At age seven, when other children his age where scribbling with crayons, Utsav Lal played his first tune on the piano — a nursery rhyme he had learned to sing at school.
He had just started piano classes and no one had taught him the notes; he just walked up to the upright piano in his piano teacher’s living room and began tinkering with the keys, figuring out the melody for himself.
“We grew up with music all around — Indian classical, jazz, western classical, ghazals, bhajans. I think that encouraged me to experiment,” says Lal.
The nursery rhymes quickly turned into classical concertos as Lal outstripped his neighbourhood piano teachers; at age nine, the prodigy performed his first solo concert in New Delhi.
Now 18, he has performed more than 100 concerts, received an £80,000 (about Rs 56 lakh) international music scholarship from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and, in 2010, was declared Young Steinway Artist of the year, an annual global award given to just one promising pianist under the age of 35.
Lal has been in Dublin, Ireland, for the last three years, having moved there from Delhi with his family after his father, a top finance executive with an Irish distillery company, was relocated.
But he is now back in India till January 16, and hopes to carve out a special space for the piano in Indian classical music.
His concert tour, Ragas to Reels, with Irish flautist Sam Comerford, 19, includes performances in Mumbai, on January 9 and 11, New Delhi and Bangalore.
“I will play various ragas on the piano, while Sam will create Irish reels, which are traditional dance tunes — peppy, lively and full of energy,” says Lal, who is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree in jazz at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow and has trained professionally in western classical music, Indian classical music and jazz.
Lal and Comerford’s is an alliance born out of their mutual interest in each other’s cultures.
“We didn’t want to just perform a series of pieces,” says Lal. “We wanted to find a blend, a deeper collaboration, and allow true music to flow from it — almost like a conversation between the two traditions.”
The tremendous support Lal has received from his family has helped him develop his unique style. Lal’s mother Sangita gave up her job as a marketing professional nine years ago to manage what she calls “his musical journey”.
Currently, he is training in Indian classical music under Guru Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar and noted violinist Sharat Chandra Srivastava.
“I play a bit of guitar and I like to try every instrument I can get my hands on,” says Lal. “But no instrument compares with the piano.”
So what does Lal do when he’s not practicing or playing?
“Most of my friends are musicians who play folk music, traditional Irish, classical or jazz. So we usually end up at a gigs or a jam session,” says Lal, grinning. “I also love listening to music — everything from the delicate notes of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Shivkumar Sharma to Norah Jones.”