By Shrinkhla Sahai
Initially trained as a cellist in Western classical music, Saskia Rao-de Haas’s tryst with north Indian classical music took her to varied musical shores. While her virtuosity with the instrument developed under cello maestros Tibor de Machula and Ubaldo Arcari, her musical moorings expanded to new vistas under the mentorship of Hariprasad Chaurasia, Sumati Mutatkar, D.K. Datar, Deepak Chowdhury, Kaustav Roy and Shubhendra Rao.
In this conversation she reflects on her instrument, experiments, research and her journey towards a unique musical identity.
How did your musical journey start?
I was born in Holland and most people in my family are in music. My parents play the piano, my grandfather played the cello and my grandmother was a singer. When I was seven years old, I could choose my own instrument. I was deeply fond of the cello and I wanted to learn it.
Every instrumentalist has a special relationship with the instrument she plays. How has your connection with the cello developed over time?
Interestingly, the first children’s cello I received when I started playing, is from the same violin builder in Holland who has made my Indian cello that I play now. I still remember my first cello; it was a 150-year old French instrument. The cello is a very comfortable instrument. The position is quite natural, you sit with the instrument and give it a big hug. For an artist, your instrument is an extension of yourself. It expresses everything I have to say much better than I could ever do in words. For the first 12 years of cello playing I had never heard of Indian classical music. I was involved in learning more, enhancing my technique. I believed that Western classical music was the one and only true art form in the world. Then one day in my musicology class the professor played Indian classical music. It was dhrupad by the senior Dagar brothers, an alap in raga Yaman. I was fascinated by the slow unfolding of the raga. It immediately touched me and I decided to find out more about this music. Hariprasad Chaurasia was heading the department at the Conservatory of Rotterdam. I started learning more and consequently went to India in the 1990s, more as a researcher than a performer initially. I was fortunate to study under Dr. Sumati Mutatkar. She opened up a new world for me – her approach to music and her connection with each raga as a separate individual were inspiring. This interaction really sealed it for me, and I wanted to know a lot more. After returning to Rotterdam, I started practising this music very seriously, almost 10-15 hours a day for the next five years.
Would you say that you belong to the Maihar gharana?
If I reflect on my training, yes. My guru-s – Pt. Chaurasia, Pt. Shubhendra Rao and Pt. Deepak Chowdhury – belong to that gharana. The style of presenting the full alap jod jhala in this gharana really appealed to me. The approach to each raga is different. For instance, if I were playing Kafi, I wouldn’t play the longer alap but go into the vilambit Teentaal and faster compositions after that. The whole structure and build-up of the music is very enjoyable.
How did you conceive the idea of playing Indian classical music on the cello?
In one of my learning sessions at Rotterdam, Hariprasad Chaurasia advised me to create a style that suited my instrument and where my individuality could be fully expressed. I followed his guidance and started experimenting in that direction.
What technical changes did you bring about in the instrument?
I would say that the instrument grew up with me. We started with baby steps in the world of music and today it has grown into a fully new instrument. The first step was when I saw my teacher, Kaustav Roy, sitting on the floor on my first lesson. I was supposed to sit on the chair to play the cello and I felt deeply uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be sitting on the chair looking down at my teacher. I knew that I had to sit on the floor. By the next lesson I found a way and I still use that method. I tie a kind of belt around the cello and just sit on that so that it doesn’t slip away. With the main cello there are four playing strings. I felt I was missing two things: the first one was the resonating strings and I wanted that to be part of my instrument, so I experimented with that. Secondly, the cello strings are heavy and the distances are relatively long. When I practised a gamaka, it was very heavy on my hand because of the friction and spaces. I decided to use a smaller cello and that made a huge difference. I also added one extra high playing string.
Certain aspects of Indian music like zamzama, murki and other embellishments were perhaps not very easy to express on the cello?
Absolutely! All these embellishments are essential to Indian music. It is often said that Indian music is not so much about the notes but what is between the notes – meend for instance. The nuances are important. You can practise something a million times but unless you feel it is your own, you can’t be true to it. That is a process and it becomes part of who you are as an artist. For that, apart from practising, you need to listen to a lot of music and discover your expression and the expression of your instrument.
When was your first performance of Indian music?
In 2001, in New Delhi. The response was very warm. There has been a certain amount of scepticism since it is a new instrument and the artist is not from India. But when people hear the music, it surprises them. I have received tremendous support from hardcore traditionalists and purists of this music.
Any performance memory that you really cherish?
I was performing at the Maihar festival. An elderly gentleman who had heard all the legendary masters of Indian music, was completely fascinated with my music. He came to me and said, “Who says that Saraswati is Indian!” It was incredibly inspiring. There are many such cherished memories of performances. No one may actually say anything to you, but you can feel it when you have connected deeply with the audience, the instrument, with others on stage. Then you move out of that space of just being a musician and into a larger realm. It could be an entire concert, 20 seconds of a performance or even alone in my music room. Those are the moments that make the journey beautiful.
How did you come up with the idea of a string quartet for Indian music?
When I first moved to India and started training in Indian classical music seriously, I didn’t even listen to any other genre of music for six years so that I could internalise it as part of myself. When Shubhendra and I got together, we would practise and compose together. That’s how our project East Marries West came into existence. I felt more confident about my abilities as a composer. It had always been a dream of mine to have Indian classical music in a string quartet format, not as a completely composed piece, but to keep the Western ensemble format and blend that with the Indian raga and tala system. We did not use the tabla or tanpura. All these different roles were performed within the string quartet and a different set of musical concepts is used here. For instance, instead of the tanpura, we use the ancient concept of moorchhana, where you modulate without changing the scale. You get a completely different atmosphere. I would love to repeat this performance in India.
[The Madras String Quartet, led by V.S. Narasimhan, and including a cellist, has been performing Carnatic music for quite sometime. See Sruti 309 for cover story. – Editor]
I am reminded of Baba Allaudin Khan’s Maihar band. Is there a conceptual connect with that vision?
That is very interesting, I believe he got these ideas when he was in Kolkata. At that time there were other people experimenting with building Indian instruments in Western ensembles. The cello was actually used in the Maihar band. I was researching about the history of the cello and its arrival in India. There are different dates and in Kolkata it is supposed to have arrived in early 18th century with the Britishers. On the shipping list it is mentioned as ‘bass viol’ which is the predecessor of the cello. Interestingly, the cellists from the Maihar band used to hold their instrument in the position in which bass viol was held. Consequently the viol was used in theatre and maybe that is how Baba connected with it and introduced it into the band.
You have trained with different guru-s and you play an instrument that is unique and new to Indian music. What is your teaching methodology?
I love to teach because it forces me to verbalise what I have found out in my own practice. That is very helpful. I usually follow the systematic approach of Maihar gharana. One aspect I find very significant is the use of small compositions and lot of sargam-s. A sargam made by a master musician can be really beautiful. Baba’s sargam-s, for instance, are such gems of music, simple and beautiful. Chopin in Western classical music wrote many etudes; we can say that the sargam is conceptually parallel to that. You learn a lot of the musicality, the raga, the tala, all at the same time through sargam-s. This is one element that is quite specific.
What is the focus of your Ph.D. research?
It is part of a performance-oriented research involving innovative composition, concert series, recording and a text. I will be focusing on the journey of the Indian cello in the perspective of Indian music as a global art form.
Tell us about your upcoming album.
The album called The Indian Cello is a pure Indian classical album. I have played raga-s Bheempalasi, Behag and Bibhas. Tabla is by Durjay Bhowmick. It is my first full length solo album with the Indian cello. It will be produced by Underscore Records and Pt. Rajan and Sajan Mishra will be releasing it. Alongside, I have also organised a panel discussion on Indian music as a global platform.
(Shrinkhla Sahai is a radio professional, arts researcher, and writer)