A good 100 years ago, an amateur French composer made a ‘prepared piano’ following his study of Indian classical music that fascinated him during a life-altering stay in the Deccan and Gangetic plains. Paris-born Maurice Delage was in his early 30s when he embarked on an inspired interaction with Carnatic and Hindustani exponents, simultaneously collecting gramophone records from Madras and Calcutta. Delage, a pupil of renowned compatriot pianist-conductor Joseph Maurice Ravel, finally came up with two milestone music albums.
The idea he came up with was to place objects (‘preparations’) made of cardboard and plywood on or between piano strings so as to modify their original sound. These pieces had holes bored into them and a lifting mechanism was employed to make the string vibrate a little more than usual. Delage (1879-1961), who had served briefly in the French army before turning seriously to piano studies, is said to have pursued his India assignment with an “eye for a ‘future-oriented’ modernism in European music”.
In his famed Ragamalika, which Delage composed during 1912-22 using a variety of classical Indian melody-types (the other being Quatre poèmes hindous), the Frenchman essentially strove for a harmonic framing of Indian music with the piano. But the 88-key instrument, evolved in early 18th-century Italy, has struggled to make inroads into the Carnatic and Hindustani streams—unlike that other western instrument, violin. This is essentially because, unlike the violin’s flowing, continuous tones, the piano’s notes cannot bend or flow seamlessly into other notes—which is a primary prerequisite of ‘Indian’ music.
Utsav Lal, 24, has given the piano a Hindustani classical bend
But since the 2000s, a niche, a very slender niche at that, is being vivified and concert platforms have occasionally seen a vintage Tamil composition or a brooding Shuddh Sarang being essayed by pressing those black and white keys. Pianists like Anil Srinivasan and Utsav Lal are on a constant search to embellish Indian classical with the piano’s tonal colours, and a variety of experimental approaches marks this journey.
Not that the piano was never found playing Indian ragas after Delage’s return to France. The subcontinent did see a series of sporadic attempts to coopt this canonical western instrument with a range of seven or more octaves. In fact, around the same time as the French composer’s India stay, an English lady was contributing her bit. Rights campaigner Margaret Cousins, who became the subcontinent’s first woman magistrate in 1922, after seven years in India, was researching southern Indian music on the side. Her rapport with folk and semi-classical singers in the peninsula led Margaret to notate the melodies—also to try them on the piano, according to scholars.
An alumna of Royal University of Ireland’s music department, she also NOTAted Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana in 1919 when the Nobel laureate met her at the Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle (in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor today), where Margaret’s poet-husband James H. Cousins was principal.
In the 1930s, Tamil brothers Muthu and Mani paired up with the piano seconding the violin. Their rendition of Tyagaraja’s Nagumomu in Raga Abheri became a hit, revelling as it did in plain notes. So fast-fingered were the movements on the piano that the composition gains a “Scottish flavour” and its passages are ornate with different harmonies when repeated, wrote Philadelphia-based ethnomusicologist Amanda J. Weidman in her review.
American Alan Hovhaness who played with a Carnatic violinist
In her 2006 work, the Columbia University scholar speaks of a 1940s collaboration, broadcast by AIR, where Carnatic violinist Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu plays a set of alapana improvisations with American composer Alan Hovhaness on the piano. Again, the violin played the main role but “the piano attempted to capture the violin’s gamakas, particularly its slides and oscillations,” Weidman observes in her book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern, the Post-Colonial Politics of Music in South India. “The magic of the violin was its ability to lead the piano, without being dominated by the harmonic laws of Western music.”
Physicist and the Nun
Naidu was raised in Visakhapatnam but born (in 1893) in Bangalore—a city that later groomed at least two noted personalities who brought the piano and Carnatic together at public concerts. One was physicist Raja Ramanna; the other a nun named Sister John Dorai Chetty. Dr Ramanna, who became the director of India’s nuclear programme in 1967, also held a diploma from the Royal School of Music, London, and authored, in 1993, The Structure of Music in Raga and Western Systems. Essentially motivated by the “beauty of movement”, he occasionally incorporated elements of Carnatic into his playing.
Sister John Dorai Chetty, physicist-pianist Raja Ramanna
Sister Chetty’s forays into Carnatic were more direct, playing alapanas and equally imaginative kalpanaswaras—INStant improvisations—beyond the compositions. In 1947, she completed her fellowship from London’s Trinity College of Music—and went on to teach in Madras and then her native Mysore before moving to the Karnataka capital. Her trailblazing attempts caught maverick vocalist M. Balamuralikrishna’s attention, who helped fine-tune her musicality.
Critic V. Balayogi recalls a 1986 kacheri he attended at the hallowed Madras Music Academy following an invitation by Balamurali, who wouldn’t tell him anything about the programme. “I went and to my surprise there was Carnatic being played on one of those antique big pianos by a nun,” he says. She was playing 19th century composer Ghanam Krishna Aiyyar’s Jaga janani. The nun breathed her last in January last year aged 94, while Dr Ramanna was 79 when he died in 2004.
Hushing the Wolf
A few issues make the piano difficult to integrate into an Indian musical context. Tuning across seven octaves posed the problem of irregular intervals—the ‘wolf fifths’—to offset which a variety of tuning choices (‘temperaments’) are employed in which notes are actually marginally off-pitch. “The issue compounds across octaves,” writes music scholar Deepak S. Raja in his blog. Besides, there’s that inability to produce notes that flow into one another—and yes, no microtones (think of those ‘in-between’ notes)—both vital to the richness of Indian music.
That way, Jaga janani, which Sister Chetty played, is an early 20th-century composition in an uncommon raga, Ratipatipriya, that doesn’t rely much on microtones. The first effort to notate Dravidian gamakas came from a pianist-composer, Ramesh Vinayagam, who is now a popular singer-arranger in Tamil. Those oscillations are so essential to Carnatic that a master like T.N. Seshagopalan as well as the younger Cuddalore S. Jananiy and K. Sathyanarayanan seek to generate them while eking out south Indian classical on digital keyboards.
Electronic keyboards, whose manipulability makes them more pliable, have come on the Hindustani concert stage too; Abhijit Pohankar and Divyansh Srivastava being young exponents of the ‘vidyut veena’. The harmonium, a child of the reed organ, has been a regular presence in Hindustani, but it had to weather resistance on Carnatic platforms in the last century before making a mark, thanks to masters like Palladam S. Venkataramana Rao and C. Ramadas.
Hindustani has had a recent tryst with the piano. Film composer Vanraj Bhatia, now 90, is renowned for his deep classical knowledge, which he did exhibit by playing ragas on the piano in his younger days. His junior colleague, Kantibhai Sonchhatra, too has had spent six decades as a pianist experimenting with Hindustani. Noteworthy are similar efforts from playback singer-actor Adnan Sami, 46, who learned classical from santoor virtuoso Shivkumar Sharma.
Into the next generation, Bikram Mitra, 24, of Calcutta plays ragas. Pianist Tushar Lall, another young producer-composer-arranger, heads an Indian Jam Project that has influences of the classical he learned from his vocalist mother. Utsav, though, is distinct: he plays full-fledged Hindustani—both on the classical piano and an improvised variety of it that produces resonant notes.
Down south too, young pianists are dipping into the Carnatic pool—Surya Balaji does Ninukori varnam in raga Mohanam, Sathish V. (known as Enneume) presents a fusion of Vatapi Ganapatim in Hansdhwani and pre-teen S. Ritvik goes for an orthodox version of the same by Muthuswamy Dikshitar. The most senior of the crop is Anil Srinivasan, 40, known for his array of experiments with classical.
He’s keen to acknowledge his predecessors. “I’m no pioneer here,” shrugs Anil, who has pursued piano studies from a couple of American universities. Yet his approach merits a special slot in the contemporary scene. “We’re anyway an amalgamated people, right? Western in every walk of life, adapted to desi conditions,” he says, making light of it. For all his eclecticism from childhood—Anil sat on his first piano at age three—the master believes he has become ‘bimusical’ only a dozen years ago.
His maiden collaboration was with young vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan in 2006. That saw the unlikely prospect of piano keys producing padams by 17th-century Telugu poet Kshetrayya. “It evolved for some five years. I was keen to expand the lyrical meaning my instrument generates,” notes Anil. The duo tours several parts of the world. “Not just the big cities; we performed in remote parts of America, also Korea,” recalls Anil, who has since played with other instrumentalists, including from Hindustani, besides ventures in classical dance, theatre and films.
Vocalist Shubha Mudgal, flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, sitarist Gaurav Mazumdar and sarangi player Murad Ali have associated with Anil. “It’s fun to reciprocate, say, to an alaap by Rakesh’s bansuri (who I first performed with in Liverpool in 2013). It’s more challenging to do so with jor-jhala, where I play the taanam,” says the pianist, referring to the brisker passages set to single beats. He has also worked with Carnatic masters line ‘Mandolin’ Srinivas, his brother U. Rajesh, violinist G.J.R. Krishnan, chitraveena master N. Ravikiran and flautist S. Shashank. “All of them are open to ideas and willing to embrace the suitable.”
Anil gives special place to veena exponent Jayanthi Kumaresh, who gifted him with a “paradigm shift” in his journey. “Imagine the signature Indian instrument meeting its counterpart from the West!” he notes. “Under Jayanthi, I have graduated to structural collaborations that are beyond just sawaal-jawab.”
As for Utsav, Anil says the youngster is “immensely” talented. “I’ve given him classes as a guest lecturer abroad. I’ve seen his piano skills with jazz. Utsav is trying well to overcome the piano’s structural limitations, and should also succeed in getting a finer grip of the aesthetics.”
Gurucharan—a grandnephew of Kunjumani, one half of the renowned Sikkil sisters, a flautist duo—says experiments with Anil have helped him tread a new track. “It enables you to break open certain closed-mindedness that can set in over years as a traditional vocalist doing solo concerts.” Once, in 2012, Anil and Gurucharan walked into a French café, only to discover one of their seven albums playing for the guests.
The Gliding Keys
In the quietude of a chamber, Utsav Lal coaxes out the deep, melancholic gravitas of a Raga Todi from his keys. In timbre, the bass notes partly resemble the ancient rudraveena’s. So, how does he generate the meend (glissando) so essential to Hindustani? Well, that’s what makes the fluid piano special. “Each of the 88 keys has sliders on them that help you glide to a semitone above or below. Also, a set of sympathetic strings that can be strummed, similar perhaps to the swarmandal,” explains the 24-year-old, who left Delhi for Scotland in 2006 and, after a stint back here, is currently pursuing a Master’s at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
The prime impetus in Utsav’s story came in 2010 when he met English composer Geoff Smith, who had recently designed and built the fluid piano—an advancement over the century-old ‘prepared piano’. The Brighton-based master was excited with the teenager’s idea of trying it out for Indian classical. “I flew in from Dublin. We filmed a short improvisation of Raga Bhairav. It was pretty clear that the music I play and the instrument were really well suited to each other,” says Utsav, who had already cut three Indian classical albums. “An overwhelming response to that first fluid piano YouTube video reinforced the belief.”
It was through records that Utsav began learning Indian classical. His first guide, violinist Sharat Srivastava, is a Senia gharana exponent who Utsav first met at a performance in Berlin. “We subsequently had several Skype and phone lessons,” he recalls. Utsav also did lessons under Dhrupad vocalist Wasifuddin Dagar, who had come for his concert in Delhi.
Dagar, 49, recalls the earnestness he could see on the 16-year-old’s face when he approached him with his mother in 2009. “Utsav still takes virtual classes from me,” the ustad says. “Initially, I’d render vocals that he would try reproduce on the piano. I found him sharp and quick in grasping the lessons.”
Utsav is keen to “keep refining” his method. “I’m focusing on incorporating more nuances, identifying better piano intonational systems and experimenting with prepared piano techniques so as to widen my palette of expressional colours,” he says. “I’m also writing a lot of concert music inspired by Indian classical music for string and wind players.” Now on a four-city August concert tour to celebrate Indian music on the occasion of its 70th year of Independence, he says “on a longer term, I plan to take my music and the piano to rural India”.