Handing back the keys

Updated: Sep 11, 2019, 09:24 IST | Shunashir Sen

A concert this weekend gathers talent to put the spotlight on the acoustic piano, a now neglected instrument

Handing back the keys
Karim Ellaboudi

There is an old video available on the Internet that contains slices of Bombay life from the mid-20th century. There are frames that show trams plying languidly around Churchgate, sharing space with tongawallahs being overtaken by vintage automobiles that are precursors to the sleek cars clogging streets in present-day Mumbai. All the office-going men seem uniformly dressed in white shirts and trousers, while the women cover their heads with sarees.

But there is one sequence that's of particular relevance. It shows seven coolies clothed in dhotis and vests ferrying a humongous grand piano from one location to another. That's the only way in which this integral instrument that fuelled the city's jazz age could be transported back then. Compact digital keyboards were still a product of the distant future. And so musicians had no other option apart from such coolies to ensure that their pianos reached the right venue.

Lydian Nadhaswaram
Lydian Nadhaswaram

How things have changed. The acoustic piano has now almost become a luxury commodity that you won't find outside of people's homes and a few select places like Royal Opera House. Most other venues are matchbox locations that just don't have the space to fit a piano on stage. This means that the crop of contemporary musicians who play the instrument have hardly any platforms to showcase their talent. And that's the reason why Louiz Banks joined hands with the NCPA four years ago to start an annual event, called Mumbai Piano Day.

The legendary keys player tells us that the whole exercise slated for Saturday is aimed at putting the spotlight back on what he calls "the king of instruments". Nine pianists will take the stage for 20 minutes each, playing a range of genres like western classical, pop, rock and jazz. They include a mix of noteworthy veterans like Loy Mendonsa and Karim Ellaboudi, and a few young prodigies like Lydian Nadhaswaram, the 12-year-old who won The World's Best, an American reality TV show, earlier this year (Nadhaswaram will receive a citation at the event for the achievement). The musicians backing them include bassist Sheldon D'Silva and drummer Gino Banks. But their role is secondary.

Louiz Banks
Louiz Banks

The focus will instead be firmly on the artistes whose fingers whiz across black-and-white keys as if they have a mind of their own, like the character Thing did in The Addams Family. Banks tells us that the fortunes of the piano started declining in Mumbai in the early '80s. That's when the digital keyboard caught on in the city. Bollywood realised that it was an economical substitute for the large orchestras that were in vogue earlier. "It was especially RD Burman who was way ahead of his time. He loved gadgets like the synthesizer and digital piano, which sparked his imagination," Banks says of the person who first gave him a break in the Hindi film industry, adding, "It was also a convenient thing to use. You earlier had 120 different musicians in an orchestra playing the horn, string and keys sections. But then music directors realised that the synthesizer could produce all these sounds without the audience realising it. It sounded like the real thing, and it was easy to carry."

So, that's what ensured the downfall of the acoustic piano. And of course, the days when dhoti-clad coolies would transport one to different locations are long gone now. That sepia-tinted page out of history has been replaced by, among others, DJs carrying a single console to a venue or a keyboardist landing up holding his instrument in its case. It's all quite convenience-oriented, really, though that might just be a sign of the times we live in. And Mumbai Piano Day thus provides an opportunity for the audience to turn the clock back, unlocking the keys to the past in a musical manner of speaking.

On September 14, 7 pm
At Tata Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, NCPA Marg, Nariman Point.
Log on to bookmyshow.com
Entry Rs 300 onwards

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