Image: Aditi Tailang
Lydian Nadhaswaram digs fancy cars. Once in a while, the 13-year-old surfs the internet looking for YouTube videos on cars. Not speed monsters, but classy, luxury ones. “I love a Rolls-Royce,” he says with a disarming smile. Little coincidence perhaps that the object he showers most of his affection on at home is a Steinway, the Rolls-Royce equivalent among pianos.
The Steinway grand piano reached Lydian in 2017 from halfway across the globe. Billionaire American investor Michael Novogratz had it shipped to his Chennai house after he heard him play at a music salon in the US. Then 11, and after barely two years of playing the piano, Lydian had impressed the New York socialite circle with a mastery over complicated Western classical pieces—from Beethoven to Mozart, Chopin and everything in between—that were beyond his pithy frame and years.
Lydian’s teen growth spurt has now pushed him inches over his father’s shoulder, and his mop top’s a tad more outgrown and dishevelled. But he still prefers to clutch on to his father while crossing the road. Once he’s in front of the piano, though, he needs no handholding. At Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), where Lydian and his father, Tamil music director Varshan Sathish, arrived recently in matching canary yellow kurtas for a photo shoot with Forbes India, there was no tearing him away from the piano: His left fingers kept tapping away when he would turn right for the camera and vice versa. Each time the squeak of the camera flash rose above the music, he echoed it on the instrument, perfect to the note and the pitch. It takes a village to put together a concert, but all Lydian needs is a piano.
On September 27, Lydian will perform at the NCPA along with the Symphony Orchestra of India at its season finale, where he’ll join the SOI to play Franz Haydn’s piano Concerto Number 11 in D major. “This will be my first performance with an orchestra and a professional conductor. I need to practise well to be in sync with them,” he says.
Lydian’s proficiency on the piano received international acclaim earlier this year when he won the first season of The World’s Best, a reality show on American TV channel CBS that was judged by actor Drew Barrymore, singer and producer Faith Hill, and TV personality RuPaul. He played Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ at double the average speed (325 bpm), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘Turkish March’ blindfolded, and the tempestuous third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ that he later paired with drums, and won a whopping $1 million in prize money. What does he plan to do with all that money? Buy Complan, his favourite drink, jokes Sathish.
His ode to Barrymore with a rendition of the theme song, composed by John Willams, of the 1982 science fiction movie ET—in which she featured as a child artiste—moved the actor to tears. “She thanked me and asked me if I could teach her daughter to play the piano,” says Lydian, who repeated his blindfold act during an appearance at Ellen DeGeneres’s chat show a few weeks later.
“He’s got a great ear for music, he can identify any pitch correctly. Just yesterday, when we were entering the hotel, a dog barked and he immediately identified the pitch as G major,” says Sathish. A skill as fitting as any for a child named after a Western classical scale (Lydian) and a South Indian wind instrument (Nadhaswaram). “Plus his fingers are very flexible. He can move from one key to another in his own way without following the grammar. Having said that, he can also follow the structure of music through notations when needed.”
Louiz Banks, arguably India’s greatest jazz pianist, says, “When I first heard Lydian, he had been playing the piano for about two years, and was largely self-taught. Being a pianist myself, I know how difficult it is to play Western classical pieces. But the ease with which he played them was something else. The tag of a prodigy suits him perfectly. What else would you call someone who can play different tempos with both his hands as well as his feet at such an early age?”
The synchrony of the left and the right came to the fore at The World’s Best when Lydian first played a mash-up of popular movie scores—Harry Potter with his right hand and Mission Impossible with his left—and then, for the grand finale, Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Chopin’s Etude on two pianos simultaneously. “I practised the same-piano medley in the month leading up to the competition. But I thought of playing on two pianos just days before the final,” says Lydian, who counts ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and Frédéric Chopin’s ‘Fantaisie Impromptu’ among his favourite pieces.
Musical genius isn’t anything new in Sathish’s family: His elder daughter Amirtha Varshini displayed her musical proficiency when she was three and started performing on stage with him; she now plays the flute, the violin, the piano and is also a singer. But Sathish spotted Lydian’s abilities when he was even younger, 18 months, at a party where he began hitting the floor with a wooden xylophone stick. “It wasn’t a tantrum, it had a proper rhythm,” he says. He bought him a set of drums and began to train him. In 2010, when he was four, Lydian accompanied his father and sister on drums during shows in Sydney and Melbourne, reminiscent of the Jackson 5, possibly the world’s most famous family of musicians.
When he was nine, Lydian was drawn to the piano after hearing his sister play. At that time, given his percussion skills, he was learning the tabla at the KM Music Conservatory, founded by AR Rahman. There, he picked up Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of The Bumblebee’, a seemingly difficult piece due to its brisk tempo, just by listening to a trainee practise it on the piano. Sathish, meanwhile, had also pulled out a few YouTube videos of Hong Kong child prodigy Tsung Tsung that piqued Lydian’s interest in the instrument. The shift to piano happened almost seamlessly as he studied under Surojeet Chatterji, who heads the Russian Piano Studio at the conservatory, for a year and cleared his 8th Grade Trinity College exams, equivalent to an undergraduate degree or diploma, under the aegis of Augustine Paul.
With both his children flourishing in music, Sathish took the not-so-difficult decision of pulling them out of school. “They were going to be musicians anyway. For that they would need some basic knowledge of the sciences and the languages. That could be provided through home-schooling. I sent them to school for a few years just to get a feel of it, but then stopped. I had no hesitation,” he says. The flipside: Both Lydian and Varshini, now 16, were left with only each other as friends. But that didn’t foster any sibling rivalry, Sathish claims, but only goaded them to complement each other. It also produced some happy accidents, like the time when Lydian was playing the piano and Varshini threw a towel over his head. “He continued to play without missing a note. That’s when we realised he can play blindfolded.”
Lydian now practises for about five to six hours each day, and rides around on his bicycle when he wants to let his hair down. He doesn’t have a TV at home and his cellphone schedule is monitored: It’s to be kept on flight mode when he’s with his parents and switched on only when he’s on his own. Varshini’s SIM card just has a WhatsApp connection. The siblings have unrestricted access to the internet, but have been trained to look up mostly audio clips. “If you restrict kids, they defy you. I’ve trained them from a young age to look for the right things on the internet,” says Sathish.
Despite his son’s prodigious talent, Sathish has instilled in Lydian the discipline of practice. He’d download a video from YouTube and challenge him to ace it. Each time Lydian would play it, he’d tape, analyse and repeat until each note is as perfect as it needs to be. “He finished ‘Moonlight Sonata’ in three days and ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ in two, with about five hours of practice per day. It takes about a year for a good student to pick up all the correct notes,” he says.
On most days when he’s at home, Lydian moves from one instrument to another; besides piano and drums, he’s now mastered the tabla, mridangam, guitar, harmonica, melodica and a few other Indian percussion instruments, and is now learning the khanjira. Simultaneously, he’s also working on taking the big leap to original compositions, an ability that has already wowed actor Mohanlal, who’s roped him in for his debut directorial venture Barroz. Says Banks, “He’s fluent on music software. His compositional flair is a rare thing. A lot of prodigies replicate music of the masters, but Lydian also composes his own pieces.”
As he grows in stature, what does Lydian do to keep himself grounded? “It’s incredibly important for the guardians to look after child prodigies and help them maintain a balance. For every Evgeny Kissin or Maxim Vengerov that flourishes, there are many more who flame out,” says Marat Bisengaliev, noted violinist and SOI’s music director. Word of caution from Banks about not crossing that line between confidence and overconfidence helps, so does advice from his father about respect. “Not just his own, but everyone else’s,” says Sathish.
Right now, Lydian’s set his eyes on the moon, to take his piano there and play the ‘Moonlight Sonata’. With the start he’s got, he looks all set to make that journey.