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‘We Need To Make Performing Arts Accessible To All And Remove Roadblocks’

‘We Need To Make Performing Arts Accessible To All And Remove Roadblocks’

During her study of the cello in Holland, Saskia Rao-de Haas had not imagined that one day, she would be sitting on the floor to play the cello and performing ragas. For Saskia, the transition in her sitting position to play the cello in India, was loaded in significance and meaning.

Bhairav, Bhimpalasi, Bhupali, Bihag and Yaman became vehicles of her voyage from West to East. Saskia integrated the cello with Hindustani music in an Indian debut at a concert in 1999. This concert held promise for a woman artist who had been performing since childhood. She was ready for a new audience. She was India-ready. “I am happy I took those five years of uninterrupted practice of Indian music (after of course playing the cello already for 15 years) – so I felt ready.”

On the surface, Saskia’s journey in India appears to be just another story of a musician from another country adopting Indic art. On the inside, it tells how an artist gave Hindustani music, Indian classical music, the ragas and jugalbandi a new language and sound through an instrument which was never really used for Indian classical music. Inner domains of Saskia’s art carry a vocabulary dedicated to the ragas.

In her measured, defining, art-destined ‘cross-over’, Saskia’s art became a bearer for an expression and heritage which had inspired, for decades, countless musicians, some of the greatest, in the West. Her practice would give birth to a new artistic experience over rigorous riyaz and study of Indian classical music within and outside of her own continuing-study of the cello. She is continuing her study of Indian music history and the shastras.

During the first decade of her performance in India, the sight and image of Saskia holding the cello would prompt her audience to know the story behind her training and initial years in learning music and cello. Drawn strongly, at the same time, would be her audience to her own work behind making the cello – a fretless bow and stringed instrument — partner with sitar – in its performative agility and instrumental expression.

Saskia’s unfaltering attention to aligning the cello with demands of her performance – of the alaap, jod alaap (providing a unique and fascinating window to the jod alaap) ragas, bandish and layakari — would be engagingly evident. Watching her transition from the alaap to todas would reveal the story of the structural modulations undertaken to make the cello speak ‘Hindustani’. Her practice to make those modulations respond to music and musicality would eventually find the right audience, and in that audience, the understanding of her efforts and purpose.

The richly-fibred texture of notes, her immersion in the ragas, her own practice – the emergent entity, got assimilated into her inward quest over the years. Like an embracing mould, her passionate and gentle partnership and duet with her husband and co-artist – world renowned sitar maestro Pandit Shubhendra Rao — surrounds her own music.

For a moment, if riyaz is imagined as a womb, Saskia’s duet with Pt Shubhendra Rao, acquires the form of a progeny in swaras. Their duet – born from their marriage, minds, two cultures, two musical instruments and their distinct and combined sound, has ‘grown’ and evolved with them. It is a partnership with a ‘voice’-narrative of its own. The unified sound of her cello and his sitar is the meeting of the male and female in strings – far beyond the simplistic and plain explanation and captioning of their duet as ‘East Marries West’. With Saskia lies the cerebral and reflective cello, and its conversations with the intuitive, playful sound and vocabulary of the sitar. Inner contours of the masculine and feminine and the cross-treatment to the perceived masculine and feminine sounds, play out in their partnership in music. Their duet is one of its kind, the only one in its kind, in thought, quality, sound, creation and creativity.

Among the many instances of Saskia’s courage and imagination bearing a mark on her art are: her unique practice of todas and improvisations to match the structural agility of the those played on the sitar; her cello – in all its structural uniqueness – exploring each raga; in lending cello’s own vocalism to explore gayaki; in overcoming the cello-specific challenges in the playing of the jod alaap and jhala; in building a musical repertoire where her ‘singularity’ nourishes duet and the language of the duet nurtures solo. Next: in making her explorations of the Indian music history reflect in her music and engagement with the Pt Shubhendra Rao’s sitar, his mastery and artistic thought; in giving a serious thought and action to music in education; in soaking the Indian weather and using her own artistic experience of nature to enrich the rendition of ragas, among other aspects. Anchored in their home New Delhi, Saskia is known for being a hostess to music baithaks – some of these hosted to pull the music scene out of the numbness and lull left by the pandemic.

A few months ago, she performed at the release of a coffee table book ‘Bridges Beyond Borders’. The book was released by External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar. The theme of the book resonates with her “deeply”. She believes that music is an effective way to build bridges between people and bypasses the need for the spoken word. She tells Sumati Mehrishi about components in her training as a cellist in Holland that helped her in Indian music, working with instrument-builders, her work on making Hindustani sangeet her soul’s expression.

You have not built a bridge that ‘connects lives and music beyond borders’. You have ‘become’ the bridge. Share your thoughts on your role as a builder of cultural bonds.

Thank you for saying that. As an artist it is an opportunity and responsibility to have this role of a bridge. My role of bridging cultures is perhaps threefold. As a person from Dutch origin
performing Indian music, as a cellist creating a new instrument within classical music, and since the last 15 years, as a composer. The first 15 years of learning Indian music, I did not venture into cross-cultural collaborations and immersed myself in classical music. I was (and still am) in awe of the music that I wanted it to seep into every part of my being.

Tell us about your growing years in Holland. What led you to learn and ‘choose’ music?

I grew up in a family where everyone played music, some professionally and some as enthusiastic amateurs. My grandfather, with whom I was very close, played the cello as well. When I could choose a musical instrument, it was clear that it had to be the cello. I loved it from the very beginning and was very fortunate with my first cello teacher Tibor de Machula. He never taught young children, (he taught) only young professional cellists, but somehow, he taught me in a way that I still believe set me up for learning Indian classical music later. A lot of attention was given to scales and exercises and mostly through imitation rather than reading music. These components later helped me in Indian music.

Oral tradition, guru shishya parampara and related practice have defined how Hindustani music is taught and performed. Tell us about your transition from reading music to a realm that relies on badhat, improvisation, instruction, and a different perspective to notation.

Improvisation in Indian music is something one has to ‘earn’ through practicing pre-composed material by the guru. The more material one practices and the better one understands the choices that one can make within the music, the richer the expression. It is a hard-earned freedom. So, it never was ‘transitioning’ from one form to another, but about learning the music. I loved the entire process. All forms of music have the same inherent components: there are no short-cuts to technical perfection, there is ‘always’ a need after those basics to find your own identity as a musician. The final stage is where, as the great Pablo Casals said ‘the best technique is the one that is never heard’, the process of playing music comes directly from the heart and without any conscious effort. There is this universality about all styles of music that I find fascinating. The technical and structural variations of writing it down, being improvised, even instrumentation
in a way becomes less and less important the further one travels in music. It is finally about the essence of expression human universal truths.

Your marriage is also a marriage between sitar and cello, East and West, bow and strings, the feminine and masculine. How has it defined your idea of sound, togetherness, a duet?

We live our music together. I know of many couples where that dynamic — of having the same profession — doesn’t work. But for us, I feel it enhances our music, our lives and profession in every way. I thank God for giving me this life of togetherness. To ‘live’ our music together is a beautiful gift that far surpasses the stage. Shubhendra is to me the epitome of an artist on and off the stage and an immense inspiration. He lives his music with such dedication and without compromise. At the same time, music has different emotions and the fun, lightness, is as important as the reflectiveness.

Tell us about challenges faced by you and the work involved in ‘Indianising’ the cello.

I was extremely lucky to work with insanely talented instrument-builders. First Eduard van Tongeren and later Alexandre Letellier. When I was preparing myself to do to India back in 1994, I went to my childhood violin builder Eduard, who also specialised in finding special instruments for talented children. In those months, we had a lot of conversations about different instruments and 10 years of experimenting followed. Without this process of research, I would have never been able to come up with the instrument. The physical instrument changed with me overtime and I created five different versions before the instrument I finally called the Indian Cello.

The process of playing Indian music on an instrument that has not been used much at all in Indian music also took time. Guru ji told me to find a style that is best suited for my instrument and not just copy the style of another instrument. That was my journey. I just immersed myself completely in practice. Twelve hours a day was very common. I stopped all other ensembles and completely focussed on Hindustani sangeet to not just replicate it technically, but make it a part of my soul’s expression.

Over the years, you have travelled to Holland for family and music. Tell us about the interest shown by the Dutch cellists/Dutch music fraternity in your cello explorations.

There is a small, interested group of listeners in the Netherlands of Indian music that we perform for. I have also performed and taught at prestigious cello festivals all over the world. The music fraternity has deep interest in Indian music and it is a wonderful privilege to share that with them.

How did ragas open your music to India and Indian perspectives on music and aesthetic?

I love the concept of raga. It leads to redefining music in performance. I like to approach a raga as an entity that is always present around us. When you play the raga, you just invite the raga
in, explore the possibilities you can find within yourself, on that specific day at that specific time and release it after this exploration. A raga does not have a beginning and end. It just ‘is’. I
can play the same raga ten times and ten times it will be different.

To perform a raga well, we need to go really deep — within all possibilities it offers. To do this meaningfully, in depth knowledge and talim from the guru is essential. These become building
blocks for exploration of the raga. We can define that knowledge as classicism – an adherence to the rules and meaning of the raga. These rules are by no means static or the same for all artists, but within classical music, one cannot take shortcuts in this process. To me, that is the meaning of classicism within the music. Within this definition, we are never dogmatic or static, but open to a continuous process of exploration. This gives the artist an unlimited freedom to explore the
Raga based on deep knowledge and experience.

Is preserving individual perspective on music during years of collaborations and duet important to you? How do you work on it?

I don’t. I have always reflected on my music, my art and meaning and that comes completely naturally. Twenty years ago, that perspective was different than it is now. When I started out in India, I did not perform Western music in India for many years, since I was building my
identity as an Indian musician. I felt I needed that complete focus to earn my spot as an Indian classical musician. I strongly believe that before we can break the rules, we first need to know them. Not just on a superficial level — but live them. However, I don’t think it is ever possible not to have an individual perspective on music.

How do you and Shubhendraji work on disagreements while rehearsing or weaving music?

Disagreement means you do not settle for compromise in your music. And neither of us does. That complete honesty helps us and over the years, we have learned that we can resolve that well. I would like people to understand that it is not something to avoid. We just need to learn how to resolve it well and amicably. Disagreement with an openness to change perspective and work together is always a part of collaboration. Disagreement can lead, if not handled well, to arguing or quarrelling, which naturally we also do, but mostly we find better ways together through sometimes an initial disagreement. There are so many aspects to co-creating music — composing together.

Music is the second umbilical cord that connects you and Ishaan Leonard Rao. How has being in India enriched and shaped your motherhood?

We were sure that we wanted to bring up Ishaan in India and feel Indian. He speaks Hindi, Bangali, Kannada, English, Dutch, French and some Spanish. His identity is being Indian first but being at home in any part of the world and proud of his identity. His school – Mothers
International School (New Delhi) helped in shaping that identity as well. In our home and in school, these values have always been very important to us.

Which raga/s are you currently exploring?

I always explore a different raga every morning and evening for a week. I was enjoying Gujari Todi in the morning and Marwa in the evening. The reason to practice these two specific Ragas on the same day is that I tune the instrument differently to S and tivra M!
This is a very mystical kind of tuning that I enjoy. Re-tuning my instrument quite literally forces me to re-visit and explore various possibilities on the instrument. Every tone and distance changes when you do that — which tells me never to take the gift of music for granted.

Music and musicality lead the seeker to Indic sacred texts. Which sacred texts have you referred to or read for music or for your continuing work on music in education?

When I was 23, I was teaching Indian Music history at the conservatory of Rotterdam. Apart from cello performance, I also studied musicology and have read a lot and published as well. With a demanding performing career, and being a mother and wife, this part took a backseat for
some time. Since the last ten years, I have started writing again, and channelised those years of research into Sangeet4All, a complete music programme for children. I have written nine books for this programme and created child-friendly musical instruments.With Ishaan bigger, I found the time to do this. One example of a Shastric work that is full of delightful information for contemporary music educationalists, is the Natya Shastra — a revered work that is often called the fifth Veda, at the same time it is remarkably playful and accessible. Two examples: the way the swaras are related to colours and animals make it so accessible to young children who need a simple way in to relate to the abstract thinking skills that music requires. I use colours of the swaras in all child-friendly musical games, instrument books and instruments, so they experience the swaras through various senses.

I also used the Natya Shastra instrument classification system in a story about Tara the Sitar who lives in the country of Vadya. Her best friends are Suri the Bansuri (from the Sushir Vadya), Gatu the Ghatan (from the Ghan Vadya) and the naughty Tabla twins (from the Awanaddh
Vadya). Children can relate to these instruments as living entities and do not realise the amount of knowledge they accumulate, because they enjoy the story. I want to make this into a film and a theatre production.

What aspects of Indian Softpower are unique to India?

India’s culture is unique in so many ways. The strong identity of India’s soft power has enabled the country to retain this unique identity in music, dance, traditional clothes, food and traditions.
Tradition in India is not something of the past, but lived every day and plays such an important role in the identity of people. The pride people rightfully take in their culture sets the country apart. The interest the rest of the world takes in Indian culture and people take in their own culture is still really vast. Perhaps we need to make it more accessible to all, especially the classical performing arts.

To show a different way of life from the so dominant Western model is perhaps the immense role India has played and still plays. In small things such as home- cooked meals to the highest art forms; the world can learn a lot from India. In my own journey, I have seen the power
of Indian music and how it connects people instantly.

Which space is vacant and ready for interventions and engagement when it comes to education via music?

It is all about accessibility. Especially for children. The music itself is accessible, but we sometimes put roadblocks in the way. One of the roadblocks is putting classical music on such a high pedestal that people feel it is always out of reach. Another — the lack of
child-friendly resources and teaching methodologies. I have worked tirelessly on three aspects that help create this accessibility: create resources in the form of resources (workbooks, music
curriculum, music instruments). A contemporary Indian music methodology and pedagogy (based on how children learn at different stages of their development). A relation to the classical arts through activities (raga mala painting, listening to music in a playful manner). With these parameters, I developed a teacher-training programme for musicians and parents. I have seen how important music is in the lives of children and how they respond to music.

One child commented that since he was learning Sangeet4All, ‘everything is more calm’. ‘There is always so much noise, but in music class, my mind is calm’.

Tell us about the woman friends you found in Indian artistes (or artistes living in India). How have they helped or guided you?

So, so much! Women friends and mentors are very important, especially in a male-dominated workspace. They guide me, help me, pick me up when I am down and share laughter. I honestly could not have done anything without them.

Which temple would you like to perform at?

I always love performing at deeply spiritual places. I performed at many ashrams, temples, churches and other places of worship. Places that are so suitable to bring out the divinity of music! It is really a special experience.

An absolute dream would be to perform at the Kailash Mansarovar together with Shubhendra and Ishaan. The extremely strong divine vibrations there would allow us to tune in to that completely and carry those vibrations and blessings for the rest of our lives.