Cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas plays Raga Bhimpalasi for us in the music room she shares with her husband Shubhendra Rao, an acclaimed sitarist and a protégé of Pandit Ravi Shankar. An electronic tanpura accompanies her, but that’s ambient: The Raos wake up to it and turn it off only when they retire for the night. Seated on a duree (mat) in her suburban Delhi apartment, under a framed portrait of the sarod player Ustad Alauddin Khan, de Haas seems to belie her Dutch roots despite her chestnut brown hair.
Right notes: De Haas’ first solo album features the Raga Bhimpalasi. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
The notes of the highly evolved Bhimpalasi are the centrepiece of de Haas’ first solo album, which she has just finished recording. It embodies 15 years of work—the years since her introduction to the raga tradition. The hour-long album will be released in India and Europe early next year by a record label that she is reluctant to disclose at this stage.
De Haas’ story is that of a girl from a small village, Abcoude in Holland, who has taken to Hindustani classical music not just as a profession but as a way of life. Hailing from a family of Western classical musicians, and a cellist since the age of 8, de Haas ventured into the world of Hindustani classical music when she came to India in 1994 as a student of ethnomusicology. A short research trip to study sargam notation in Indian music turned into a year-long journey. So attracted by the ragas and taals (rhythms) was she, that when she went back to the prestigious Rotterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands, she changed track to devote herself entirely to Hindustani classical music. At the conservatory, she studied under stalwarts such as vocalist Koustav Ray and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.
De Haas plays on a cello she has modified based on her comparitive study of Indian string instruments and European baroque instruments. It took the Dutch violin maker Eduard van Tongeren—who also built her first cello when she was nine years old—three years to craft. De Haas has added one playing string on the higher octave to enlarge the scope of the instrument and introduced 10 sympathetic strings to enrich its tonal quality.
But most importantly, she has reduced its size to allow her to sit on the floor like other Indian classical musicians. A cello is played sitting on a chair, but when de Haas had her first lesson with the vocalist Sumati Mutatkar as part of her student research, she found it terribly awkward. “For our second class, I was on the floor, though it was difficult to manage an instrument as large as the cello and hold it at the correct angle,” she says, now expertly handling her refashioned piece.
She says purists often question her, but she hasn’t yet been targeted with charges of dilution. “Because I’m not doing that,” she says, adding, “I don’t mix the two. I’m a Hindustani classical musician but I play on a cello.”
The true music lover would only celebrate such a marriage, believes de Haas, whose varied experiences include the Jewish klezmer and the Flamenco guitar. “What is a sitar other than a fusion between Indian and Persian culture so many years ago?” she asks.
She recalls an incident four years ago at the prestigious Maihar festival, held every February at Ustad Alauddin Khan’s old kothi (house) in Madhya Pradesh. “An old gentleman came up to me after my performance and said ‘Who said Saraswati had to be Indian?’ It was deeply inspiring.”
Several years ago, Chaurasia had told her that the secret lay in finding a style that suits one’s own instrument. “It’s something that he’s done perfectly himself,” says de Haas. In her album, in which she evokes the pathos-filled notes of the Bhimpalasi as if they were created for the cello, she seems to be on track.
Saskia Rao-de Haas will perform at the Dhrupad Samaroh in
Bhopal on 3 January.