Watch Stephen Devassy on stage and you see a rock star. But have a conversation with him offstage and you discover a soft-spoken, but fiercely determined youngster, for whom music is not just a passion, but the very life and soul. For someone so absurdly talented, with thousands of real and virtual fans, 28-year-old Stephen Devassy is remarkably grounded.Most Malayalis would know this Ottapaalam native as the smart-looking keyboard player in the Amrita Super Star reality show. Few might be aware that the program showcases only a fraction of his real talent, that his record as the highest scorer in Asia in solo piano (Grade eight) as a 19-year-old remains unbroken.The difference with Stephen was that he didn’t fizzle out in adulthood like many such prodigies.“Western classical music has only a very limited audience in our country. I knew very early that I wanted to reach out to the masses somehow and bring Western classical to the common man.” The solution he found was to fuse popular and western, and present it in such a way that even a hard rock fan enjoyed the sounds without realising that it was Beethoven or Bach. Of course, Stephen’s amazing stage presence and perfect fingers helped, and the number of fusion stage shows that he has done so far has crossed 1000, unheard of for an instrumentalist.The only country which he “hasn’t travelled to for shows is Antarctica,” he says.Following an initial stint with Malayalam music directors Stephen went on to accompany and tour extensively with some of the most illustrious names in classical music in the country - Hariharan, U Srinivas, Sivamani, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Zakir Hussain, L Subramanian - all before he turned 28! Surely, he had a Godfather? “Not at all,” he laughs. “I am somebody who doesn’t have a precedent in this field, I just accepted whatever came my way. With God’s grace, my performances would always be noted by someone in the audience who would recommend me to someone else and so on.Maybe the next generation will know how to pick and choose; the only thing lacking for the talent pool here is exposure,” he adds.Stephen is currently working on his second ‘Sarodh Sympony’ album with Ayaan and Amaan, sons of Amjad Ali Khan. He was involved in the background of the recently launched Phir Mile Sur, and has been accompanying A R Rahman on all of his Jai Ho concerts and will be doing 30 more of them all over the world, beginning in May. He has done the background score for many of the maestro’s compositions like Azhakiya Thamizhmakan and for an upcoming album produced by Rahman, sung by Rashid Ali. He continues to be part of the International Rex band.Keeping the audience engaged on one hand, delivering complex classical pieces on the other, how does he manage it all on stage? “There have been times when I suddenly drew a blank on stage. On those times my faith in God is the only thing that makes me go ahead. I can’t do without it.” He also has a strong support system in his family, “When I chose music as my path I was at an age when my father had a strong command over me. But somehow he did not oppose, I believe it’s also God’s will.” Stephen’s calendar for the year ahead is full - with a few international concerts as well -he will be performing in Womad 2010 and in the MusikMesse Frankfurt in March, some of the biggest events in world music. “I want to bring in elements of Indian music in what I present there,” he says. His greatest dream, is to do his bit in bringing Indian music to a global level, “like how Santana brought Latin American music to the mainstream.” He also wants to start his own compositions soon and hopes to see a symphony orchestra coming to India.And what else is happening in his life other than music? “Initially, I had planned that I would not get married, but now I think I will, if only for the sake of my mother,” he says. What does he think of all those online fan sites where every move of his is discussed in detail? “I don’t really go through them though it means a lot more responsibility” comes a causal answer. As an afterthought he adds.“My only wish is to remain the same at heart, whatever happens - whether I quit this field or reach greater heights.” Obviously, music is an end in itself for this youngster, not a means to fame.
COURSTEY: Asha Prakash,Express Buzz