Indian classical music in different guises – bringing out the best of both traditions…
INDIAN classical music on the piano – doesn’t sound right, does it?
Anyone with any familiarity of Indian classical music will express surprise, perhaps even astonishment and disbelief.
But step forward Utsav Lal, known as the “raga pianist’, he has successfully discovered a way of blending piano with more traditional Indian rhythms and instruments and takes to the stage this evening (Friday, July 21) at Marylebone Theatre in West London, along with leading tabla player Sanju Sahai to raise the curtain on what is Part II of Sama Art’s Shared Values Festival. This musical extravaganza also takes place during South Asian Heritage Month (see link below) in the UK – which started on Tuesday (July 18).
The brainchild of London-based Indian classical music producer Jay Visvadeva and Sama Arts director – Shared Values – is about bringing musicians and audiences together – to break boundaries and create and develop new partnerships and a different type of music that respects both East and West. Visvadeva created the festival in 2019.
It has also four other concert dates with one on Saturday (July 22), two on Sunday and a final closing night which will see western sarod maestro Ken Zuckerman and one of the UK’s foremost tabla players, Shahbaz Hussain close out the festival next Sunday (30) with a concert at Marylebone Theatre, the main venue for Shared Values.
Both Lal and Zuckerman spoke to www.asianculturevulture.com about their excitement at playing Part II of the festival and gave an insight into their respective musical journeys.
Lal, who is based in New York and has played in many different parts of the world, told acv that the festival was a way of welcoming audiences who were not perhaps traditional Indian classical musical lovers.
“It’s welcoming and inclusive. The piano is a relatively new entrant in the realm of Indian classical music and the last two decades of my work has been to create the pure sound of ragas on the piano.”
He accepts that the piano has “limitations” when it comes to Indian classical music, but says it can also lend itself to exploring new boundaries and that this “broadens and enriches” the tradition.
Learning to play the piano when he was young, he started with European classical and Bollywood songs and drew from other traditions, such as jazz and other forms that were open to improvisation and credits his guru Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar and the Dhrupad tradition for opening up his own repertoire over the last 20 years.
For him, the deeper he dives into the Indian classical tradition the further away he can feel – as in asymptote – a straight line that approaches a given curve but does not meet at any point.
“Putting in the rigour to do the impossible on the piano makes me push the instrument in a very different direction to the way other pianists have chosen to go,” he told acv.
“I want to make my own personal kind of virtuosity, the direction of which comes from getting closer and closer to the fluidity of the voice.”
Tonight’s concert will start in a traditional way and then with Sahai, the duo will perform Gats – a fixed form of composition and then lighter pieces. “I don’t set the programme till the day of the concert and look forward to performing.”
Next year he will be on tour with the Irish band he performs with – Reverie Road and teaming up Vagabonds, made up of Rajna Swaminathan (mridangam) and Ganavya (voice/bass).
Zuckerman came to playing the sarod via a concert in 1971 in California and last year Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commended the musician for his dedication to sarod. (See the website link below).
Studying for a BA degree at a liberal arts college there, he went to a see a concert by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, unquestionably one of the great sarod players of his generation. “Seeing a live performance by such an incredible virtuoso made a very deep impression on me,” Zuckerman told acv.
At the concert, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan announced he was creating a college of Indian music in California and invited members of the audience to enrol.
“I decided to spend the following summer there, which resulted in a complete change in my musical direction and life,” explained Zuckerman.
Khan took him under his tutelage and became his guru – as is the tradition – a young musician will learn almost literally at the feet of an experienced, well-established and widely admired practitioner.
“I had the good fortune of studying with Ali Akbar Khansahib for 37 years until his passing in 2009.”
Zuckerman expects to play separately initially, and Hussain will increase his accompaniment and the duo will play talas (rhythmic cycles) and short improvisational ragas together as the concert unfolds.
He said he is looking forward to reuniting with Hussain with whom he has not played for a few years. “It will be a joyous reunion!”
It’s perhaps a little bit of understatement to say he is looking forward to closing Shared Values Festival.
“It’s a wonderful celebration of the different ways that Indian music is spreading throughout the world.
“From Western players who have spent their lives dedicated to mastering traditional Indian music to maestros of Indian origin who live outside India or have experimented with performing traditional Indian music of western instruments, this important festival is helping to highlight the comment and cherished values of passing on this ancient tradition throughout the modern world.”
Zuckerman teaches at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Switzerland and will be performing concerts in Switzerland, the US and in December and January 2024, he will be in India.
Shared Values started on July 6 at the Nehru Centre with Debasmita Bhattacharya on sarod and Hariket Singh on tabla and there was Shoonya, a concert with Chinmayi Tripathi on vocals, dotara (a two-stringed instrument), and guitar with Joel Mukherji on vocals and guitar, Shriram Sampath on flute and Ananth Iyer on percussion. They played on July 11 at the Nehru Centre in Mayfair, central London, as did the musicians for the opening.
Utsav Lal and Sanju Sahai, TODAY – Friday, July 21, 7.30pm, Marylebone Theatre, 35 London NW1 6XT.
More info/booking: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/shared-values-festival-2-utsav-lal-piano-sanju-sahai-tabla-in-concert-tickets-657523098287?
Ken Zuckerman and Shahbaz Hussain, Sunday July 30, 7.30pm, same venue as above…
More info/booking: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/shared-values-festival-part-2-ken-zuckerman-sarod-shahbaz-hussain-tabla-tickets-651894904207?
Other concerts: July 22 7pm – Clem Alford, sitar; Stewart Fenwick, tabla; Jesse Bannister, saxophone; Debasmita Bhattacharya, sarod; Sanju Sahai, tabla.
July 23 7pm – Michael Messer’s Mitra
July 23 7.30pm – Aayush Mohan, sarod; and Hariket Singh Bahra, tabla, The Palace Theatre, Bedford, MK40 3DE
All concerts: https://sama.co.uk/