The Technical Pianist – Sayan Bhattacharya

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Author      : Sayan Bhattacharya
Company  : Zafin Software Centre of Excellence
Email        : sayan.bhattacharya@zafin.com

 

                                                                            The Technical Pianist

 

The ‘cottage-piano’ had been in our house for so long, and actively musical at that, it had almost become like a family member. Well, the piano had forever been a passion and a prized possession of my father, who had pursued his musical talent and skills on it since his early youth. So the arrival of the piano in our house dates back to close to half a century now!

My father bought the piano to fuel his passion for music and excelled at it with constant practice under guidance from an eminent musician of his times. My childhood was therefore dotted with memories of many musical evenings, when my father after returning from work used to sit at his piano in the drawing room and keep playing various tunes. Much later, even after he got his Roland keyboard synthesizer, the lure of the piano never died down though he started using it more to give lessons to the students who came to him to learn playing the piano. That kept our house and the piano abuzz on week day evenings and weekends as well.

Now, as is true for most musical instruments, the piano needed frequent ‘tuning’ and ‘touch-ups’, due to its regular usage and wear and tear! This once-a-month activity was done by a person called Ratan-babu, who used to come home on a pre-fixed appointment and ‘service’ the piano. It was a whole day affair and as a child I would keep looking on with wonder eyes as the large furniture-like ‘cottage piano’ would be dismantled into smaller parts and the cleaning and tuning process would continue. At times it looked as if the skeleton of the piano with all its bones, ribs, joints and teeth was out from its dark cavern, and soon again the scientific and technical binding of the innumerable pieces of wood held together behind the large black facade of the piano playing in seamless precision and delivering the desired chords and notes at the strike of its black and white keys, used to mesmerise me.

And to watch ‘Ratan-babu’ at his work was a treat in itself! He was a short and lean person, very reserved and rarely spoke to anyone else in the family except for my father, and that too confining the conversation within limits related to matters of the piano. He used to acknowledge the cup of tea and couple of biscuits that my mother offered him every time he visited, with just a perfunctory smile; and used to disappear for an exact one hour lunch break at mid-day. For the total eight odd hours that he would spend in our house at the piano on each of those days, Ratan-babu used to be totally immersed in his work with close concentration, like a true professional!

He seemed to know everything about the piano, which strike of key would move which piece of wood and then trigger the sequence to finally deliver the sound in the correct pitch and tenor; Ratan-babu was a true commander of the technicalities of the piano! The first half-an-hour and the last one hour of his work was truly fascinating. He used to simply sit and play along, using the entire expanse of the keyboard and all the possible octaves on the instrument.

Standing at the side of the doorway and often looking from behind the curtain, I often found him in those moments, eyes closed, back straight and head slightly tilted; the expression on his face seemed to tell me that he was straining his ears to catch every note and sound emitted by the piano, as his deft fingers danced along the long keyboard panel! What a sight it was: not really one visibly appreciable as Ratan-babu was far from handsome! But it was a picture of a musician in trance, recognising every note that came out: it often seemed that in those moments the piano was playing to its master!

I had often wondered that for someone to catch the correctness of the notes, their pitch and tenor, the chords on all octaves, one certainly needed to have a fantastic sense of music and a very sharp ear apart from the technical knowledge of the piano. When I had stepped into my teens and the piano had started intriguing me further, I had one day asked my father about it, as Ratan-babu kept working in our drawing room. In reply, what I heard from my father was a surprising and inspiring tale indeed!

“Ratan-babu is a gifted man.” my father began, “He holds a great passion of music and his technical knowledge of musical instruments, especially the piano, is deep and sound. I don’t really know where he came from or about his back-ground. I only know that he came from a very poor family and came into this city totally alone in search of a job to make his future. He used to work for a printing press for a long time, and also used to frequent a theatre house which was situated right next to his workplace. There he used to sit and watch the actors practicing and slowly started making rapport with them. But what drew him into it were the musical elements of their plays.

Now, this theatre house had some musical instruments housed with them and gradually Ratan-babu got attracted to them. Fascinated as he was especially with the piano there, he sought and was allowed permission to sit and watch the pianist play, during the shows and even during the practice times. I think it was over the years that this pianist from the theatre house taught Ratan-babu how to play the piano and also the technicalities of the instrument. You can say, it was musical knowledge handed down, just as it used to be in earlier times.

Ratan-babu, despite his restricted means never lost his fascination for music and his silent dream of becoming a musician someday! But, in those times, it was considered luxury and certainly not within Ratan-babu’s means. Undeterred, his love for music and hidden talent helped him to learn and grasp more and more. That is how his life moved on for years together, until one day the printing press where he worked for so long, shut shop forever. You may wonder what a calamity that would have meant for someone like Ratan-babu, whose livelihood totally depended on the monthly earnings from the press. Yes, he was quite broken and faced a lot of hardships, but began his search for a new means of livelihood once again, and as he had once told me, ‘music was still foremost in my mind’!

His pianist ‘guru’ from the theatre house came to his help one day. Though he could not offer Ratan-babu any place within his group, he offered him day-jobs to visit the houses of people who had pianos and get to ‘tune and service’ them. I am sure, this pianist would have had some contacts like these to help for some extra earnings and that is what he offered Ratan-babu, to start with. And you have already seen how much a piano needs ‘tuning and servicing’ to be maintained well. Ratan-babu’s life started anew and gradually his ship began to steady!” My father smiled at me, as we paused to listen to the soft tinkling notes of the piano which wafted in from our drawing room: Ratan-babu at work! I sat thinking in wonder over the story of this quiet lean and thin man whom I had been watching for years, striking away at the piano keys!

“Ever since, Ratan-babu has been busy going from one end of the city to the other, visiting many houses by appointment and ‘tuning’ innumerable pianos to play to the correct tune!” My father continued, but as if to now wind up this marvellous story.

“How and where did you find him?” I asked.

“I first saw him at my own piano teacher’s house. Ratan-babu used to come there to tune the piano and later when I got my own, I had no second thoughts in engaging him. And that is the way that his clientele grew…remember, it’s only word of mouth and references! And once you have seen the quality of his work, you wouldn’t hesitate to engage him again!” It clearly showed that my father was truly happy with Ratan-babu’s services.

“So, why doesn’t he play songs and ‘western classical pieces’ as you do?” I asked my father once again.

He smiled at me and answered, “We all have had formal music training for years and at playing the piano too, but Ratan-babu has learnt it out of his instincts and never had had the exposure to the sophisticated means that we had been privileged with. Moreover, if you listen to his music when he plays to ‘check’ the piano, you will see he does play wonderful ‘pieces’!”

My father looked into my inquisitive eyes and as if read the question behind them. He continued to unravel:

“Do you know what ‘pieces’ they are? They are the various short musicals and background scores that were composed in those theatrical performances, which I am sure he had learnt from the ‘pianist’ of the theatre house! And surprisingly, he still plays them out of memory and practice, perfectly without any notations to rely upon! So you see, he is a ‘musician’ after all, and without him so many pianos in our city would fall silent!”

I nodded silently and came away from my father’s room. When I entered the drawing room, Ratan-babu was almost done with his day’s work on our piano. I stood rooted beside the curtain, my eyes fixed on this dark and lean man seated on the stool at the piano: his eyes closed, back straight and head tilted slightly; his face bore an expression of trance as his deft fingers danced along softly striking the black and white keys on the long keyboard panel!

The story of his life, his struggle and his determination to fight back, and his passion and love for music, which I just heard from my father was all fresh in my mind and I found it greatly inspiring! My ears caught the lovely melody that he played: the lyrical wafting of some old theatrical background score perhaps, which today seemed to celebrate Ratan-babu’s dream of being a musician!!

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