After finishing one of her concerts in France, a couple walked up to Saskia Rao de Haas and told her about one of their friends who had been diagnosed with cancer. He had played Rao de Haas’s CD every day for one whole year. They told her that this man believed it was her music that cured him.
It’s easy for stories like this to go to one’s head, but the inventor of the Indian Cello holds to her heart a mantra that has allowed her to coax, from stubborn strings, lascivious-yet-punishing-yet-pensive tones: Patience. Reverence. Dedication. Discipline. Speaking to her evokes the kind of tranquillity you would experience at the end of a sermon by Thich Nath Hahn; you are convinced that things are ripe for a positive transition.
Maestro Rao de Haas spent her childhood in a Dutch village at the border with Amsterdam with windmills and a river and cows dotting green fields. Her parents played the piano, her sisters the flute and violin. Her early training was under Maestro Tibor de Machula who took pains to emphasise the how basic scales and exercises fit into the florid manoeuvrings of concertos and sonatas. She experienced, with him, a technique characteristic of musical education in India: imitation. Rao would listen to him play, and instead of looking at the sheet music, would attempt to replicate him on the instrument. About a year after this began, it was discovered that could not read musical notations too well; she had been playing from memory the entire time.
Her introduction to the Indian classical oeuvre occurred through a recording of the Dagar Brothers that one of her teachers, professor Rokus de Groot, played in class. Rao found herself irreversibly seduced by its easeful cohabitation of contrasts: the sounds unfurling both rigid and free, earthly and esoteric.
Her work finds truth in this playful duality. When she weaves her harmonic way through the Raga Bhimpalasi, it is with a skill imbued with copious soul, with precise, distinguished beginnings that shimmer into swathes of sublime rushes which tap into multiple emotional responses.
Rao’s training under the revered Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia has allowed her to temper sensibilities fostered by traditional Western training. As artistic director of the Indian music program at the Rotterdam conservatory, he spent about 4 months a year taking classes in an intensively interdisciplinary curriculum which brewed a mosaic consciousness of melody: western art music, jazz music, popular music, tango, flamenco, Persian and Indian music, composition and music education. Rao assiduously attended his classes, and they crafted her perspective and practice. She absorbed his conception of music as meditation, worship and existential path. As revealed by the divinity he breathes into the bansuri (bamboo flute), his mastery is the consequence of a spiritual acquiescence to his sound, coupled with the “practice regime of a former Soviet gymnast”.
Rao’s own expertise honours both her roots in the West and her heart in India. She exemplifies this in the Indian Cello, an instrument of her own design. Born of “the need to create a specific sound that was of a cello but with an Indian essence”, it is modified with a high extra string, 10 sympathetic strings and tuning, as well as decreased size allowing for it to be played while sitting on the floor (in the way of the Indian classical practitioner).
The instrument emanates a tone that is sparse, polished but unpretentious, and in the hands of Maestro Rao, infinitely malleable. She wields it like Orpheus’ lute, causing a device born in 16th century Italy to sing the Raag Vibhas and Miyan ki Malhar with unabashed ease.
Maestro Rao de Haas’ artistry is grounded in culturally heterogenous soil. She applauds the benefit of having been educated with wildly opposing techniques prevalent in traditions of the West and India. “Western teaching is all about encouraging to ask questions, to explore freely and to regard your teacher as a mentor whom you respect, but not as a distant unapproachable person…An Indian learning style is more bout surrender to the Guru who molds the student based his infinitely larger experience and knowledge. The student should do as he is told, since the Guru has his best interest in mind. For that reason, he is not encouraged to question the guru.” Her gurus pointed out the path that led her to glory, but left her curiosity untouched. Rao states that she has received the benefit of being given knowledge without being deprived of the right to question the knowledge being given:
“There is no replacement for the guru shishya parampera, yet students should be encouraged to foster an inquisitive mind and be open to explore. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia told me that my mission should be to create a style for the Indian cello. Not play like another instrument or vocal style.”
The Indian Cello was built by Eduard van Tongeren, a Dutch lutier who has earned accolades for restoration of old, difficult and forgotten instruments. An electro-acoustic avatar of the cello has been created by French lutier Alexandre Letellier. Rao has designed five different models of the cello, most of which are used by her students.
Rao might have been initiated into the rich tapestry of classical music by her teachers, but much of the inspiration and experimentation emerges from her partnership with composer and sitar player Pandit Subhendra Rao, her husband since 2001. A protégé of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Subhendra Rao is known for his proficiency, prowess and extensive collaborations. Their classical jugalbandi is a thing of joy, merging the gentle, sprightly, elusive meanderings of the sitar with the earthy sheaths of cello strings.
Their partnership extends beyond stage and home to entrepreneurship. The Sangeet4All curriculum was born out of their belief that all children are entitled to musical education that actually offers some merit. Currently serving about 12,000 children and 50 music teachers, it comprises “an on the job professional development program for music teachers, effective musical games and activities, text books in the form of attractive picture books, songs, new small instruments, reading Indian music notation and flashcards.” She calls it “the science of teaching music in an Indian classroom” as it takes care to incorporate classical Indian sensibilities into its structure.
Saskia Rao de Haas’ discipline is evident in a daily routine saturated with yoga and slow scales, care for her son, riaz, teaching, workshops, meetings, concerts, more riaz and working on the curriculum. She draws her persistence from her philosophy that hails music as imbued with “the power to unite people and…let them experience intimately what it means to be one with…the sense that we are all one, all connected by a higher power…” It has served her well, fostering a sound made unique not simply because of her skill in manipulating an instrument but in shaping an entirely new one.
For a world obsessed with definitions, discrimination and a superficial “advancement” at the expense of any lessons the past might have offered, Saskia Rao de Haas is a reminder of what might happen if artistic boundaries are relaxed, and the past is given a place at the table.