India’s ‘Raga Pianist’ regales Kuwait
A musical braveheart who produced new sound
TBy Chaitali B. Roy Special to the Arab Times
he Indian Business and Professional Council (KWT) introduced Kuwait to a new sound at the Embassy of India auditorium yesterday at 6 pm. The show featured keynote speaker Al Tayeb Ahmad Sidiqi Al Dajani who introduced the audience to principles of Islamic Finance. The presentation was followed by a recital featuring Utsav Lal, a classical raga and jazz pianist. He was accompanied by noted percussionist Durjoy Bhowmick.
The Indian Business and Professional Council Kuwait formerly known as the Indian Business Council has played a pioneering role in encouraging network among Indian business and local government institutions and across multiple sectors by strengthening trade and commercial ties. A premier business and professional advocacy organization, the council includes leading members of the Indian business community, senior corporate professionals, and executives from public sector undertakings in Kuwait. When asked about the change in the name of the organization, Shivy Bhasin, Vice-President of IBPC shared: “The shift in the name is chiefly to include professionals, who play a critical role in business organizations in Kuwait. Moreover, we want to increase our reach and embrace people who will bring value to the Council.”
On Saturday evening, the IBPC event showcased Utsav Lal, a brilliant young maestro, a musical braveheart who has embraced the piano, a western instrument traditionally considered unsuitable for Indian classical music to produce a new sound that captures the nuances of traditional classical music of his land of birth. In the process, Utsav stepped out of the shadows at a tender age and took his place in the spotlight to reveal some serious virtuosity. Utsav’s music is not restrictive. His distinctive style integrates his training in Western classical music with traditional Indian classical form allowing him to straddle the Eastern and Western idioms easily and creating a sound that is multicultural and universal.
A brilliant performer and composer, Utsav Lal’s journey as a musician began at a young age. Apart from advanced training in Western classical and jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he also trained in Hindustani classical music in Dhrupad style under his guru Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar. With passion and dedication, Utsav made the piano speak in different voices. Sometimes, his music is soft and playful, at other times, it is strong and assertive creating its own vocabulary bridging limitations of language, region or religion. In his impressive thirteen year career, Utsav has been hailed as the ‘Raga Pianist’ who has captured the essence of Hindustani classical on the piano and won international acclaim for his performance at several venues and festivals including The Kennedy Centre-Washington DC, The National Concert Hall-Dublin, Southbank Centre-London, Konset Huset-Sweden, Theatre Orangerie-The Netherlands, NCPA-Mumbai, Konset Huset-Sweden, Nehru Centre-London, Asia Music Society-Hong Kong, Tagore Centre-Berlin, President of India’s house and others. Arab Times caught up with the young master who will hold a workshop for aspiring young musicians on thinking outside the box at the Kuwait Music Academy today.
Arab Times: You play both Indian classical ragas and jazz on the piano. How dissimilar are the two styles of playing?
Utsav: Indian ragas and jazz are both forms of music with a heavy focus on improvisation. When I play ragas on the piano, I’m careful to never compromise on the strict rules and essence of the raga. Jazz is such a huge, allencompassing genre. It varies from the swing tradition all the way to contemporary improvisation and draws on material from every single world tradition. I find that experimenting with both these genres compliments each other in a fantastic way.
AT: When did you start training? Did you start your musical journey with Indian classical?
Utsav: My initial piano training in India started at the age of 7 and was a combination of learning to play Indian film compositions by ear. I also underwent formal Western classical training at the Delhi School of Music. Most of my formative years training was performance oriented and did not encompass much of sight reading of music. It was after I moved to Dublin and trained under Irish concert pianist Padhraic O’ Cunneagain that suddenly several doors opened up in terms of exposure to Western classical music, composers, competitions, master classes and high
quality instruments. I began advanced training under Padhraic O’Cunneagain at the Dublin Institute of Technology and under his guidance went onto procure the ATCL Diploma with distinction in Solo Piano from Trinity College, London.
Along with classical piano, I wanted to study jazz because it was a form of music that like Indian Classical music was steeped in improvisation. While in Dublin, from 2007, I started taking evening lessons in jazz. I was also awarded a world music scholarship in 2008 in Jazz at Berkley which was a great learning experience. Subsequently, I went onto Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow to complete my Honors Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Piano as an ABRSM Scholar. I was a recipient of their International scholarship. AT: What attracted you to the piano? Utsav: The tonal quality, the sheer size of the piano, along with the fact that every time you press a note, over 10,000 working parts spring to life. These were some of the things that enthralled me since I was a child and I learnt to play the piano both by ear and formally from the age of 7.The piano offers innumerable possibilities to explore soundscapes. It is one of the most expressive, versatile instruments. In 2010, I was honored to be officially recognized on the global top pianists’ roster as a concert pianist & named “Young Steinway Artist” by the world’s leading piano makers Steinway & Sons. This recognition meant a lot to me and represented a milestone victory in my tryst with the piano.
AT: Once, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Sahab told me in an interview that Hindustani classical and Western classical is diametrically opposed to each other. There is freedom in Indian classical music that Western classical music lacks, yet you tried to bridge the gap by playing these two distinct styles. Do you feel the same, and if yes, why didn’t you specialize in only one form?
Utsav: I wouldn’t say they were diametrically opposite as they are both classical forms of music. Both these genres represent the pinnacle of musical evolution in many ways and the word classical implies the depth, seriousness and complexity of the music. They do have stark contrasts going down to their foundations such as improvisation, instrumentation or written scores etc. However, both of these styles can complement each other beautifully as seen in the Ravi Shankar collaborations with Philip Glass or more recently Zakir Hussain, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer’s collaboration with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on the “Melody of Rhythm”.
For me personally, I felt if I was going to play the piano, I should learn how to play it with the proper technique that’s been developed over hundreds of years in the western classical tradition. That training gave me a solid technical grounding and also taught me a lot about the piano as an instrument, its various subtleties and the huge variety of styles that can be played on it. It also exposed me to some great pieces of music from classical composers, which either consciously or subconsciously affect my improvisations in Indian music.
AT: You have trained rigorously for many years. How important is the role of a guru in a musician’s life?
Utsav: I am currently training under leading Dhrupad exponent Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar who is teaching me to explore and understand intricacies of Indian Classical Music in its complete depth. In addition, from an early age I have been mentored by leading violinist Sharat Srivastava in the instrumental expression of ragas. Other classical maestros like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi & Ustad Vilayat Khan have also been indirect strong influences in my learning. For piano, my teachers John