An artisanal piano made in 1912 in Germany travels through time, encountering World War One and the Indian freedom struggle before reaching the home of Meera, a young girl searching for a friend in Calcutta in 1992. “As I was searching for my friend, my friend was searching for me,” Meera observes.
That friend turns out to be Marcus Aurelius, the actual 106-year-old German piano belonging to Nandita Basu, which inspired her new graphic novel The Piano. It tracks how Meera, modelled on Basu herself, comes to find Marcus Aurelius as a kid, loses it, and then discovers it again as an adult.
Basu is a Gurgaon-based musician and visual artist, who has been producing comics for around 10 years. She has earlier produced short comics for comic book anthologies, drawn and written a syndicated comic series for the Tamil newspaper Dinamalar, and self-published an autobiographical graphic novel, A Comic Existense.
The Piano is Basu’s first graphic novel formally published by a leading publication house, Penguin Random House’s imprint, Duckbill. For Basu, who says she “likes solitude” and “doesn’t have too many friends”, The Piano emerged from her wanting to write a story about friendship.
“I did not just want to highlight a piano,” Basu told Scroll.in. “I thought why can’t friendship be one’s connection to music? Then the story flowed naturally, from how it was made in Germany to how it reached India.”
Around 1998 or 1999, Basu said, she was training to play the piano, but did not have one at home, since “in those days, pianos weren’t as heavily manufactured and available as they are now, and the only pianos in India belonged to old families or expats who had left them behind”.
One day, the 18-year-old Basu came across a baroque brown piano under a staircase of a house in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. She immediately took a liking to it. “The woman who owned it set its price at Rs 56,000, and just wouldn’t budge about lowering it,” Basu said. “I had Rs 55,000 of savings in my bank account, and I bargained with her to bring the price down to Rs 54,000, since I needed Rs 1,000 to take it back home.”
Within days of bringing it home, Basu wrote an email to the Germany company, the now-defunct Julius Feurich, which had manufactured the piano, inquiring about its details. The company had been founded in 1851 in Leipzig in Germany. The company, now sold to an Austrian piano manufacturer, wrote back saying the piano was made in 1914, the year World War I began. No further information was available as the workshop had been bombed during World War II.
For over a year, the ramshackle piano did not respond to Basu’s fingers. “It had a muffled sound, and it just didn’t want to be played by me,” Basu said. “I began wondering if I had wasted my money.” It was, however, love at first sight for her, and she named it Marcus Aurelius after the Roman philosopher-emperor.
Piano repairmen who could handle pianos of such age and quality were hard to come by in Delhi. Finally, a pianist from Kolkata who had settled in Delhi, did the first set of repairs, followed by additional repairs of specific parts in Kolkata. The piano now resides in Kolkata with Basu’s parents.
Basu weaves in the wartime machinations and the revolutionary spirit of the Indian freedom struggle into The Piano. The German family owning the piano leaves it behind in their home while fleeing during the war. They are confronted by Indian soldiers fighting for the British.
The piano finds its way to a British soldier, whose brother brings it to Kolkata. He teaches a Bengali child how to play it, and the child in question grows up to join the freedom struggle. But the love for the piano never comes between the student and his master.
For Basu, drawing from her own life of being a trained pianist-violinist for comic books and fiction is not new. “My self-published graphic novel A Comic Existense was inspired by the life of an artist, who’s never taken that seriously, and how they have an existential crisis, which they carry as a halo,” she said. “Being a musician and a graphic artist at the same time is beneficial, because when I’m not progressing in any one form because of a creative block, I can channel my energies into the other.”
Basu feels that creating graphic novels are a good medium for self-expression, but perhaps not a financially lucrative option for publishers. “The genre is nascent in India,” she said. “It only pulls in a small segment of readership, so publishers are not too keen on it. But because of self-publishing now, you have the freedom to explore your artistic goals, and find your niche of readers online.”