Raga pianist Utsav Lal makes the piano sing — to Hindustani classical music's notes

  • Over the last three centuries when Indian classical music has taken shape into its current form, many newer instruments of various types have made their appearance, some of them lingering on for a while to disappear and others setting firm roots.

  • “Raga pianist” Utsav Lal joins the long list of musicians gripped with an obsession to make European instruments sing ragas — only it is not any European instrument but what may be called their king: the piano.

  • Though immensely more musical than the harmonium, with many more possibilities of tonality, texture and dynamics, the piano has the same limitations as the harmonium.

Instrumental music in the Indian classical music scene presents an interesting study. Given the generally acknowledged primacy of the voice and vocal music, all instrumental music at least claims to aspire to its condition though it is no less true that the voice too aspires to the possibilities of instruments. The veena and the nagaswaram have had a telling impact on Carnatic music as have the been and the sarangi on Hindustani music.

History has seen instruments created, modified, abandoned; the ups and downs of the fortunes of instruments are symptomatic of changing tastes, new technologies, diaspora, demography of consumers and performers — dynamics of the performance spaces themselves. Sometimes it is the genius of a single musician whose peculiar life circumstances lead to the success story of an instrument — like Shivkumar Sharma and the santoor, or U Srinivas and the mandolin.

 Raga pianist Utsav Lal makes the piano sing — to Hindustani classical musics notes

Pianist Utsav Lal

Over the last three centuries when Indian classical music has taken shape into its current form, many newer instruments of various types have made their appearance, some of them lingering on for a while to disappear and others setting firm roots. The violin, a European import, has now become so entrenched in Carnatic music that many, including C Subramanya Iyer (CV Raman’s brother), have suggested that it is the “king” of Carnatic instruments; the queen will always remain the graceful veena. There has been little resistance to the violin, even though a foreign instrument, and absorbed into Carnatic music exactly at the time when Carnatic music was being promoted as the classical music of South India as part of a cultural movement to support, nourish and bolster the demand for political independence.

In Hindustani music, the harmonium — also an import from Europe — is ubiquitous, though it has always had to contend with nay-sayers, at one time being banned from the All India Radio. Raga music uses the just intonation where the ratio between successive notes is not equal. The equal tempered tuning of the harmonium which renders some pitches out of tune, like the Ga, has been addressed in various ways — performers customise it to their pitch so that the harmonium is tuned naturally for just that one key. It then cannot be played on any other key without sounding really bad. Other attempts, such a creating the 22 sruti harmonium in which, instead of 12 tones in each octave 22 microtones are made available, have been little more than interesting experiments.

The other serious problem with the harmonium is that it can only produce discrete notes. A veena, or indeed the violin, on the other hand, can create various shades of notes in between the recognised 12 note positions. And ragas very much reside in these spaces between the recognised notes. That is what makes ragas nuanced and a matter of oral/aural transmission. Despite both these serious issues, somewhat inexplicably, the harmonium remains widely used as accompaniment to vocal music.

Other European instruments that have made a foray into Indian classical music include the slide guitar, cello, viola, sax, mandolin etc.

“Raga pianist” Utsav Lal joins the long list of musicians gripped with an obsession to make European instruments sing ragas — only it is not any European instrument but what may be called their king: the piano. Though immensely more musical than the harmonium, with many more possibilities of tonality, texture and dynamics, the piano has the same limitations as the harmonium. The piano is tuned evenly and in any case, incapable of microtonal variations that swaras in ragas demand. The komal gandhara of Lal’s Todi for example or Malkauns, is problematic. The piano is also inherently incapable of painting the shades between notes and the sustain is limited — a disadvantage while trying to perform Hindustani music.

Album cover for Utsav Lal's Indian Classical Music on Piano

Album cover for Utsav Lal's Indian Classical Music on Piano

But we have had instruments with similar limitations cope with the needs of Hindustani music — such as the santoor. Even the sitar has a severely limited sustain which it overcomes somewhat by frequent plucking and the effect of its sympathetic strings.  Lal, for example, negotiates the meend that is so important for the Dhrupad/Khayal feel by quickly running over the intermediary swaras, much like how it is done on the santoor. So the glide from, say, the madhya Sa to the madhya Ni of Malkauns, is suggested by actually playing the intermediary notes — the Ga, Ma and Dha — quickly. And it does work — almost.

It is impressive that he explores heavyweight ragas as in his latest album, with Malkauns, Puriya, Jaijaiwanti and a couple of lighter pieces. Presentation is in the traditional alap-jod-ahala format and compositions have been rendered with tabla accompaniment by Nitin Mitta.

He displays considerable virtuosity and at the same time restraint from trying chords and such that are the natural domain of the piano but could be an anathema to Raga. His left hand is usually only playing the Sa or the Ma/Pa or notes from the same pitch class as his right hand, until he gets into the denser parts when he does exploit the potential of the piano evocatively.

The question is, who would be the target audience for this music? Hard core Hindustani music listeners are likely to be put off by the inherent limitations of the piano; its strength is certainly the glorious sound of the piano itself and Lal’s musicianship — there is no doubt a compelling and contemplative quality to his music. But when he plays slow alap for example, there are long gaps of silence between notes; the “fading and decay” as he puts it, of notes which possibly works better on the voice or the rudra been. Those who know how it goes in Dhrupad would get it but not everyone would quite get the point of those silences repeated too often.  When he does get into the thick of the Raga, he is dazzling without going overboard.  His delicate landings on important notes in the raga during alap are a delight as are the rapid movements and swirling phrases during the jod-jhala — notwithstanding the rare slips here and there.

More than anything, Lal’s work is significant for taking Raga music directly into the West’s camp by playing it on the piano. As the raga unfolds over various zones of different textures and dynamics, the piano is heard playing a very different music that is also grand, and sophisticated, but unlike the typical Western music piece, mostly improvised. Though the music is not as tonally nuanced as it can be because of the inherent limitations of the piano, yet Lal covers that inadequacy by his dexterity and feel for the raga as well as his manifest respect for the musical tradition that he is trying to take to new shores.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com.

Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 13:00:35 IST