A Musical Affair to Remember

Musicians Shubhendra Rao and Saskia Rao-de Haas may come from different cultures, but when they perform together, their strings create harmony that blurs all boundaries, leaving audiences mesmerized in the midst. The Delhi-based husband and wife duo, Sitar & Cello, are masters of uniting European traditions and classical Indian music. In this interview with Shubhendra Rao, we learn the secrets of a happy marriage based on music, the virtues of silent concerts, the beauty of collaborating with others, and about the Shubhendra and Saskia Rao Foundation that promotes the love of music in children.

My Guru always told me: "Be strong like a Banyan tree with strong roots​. Once your roots are strong, then there is a whole life to learn from without getting swayed away easily." There is no short cut to success except putting in the hours. Even the most talented need to burn those extra candles since it is only the combination of talent and hard-work that will eventually pay off.

When East Marries West: In Conversation With Sitarist Shubhendra Rao

J’AIPUR:  What brought the two of you together? Did music play Cupid?

SR:  Surely it was music that brought us together. We met each other when Saskia came to India for the first time in 1994 through common friends. We kept in touch and were good friends for almost five years. We would always meet in a group which did not help us to know each other personally. It was in 1999 when we met again and this time, there were no friends. I remember that we just spoke and spoke for days together. We talked about music and our families a lot. Soon we realized how much there was in common in our childhoods, our families, and the value system we believed in. That wonderful friendship had turned into love and it did not take long for us to realize that we had a life together.

J’AIPUR:  It has been more than 15 years since you began to collaborate. How has it grown over the years?

SR:  It’s been an amazing journey and, because of music, we keep discovering new facets of each other on a daily basis. We are always trying to explore new things within our own music and bring it to the table every time we sit together. Many times our compositions are when we are not consciously composing but just as a part of our everyday lives together. In that sense, it’s an exciting life without a dull moment.

J’AIPUR:  Could you tell us about some of your most memorable performances together?

SR:  The cliché statement would be to say that every concert is a memorable experience but some stand out more than the others because of a variety of factors: wonderful and receptive audiences, great sound, performing at John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts or across various US cities, in Amsterdam or other European cities. Of course, it is always special to play in India at the various music festivals. Then, there are some of the spiritually uplifting concerts. You can never predict which concert will turn out which way. Sometimes the least expected concert could turn out to be a great experience and vice versa too.

J’AIPUR:  As artists from culturally different musical disciplines, there are bound to be certain differences of opinion. How do you manage to strike a balance?

SR:  We may have grown up in different cultures, but the value systems in both our families are very similar. Even though we may have initially followed different musical disciplines, at the end of the day it is all about music and here, there is no difference. Like in any sphere of life, there are differences of opinion sometimes, but since the foundation of our relationship is very strong, it is very easy to sort out anything and move on. We always are able to see the bigger picture and this helps in striking a good balance most of the time.

J’AIPUR:  You recently started the Shubhendra and Saskia Rao Foundation. Tell us more about it.

SR:  We started the Foundation based on the belief that music is every child’s birthright and to ensure that right, we try to create and make available good music education for all. A music education, based on Indian classical music, so children build a direct relation with their musical heritage from a young age. Too many children have no access to classical music and lose out on the great opportunities that music education offers. We developed the books, games, instruments and music literacy tools that were not there previously for Indian classical music. We now teach our music program both as in-school as well as after school out-reach programs. We also teach the music teachers in schools and provide them with the tools to teach Indian classical music in a fun and age-appropriate way. Although we are a young organization, we have already reached more than 600 children in Delhi. From the next school year onward, we hope to expand to at least 4000 more children. It requires help, funding, and a lot of work to keep our programs running, but it is worth seeing the impact it has on the children, teachers, and hopefully will help to build a strong, cultured generation. Music has been proven as a great way to uplift children from poverty and provide a positive direction in their lives.

Interview by Smita Jayaram // Photos kindly provided by Shubhendra Rao and Saskia Rao-de Haas // Learn more about Sitar & Cello here and here

Silence is, as a famous painter once said, the canvas on which musicians paint their music. When we become silent, we practice the art of conscious listening and create a connection between the audience and performer only based on the music.

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