Cello player Saskia Rao-de Haas talks about how music and food complete the picture

“I can’t imagine any artist who doesn’t enjoy good food. One of the many pleasures of travelling as musicians is that you get to interact with different kind of people and get to eat the local food,” says cello player Saskia Rao-de Haas while having a North Indian meal at Rang De Basanti Dhaba, a plush restaurant styled like a dhaba located in South Extension Part II. A Dutch by birth, Saskia has been living in India for around 12 years and has adapted the cello to Hindustani classical music. Saskia has trained under Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia. After having spent almost 22 years as a musician, it is only now that the cellist is coming up with her first solo album, The India Cello.

Dahi ke kabab, stuffed mushroom tikka and pineapple pomengranate and lemon juice as starters set the tone for a conversation around her maiden project. “It’s a very minimalistic CD with just the cello and tabla and the three ragas I have done are raga Bhimpalasi, raga Bihag and raga Vibhas. Vibhas is special because it has been created by Shubendra,” elaborates the musician who is releasing the CD on the 20 September at India International Centre. The album will be launched by Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra.

Interesting texture

The discussion again veers off to food as Saskia dissects the taste of dahi ke kabab. She likes them the best because of the interesting texture. “It’s a mix between sweet, salty and sour. Good food is very important to me. I grew up on good home cooked meals with nice family get-togethers.”

So what’s with the ragas she features in the album? Is there a new approach, for she has played them often? “The beautiful thing about the raga is that they never get exhausted. You can keep exploring it and I don’t know of any other music which allows this kind of improvisation. Baba Allauddin Khan once met a group of scientists and asked them ‘You have gone to the moon but how deep you have gone into the ocean?’ The speciality of Indian music is that it helps you go inwards.” It’s raining and Saskia decides to steer clear of non-vegetarian food. She orders for simple non-fussy dishes like kurkuri bhindi, palak makai paneer, peeli dal tadka and peanut and sprout salad. “As musicians, especially when we are travelling, we are careful about what we eat. And then we have to keep in mind the body posture we sit in for long hours while playing or rehearsing. But otherwise Shubendra and I enjoy experimenting with food, trying out different cuisines. At home too we do different kind of food like South Indian— since Shubendra— is a Kannadiga and, Italian, Thai and Dutch. I make lot of cakes and pies.”

Experimental Saskia is and a mighty one at that. Tax your brains a little and it’s difficult to come up with any other name that plays Hindustani classical music on this bowed string instrument.

“I think it’s the power of Indian music. That’s why it was possible to introduce instruments like the saxophone or slide guitar in it. Guru ji (Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia) made me very aware that I was playing a new instrument. He always told me to play the cello as it should be,” recalls the cellist, who first came in contact with Indian classical music while studying for her masters degree at the University of Amsterdam. To complete her thesis, she came to India in 1994, where she began her learning process from the late Dr. Sumati Mutatkar at Delhi University. She also studied with Pandit D.K. Datar, Pandit Deepak Chowdhury. She simultaneously did her degree at the conservatory of Rotterdam where she studied with Pandit Koustav Roy and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

“The instrument has been completely modified. And while the instrument is built by a Dutch violin builder, the strings are attached in India by Rikhi Ram and sons. It has five playing strings and 10 resonating strings and thus gives out a unique sound,” explains Saskia now onto the main course.

Relishing her kurkuri bhindi, palak makai paneer and peeli dal tadka with pudina parantha, Saskia remarks, “Just like good food needs the right ingredients, good music takes good improvisation.”

(The launch will be preceded by a panel discussion on ‘Indian music as a global art form’ and will be followed by a concert by Saskia accompanied by Durjay Bhaumik on tabla.)