Sahil Vasudeva: from banker to music maker
Sahil Vasudeva explains what it takes to be a Western classical pianist in India
Although Sahil Vasudeva is endowed with a leonine mane like that of Ludwig van Beethoven, he shares none of the composer’s famed fiery temper. In fact, he speaks in a soft baritone, breaking only for a staccato laugh that is oddly pleasing. His moppy hair appears scruffy in a dishevelled-chic way. We meet in his sun-drenched central Delhi apartment, which shouts “good taste": miniature paintings, wall hangings, sculptures, ceramic vessels, flower vases, and, more importantly, a baby grand piano that he grew up playing.
Vasudeva, 31, is the only known Indian pianist (who is based in India, not abroad) who publicly performs Western classical music. If there are others enthralling audiences in remote Indian venues, they are yet to surface in cyberspace. He’s gearing up for his forthcoming piano recital, The Un-Recital, at Delhi’s Oddbird Theatre from 19-21 April. In his act, he mixes Western classical piano pieces (among them his own compositions) with, as he puts it, “comic act", “monologues", “video and photography projection" and “theatre". The deviation from the straightforward recital shtick makes it “The Un-Recital".
India isn’t the first place you would want to be if you were a solo pianist. But Vasudeva’s mission, he says, is a little different. “I just want to get this sound out there," he says. Apart from Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, which regularly features Western classical music programmes, there are no venues in India to write home about. The number, for a country of 1.3 billion, is incomprehensibly small.
Vasudeva’s ride, unsurprisingly, was a bumpy one. After majoring in economics and math in the US (studying piano on the side), Vasudeva trudged through an investment banking job in New York, followed by a three-year stint in an Indian start-up. In 2012 came the tipping point. Much to the dismay of his employer, he says (but perhaps to the greater benefit of the Indian public), he quit the job to take up piano full-time. “It was an itch that I just had to scratch," he says.
Over the next three years, he worked on his technique with a Russian teacher, and, then, at the Delhi School of Music. “Once that was done, I was like, now what." India doesn’t have an established performing culture for Western classical music, let alone places to perform as a soloist. “So then I started thinking about presenting classical music in different venues."
To make the music more accessible, he began playing in unlikely venues: bars, clubs, art galleries, schools. Etiquette demands pin-drop silence for Western classical music, but Vasudeva got used to playing to the clatter of forks, knives and cocktail shakers. If playing in such places gained him three-four people at every performance, he thought, they would probably come to a show in a bigger theatre. “The idea was eventually to move into a larger, more immersive space," he says.
And Oddbird is just that. His recital last year was sold out and he is now returning with three shows. He wants to take the classical piano out of the recital hall (in India, though, it never really went in) into a more intimate space. His act, which includes works by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Philip Glass, Erik Satie and Debussy, is interwoven with stories of his own experiences of being a solo pianist in a country like India. Also, he loves bringing in different mediums. For one section, he worked with the photographer Sohrab Hura, whose photographs are projected on a screen while Vasudeva plays pieces that evoke similar moods.
For a form that many are unsure of, trying to find venues is another gargantuan task. “It’s a huge battle. I’m constantly trying to convince people why they should let me play." It’s going to be a long struggle, he says, but on the whole the audience response has been good and the interest is growing organically. “It’s like you know you have to hang in there and persevere before the scene opens up,’ he says.
“We’re so used to having a European coming here—a white man attached to the instrument," he says matter-of-factly without a smidgen of any racist undertone. “That’s how we relate to the piano; I want to make it more local." It might give others like him hope. Vasudeva is trying to build a listening culture around the music that currently doesn’t exist. To that end, he thinks, facing minuscule audiences and reluctant venue proprietors is a small price to pay.
“In the end, I don’t want to be 40 and be like, shit, I never gave it a shot."
The Un-Recital by Sahil Vasudeva will be from 19-21 April, 7.30pm, at Oddbird Theatre, New Delhi . For details, visit Oddbird.org.