City Obituary – Pianist Mahesh Agrawal, The Ashoka
The Steinway man.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He was the man who had been regaling audiences on Delhi’s sole Steinway on public view—at The Ashok—for more than 30 years. He died during the second surge of the Covid in the capital in early 2021. The Delhi Walla met him once. Here’s the account of that evening. Meanwhile, that Steinway stays locked in the hotel’s tea lounge.
HIS THICK fingers press down the piano keys, and thousands of stars immediately fall from the sky to break into millions of sparkling diamonds.
A great part of the magic comes from the grand piano itself, the only Steinway on public view in the city. But please consider the pianist, too. Mahesh Agrawal has been playing the stately instrument at The Ashoka hotel off-and-on for 30 years.
Always dressed in a western suit, he seems to be a man who spends all his waking hours with Beethoven and Bach. But he actually plays Hindu bhajans, along with Sufi qawwalis, and the inevitable Hindi film songs.
It is a rainy evening. Mr Agrawal, who performs at the Tea Lounge every day from six to nine, begins a film song whose tunes seem familiar to us, and yet we are unable to recall either the lyrics or the film. A few people walk in from the lobby and stand in rapt attention. The song ends, they clap.
“I’m an approved artist from All India Radio with B grade plus,” Mr Agrawal proudly tells us.
I’m told the piano was lying unused in this government-owned hotel for years. In 1990, Mr Agrawal arrived at The Ashoka for an audition to perform as a restaurant ghazal singer. “On spotting this beautiful piano, I could not resist touching it, and the next moment, I was playing ‘Tu pyaar ka sagar hai’ from the film Seema. By the time I ended, many guests had crowded around me.”
The same day, the management asked him to play the piano regularly. That was the beginning of a long relationship. For a few years, Mr Agrawal left to perform in hotels abroad—Netherlands, Singapore and Dubai—but he eventually repented his inconstancy, returning to Delhi to make up with the Steinway.
As it continues to rain outside, Mr Agarwal starts a new song—‘Jane kahan gaye woh din’ from the film Mera Naam Joker. Two women sitting on a nearby table are moved enough to suddenly stop taking selfies. When the song ends, one of them starts to clap.
Rest is silence