who will present a sequel to the event at New York’s Lincoln Centre on October 24.

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