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An Utsav of Ragas on the piano

Popularly known as the Raga pianist, Utsav Lal has created a niche for himself in the wide world of music infusing ragas and Indian compositions on a Western instrument – the piano. In conversation with NT BUZZ ahead of his performance on February 21, at Ketevan World Sacred Music Festival, Utsav talks about how his music is deeply inspired by various traditions, his music album, challenges of creating individual musicianship and his experience of recording the world’s first Indian raga album on the fluid piano
Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
Having presented piano concerts of Indian classical music at several major venues and music festivals across the world, pianist Utsav Lal has been fortunate to perform extensively. He has been presenting raga concerts on the piano consecutively for three years at the Festival of World Cultures, Ireland; Maximum India Festival, USA; Asia on the Edge Festival, Singapore; Symbiosis of Sound Festival, United Kingdom.
All these festivals have had musicians and audiences that were truly global and offered a stage to showcase Indian ragas on the piano. In 2010, Lal was honoured to be officially recognised on the global top pianists’ roster as a concert pianist and named ‘Young Steinway Artist’ by the world’s leading piano makers Steinway & Sons. This recognition meant a lot to Lal and represented a milestone victory in his tryst with the piano.
Utsav has always tried to retain the sanctity and purity of the music he plays and present ragas in an as much traditional style with first doing a solo ‘Alap jod jhalla’ and then presenting compositions set to the rhythmic accompaniment of the Tabla.
Excerpts from an interview
Q. Your music seems to be inspired from various traditions. Please comment.
I have always tried to immerse myself in as many different forms of music as I could and this has exposed me to incredible music from around the world. I guess experimenting with ragas on the piano was a big risk as there has not been too much development in this area but the potential of this instrument for Hindustani classical music spurred me on. It’s been constant trial and error, having to look under every stone for techniques and ideas to adapt the music to the piano but it has also been fun and satisfying. All this because of the best teachers I have had for classical music – Western and Indian, Jazz and Scottish folk. My bachelor’s degree in jazz was very useful. Additionally, having lived for over nine years in Ireland and Scotland has exposed me to the wealth of Celtic folk music and the chance to work and learn from international musicians. The international festivals that I have participated in also create scope to interact and meet musicians from different traditions. I suppose the music that I create will naturally draw inspiration from all of my experiences.
Q. How has your musical journey been so far then?
I’ve been playing the piano and performing for the last 13 years. Over the years, along with performing concerts, I have intensified the depth of my exploration and undergone advanced training in the areas of Western Classical, Indian Classical and jazz on the piano. To translate the music you hear in your mind onto your instrument requires technical mastery of your chosen instrument. So, like for all musicians, I have constantly faced the challenge of developing my individual musicianship as well as instrument technique. The journey has been satisfying and rewarding; one with absolutely no regrets.
Q. You have been a recipient of several awards. What do these awards mean to you? Does it also put a greater amount of pressure on you?
Awards are very valuable as they represent recognition of the work that I am doing in the field of music. However, I do not dwell on them a lot and never feel any pressure because of that. My focus remains on the mammoth task ahead where I have much more to learn and many more exciting paths to tread. Awards and the appreciation and recognition for my music only means that my quest and passion to excel and experiment is highly charged. Awards serve as motivators to determinedly carry on my passion to explore and take the power of ragas to as many diverse audiences.
Q. Why did you choose the piano over other instruments?
I loved the piano ever since I was in Kindergarten. The tonal quality, the sheer size of the instrument along with the fact that every time you press a note, over 10,000 working parts spring to life enthralled me as I learnt to play the piano both by ear and formally. It offers innumerable possibilities to explore soundscapes. It is one of the most expressive, versatile instruments and has regal grandeur.
Q. Tell us about any album/s you plan to release soon?
In July 2015, I embarked on a unique project called ‘The Fluid Piano & Utsav Lal’ in collaboration with Geoff Smith, inventor and composer, backed by Arts Council of England and Darbar Cultural Heritage Trust. After extensive research and experimentation on the Fluid Piano, I recorded the world’s first ragas album in the United Kingdom. The Fluid Piano is a completely acoustic grand piano which allows a musician to alter the individual frequencies of each note through a slider that varies the string tension. It’s the first time in history of the piano that someone has built a version that makes the instrument a lot more accessible to world music traditions that are not focused on equal tempered tunings. When playing this instrument, ‘meends’, pure ‘shruti’ intonations and ‘andolan’ are available to the pianist. It is a solo piano album will be released worldwide by the Fluid Tuning Piano label by April 2016.
Q. Why is that you choose to only play Hindustani classical in concerts?
For me Indian Classical Music is the most evolved form of musical expression and it’s the genre that gives me most satisfaction. It is the music of my roots and one that I am most inspired by and closest to. I have trained as a Jazz pianist and was also honoured with the recognition at House of Commons, London. So I also perform Jazz concerts but I suppose since my Indian classical career has been extensive and widespread with concerts in different parts of the world, people know me more for my work in this field. I have four Indian classical solo albums released and an equal number of Jazz Albums which feature my tracks.
Q. How do you try to overcome the piano’s limitations in playing Hindustani music?
Well, it is a challenge since the piano is not a traditional Indian classical instrument. The biggest stumbling block in playing Ragas on Piano is the ‘meend’ (stretching of notes) practiced in Indian classical music. Also the ‘shrutis’ (microtones) which are hard to achieve/tune on the piano and which is why I think people have stayed away from using it for Indian Classical music.
However, instead of taking piano to ragas, I have tried to bring the raga closer to the piano, using the many advantages of the piano to adorn ragas and use its strengths to beautify the rendition. While it may not offer Meend, the piano offers innumerable possibilities to explore soundscapes and is one of the most expressive and versatile instruments. I am able to fuel all of my learning in my renditions to communicate the essence of the raga in its pure form. My aim when I play the Piano is to get it to sing exactly what my mind is singing.
Q. What is it that you are expecting in Goa during the Ketevan festival?
It is a hugely diverse festival with so many incredible musicians from all over the world. I really look forward to performing and sharing my music but also, as importantly, getting a chance to listen to others and speak to them about music and their journeys. Festivals are always huge melting pots for ideas and I can think of very few places in the world that would be as positive and encouraging for these conversations as Goa. I had the chance to interact and perform at the beautiful venue of Art Chambers in Goa when I brought an Indo-Irish collaboration tour ‘Ragas to Reels’ in 2011.

(Utsav Lal will be performing at the Ketevan Sacred Music Festival at the St Augustine Ruins, today at 6:30 p.m. Donation passes are available at the venue, Furtado Music, Panaji and Margao; Champs, Panaji and Mapus;, The Private Collection, Calangute and www.insider.in)

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