The Piano Man

The lobby is milling with the usual suspects: the business traveller playing bluff with the poker-faced receptionist, the batik-wearing neo-hippie who likes his spirituality with a side of sushi, the yuppie couple dressed in their Sunday best for a night out, and then there is the man who presides over this melee. He sits there with his piano, at the base of the marble-clad stairs, which lead to the crowded restaurant where your fries come doused in truffle oil.

Even in this sea of aggressively curated exteriors, Ivan Rodericks is the best dressed man. He is a natural with the white tuxedo, that trickiest of sartorial beasts, and he knows it. He sees everything, but to the world around him, the old man seems invisible. The crowd trickles past him as he tinkers with the keys, the black one producing a flat note while the white trills sharply. He smiles at those who pass by him but rarely gets a response.

Maybe it’s the place; the landing is not conducive to conversation. Maybe it’s the popular opinion that hotel pianists are raconteurs prone to telling long and tall tales. And boy does Ivan have stories to tell.

He has seen Led Zeppelin get wasted on airline booze, he has flown with The Beatles and you do want to hear about the years he spent in Beirut as part of a jazz quartet.

All it takes is a smile and Ivan leads you into his world.

He was born and raised in suburban Mumbai’s Bandra in a musical family, which considered Nat King Cole its spirit animal. Ivan and his brother Oscar played the piano at family gatherings, while everyone else harmonised to Autumn Leaves.

They were self-taught, church choruses helped, and their mother, a classically-trained pianist, gave lessons at home. While still a teenager, Oscar and he started playing at the Natraj hotel at Marine Drive. Couples flocking to the hotel for some expensive ice cream were serenaded by renderings of Nat King Cole and Bombay’s jazz aficionados would flock to listen to Ivan’s black-and-white keys playing foil to greats like Noel Thomas. He played for free but could eat as much ice cream as he wanted and he was happy with the arrangement. But even the best scoop does not equal rent, and in 1960, Ivan gave up the sweet deal for a gig as a steward with Air India.

For the next 14 years, he travelled the world with the Maharaja. The years were easy but somewhat uneventful, until Robert Plant and the band walked into a Los Angeles flight to India one day. “I was the only crew member who recognised them. And was I disappointed. They ate like savages,” he says, opening his mouth wide and chomping on an imaginary piece of meat to demonstrate the legendary rockers’ lack of table etiquette. It was on the same flight that he met another musician who changed his life. Frederick was a German jazz enthusiast who had heard about the bustling scene in Mumbai and wanted a taste of it. Ivan gave him a sampler and Frederick gave him an offer any sane man would have refused. He spent the next 15 years as a pianist in Beirut. He stayed in the hotel for free, was free to eat and drink his fill at the restaurant and was paid $50 a week. But the memories, he says, are priceless.

He romanced the guests by day and tinkled the keys until the sun rose in the bohemian quarters of Gemmayzeh. He lived through the 1982 siege of the city and spent a week cooped up in the hotel without electricity and water and cheered when the Palestinian forces withdrew.

But that war changed it all. The restaurant saw more brawls than romances and the noise of booming gunfire often drowned out the music. And Ivan returned home.

He went looking for the Natraj but the hotel had shut shop. Corporate hotels with identikit art and normcore interiors were sprouting all across Mumbai in the 1990s. But they did not want a band; all they wanted was a piano man, a lonely fixture to churn out background music to distract the diners.

And that is what Ivan has been doing for the past decade.