When you google for “world’s best child pianist”, first on the list is Lydian Nadhaswaram, Chennai’s music wunderkind, along with an old video of him playing Chopin when he was eight. Lydian has considerably improved since then, but Google’s point is valid: it is truly astounding that a self-taught eight-year-old could play a long Chopin piece so well.
This child prodigy started playing the drums when he was two, soon becoming a class act. His father, Varshan Sathish (a music director in the Tamil film industry) entertained at private and public events, accompanied by his gifted son and a daughter, Amirthavarshini. As he drummed, Lydian was piqued watching his father on the keyboard. When Amirthavarshini began piano lessons, Sathish got her a Samick upright. On this piano, Lydian replicated whatever his sister played, entirely by ear. He was eight.
When his father showed him a YouTube video of the Hong Kong piano prodigy Tsung Tsung, Lydian was afire — whoa! Age was no barrier to becoming accomplished on the piano. His fingers swept across the keyboard with newfound energy.
When he produced a more-than-decent rendition of Mozart’s ‘Rondo Alla Turca’, Sathish recognised his son’s innate flair for the piano and taught him the musical scales. Amirthavarshini showed him how to interpret the little squiggles on sheet music.
“My daddy and sister were my first piano teachers,” Lydian says. As he blossomed, his father posted video clips on Facebook and YouTube, immediately earning him a faithful fan following across continents.
Around this time, Lydian enrolled as a tabla student at the KM College of Music and Technology, founded by AR Rahman. After classes, he wandered around the building, observing the various activities. At the Russian Piano Studio he watched a student playing Rimsky-Korsakoff’s ‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’. This composition, which has the pace of submachine gunfire, the learner played haltingly, slow enough for Lydian to memorise it. From YouTube Lydian learned that it was a fast piece. Within two days, he could play it at an astonishing 190 beats per minute (bpm).
Surojeet Chatterji, who headed the Russian Piano Studio, had trained at the Moscow Conservatory and later taught in the US. He identified Tsung Tsung’s piece as Eric Thiman’s ‘Flood Time’, and Lydian played it at increasing speeds till he reached a mind-boggling 252 bpm, the musical equivalent of the wind speed of Cyclone Vardah, which pulverised Chennai in 2016.
By listening to an array of classical compositions, Lydian soon understood that speed alone does not a pianist make. He learnt to play slow, melodic pieces like Chopin’s ‘Fantaisie Impromptu’ with beauty and grace. Chatterji’s instruction was anchored in Russian piano techniques, harnessing body language to merge the pianist with the piano. To learn traditional piano playing methods, Lydian also became a student of Augustine Paul, the veteran music educator and music director of the 125-year-old Madras Musical Association.
However, Lydian is largely self-taught; his teachers are his guides. This is possible because Lydian is gifted with two remarkable abilities: perfect pitch and musical memory. Perfect pitch is the ability to identify any musical note or chord without any reference note. Most do not have it — this is why, in concerts where musicians or singers improvise, a tambura or shruti box drones a reference note in the background. As for the musical memory, Lydian can memorise long note sequences. It’s like learning by heart three pages of text in the time it takes most people to memorise a couple of paragraphs. . He learns in a fortnight what an average musician does in 10 weeks or so. But, like all human senses, hearing is imperfect, so teachers like Augustine Paul have guided Lydian to combine his aural skills with the sheet music to play to perfection. Lydian practises at least five hours a day.
Guided by Paul, in 2016, a 10-year-old Lydian waltzed through the Grade 8 piano examination conducted by Trinity College, London. Candidates for this exam are usually college-age or older. Trinity music professors fly in from England to conduct the exam. Candidates play a number of pieces that test their musical, technical and interpretative skills. About one of the pieces Lydian was tested on (Chopin’s ‘Petit Chien Valse’), an examiner said in her report: “This was played with both delicacy and gusto and the Chopinesque rubato was managed with great aplomb giving the music both shape and interest throughout. A stylish and accomplished performance.”
Lydian was not only the all-India topper in this exam, but also the winner of multiple awards: the Cicely Goschen Shield, the Amy De Rozario Cup, the PP John Memorial Prize, and the Rajagopal Menon Prize. He joins an illustrious group of Chennai musicians who hold Trinity certificates or diplomas, including Ilaiyaraja, AR Rahman, L Subramaniam, and L Shankar.
Not restricting himself to Western classical music, he also explores jazz on the piano, plays melodies of Indian composers such as Ilaiyaraja, and is adept on the tabla and mridangam in Carnatic music.
As Lydian’s piano skills noticeably improved, connoisseurs of music who followed him on social media repeatedly commented that he had outgrown an upright piano. When the finger depresses a piano key, it makes a hammer strike a string and create the sound of that note. In a grand piano, most of the components move up and down, using gravity to return to the resting position. In an upright piano, many parts move horizontally against gravity, so springs return them to the resting position. Springs wear out over time, creating unevenness from one note to the next, making them less than suitable for an aspiring professional pianist.
But a grand piano is beyond the means of most Indian families, Lydian’s included. Was his future as a pianist barrelling towards an impasse?
Meanwhile, word about his talent was spreading. He was invited to Mumbai for the first TED show in India, TED Talks India Nayi Soch , with Shah Rukh Khan as the host and Juliet Blake (the New York-based curator of TED Special Projects) as the executive producer. TED invitees usually lecture, but Lydian ‘spoke’ through his music — “When words fail, music speaks”, as Hans Christian Andersen would have it.
The young boy played the piano in a fusion piece along with the Los Angeles-based violinist Gingger Shankar and Swiss drummer Carlo Ribaux. His poise, confidence, and ability to comfortably work in tandem with internationally renowned musicians seem to have left their mark on Blake.
So when Lydian was invited to participate in NBC’s Spanish-language TV show Siempre Niños in Miami in February 2017, and later visited New York, Blake took him to meet John and Tina Novogratz. The Novogratz family is a big name in New York’s financial world, and a staunch supporter of the city’s arts scene. Lydian didn’t know any of this — but he knew a Steinway grand piano when he saw one. His dream piano! He had seen one on display at Los Angeles airport but was not allowed to play it. At the Novogratz residence, he had carte blanche. His first time on a Steinway! Not knowing when or whether he might get such an opportunity again, he gave it his all. His fingers worked their magic; the lilting melodies of Mozart, Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven swirled around the room. Blake and the Novogratzes were mesmerised into pin-drop silence. Cell phones shot out of pockets and handbags, their video cameras turned on.
John’s brother Michael and his wife Sukey were hosting a music salon, and Lydian was not only invited to participate but also opened the show, preceding two other virtuoso pianists. After Lydian was done playing his pieces, Michael requested a Beethoven piece. Lydian obliged with a sweet rendition of the third movement of ‘Moonlight Sonata’, one of the challenging pieces in Western classical music. Michael strode onto the stage, hoisted Lydian up on his shoulder as the audience cheered, and declared, “When I come to Chennai, I’ll gift you a Steinway.”
Sathish, who had accompanied his son on this trip, remembers thinking what a nice man Michael was to encourage a kid in this way. He did not expect a Steinway, of course. In the past, several people had, in all sincerity, made offers far less grandiose but nothing had come of them. But Michael proved as good as his word. Months later — coincidentally, on Lydian’s birthday — Sathish got a phone call that a piano for Lydian had reached Chennai airport. Sparing no expense, Michael had shipped the piano by air. It was, in every conceivable way, a munificent gift.
Sathish remains overwhelmed by the magnanimity. “We were strangers to them, and entirely on the strength of one performance of Lydian’s, for them to do such a thing...,” his voice merged into his emotion.
At home with virtuosity
Lydian was on a high after the Steinway arrived. It was a Model L (L for Lydian, you could say). “It’s an awesome piano. I played it all day after it was installed,” Lydian remembers. He points to a major difference between his old and new pianos: he can play faster on the Steinway. In an upright, the key must rise all the way back to the top before it can be sounded again. In a grand, a note can be repeated after the key has only come up about a third of the way to the top. A grand gives the player more control. Lydian also demonstrated how loud (the sound ricochets off the walls and roof) or how soft (you wonder if you heard the note or just imagined it) he could play it. These are measures of a superior piano, and why musically savvy people had repeatedly commented that the supremely gifted Lydian had long outgrown an upright.
Lydian’s teachers were delighted for him. He played his dream piano for a glowing Paul via Skype. Chatterji stopped by his house — he absolutely had to see the Steinway with his own eyes. When Chatterji informed Rahman, the Oscar-winner phoned Sathish and described Lydian as one of India’s treasures.
The forlorn Samick upright faces the Steinway across the room. But Lydian refuses to altogether abandon it. How could he forget the long hours, the tears, the joy, the sweat, the frustrations and the triumphs he shared with this companion of many years? The Samick shaped him into what he is today; the Steinway will make him the household name he will be tomorrow.
Vishwas Gaitonde is a writer based in California, US