While working on her doctoral thesis, cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas remembers chancing on a 1932 letter from Rabindranath Tagore to his granddaughter. There is an instrument, he says, that he prefers over the violin: “The cello appeals to me quite a lot. I think it is a good instrument for playing our music.”

The prodigiously talented Baba Allaudin Khan seems to have shared Tagore’s view. In grainy photos of the classical music band he set up for the princely state of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh in 1917, you can spot a cellist, ceremonial turban and sash in place, gripping the long, elegant instrument by the neck.

The cello, belonging to the complex family of string instruments, has a low, deep and warm sound that comes close to the human voice and can be anything between grand, ruminative and peppy. “Like the sarangi, the cello has a complete relation to the human voice,” said Delhi-based Rao. “An alaap on it sounds like someone singing.”

Anyone who loves vintage Indian cinema has likely heard many songs in which the cello supplied the emotional backbone. Composers big on orchestras, from Shankar Jaikishan to Ilaiyaraaja, used it extensively. It was a familiar sound in Satyajit Ray’s film soundtracks too. And most famously, the chilling wail that announced Gabbar Singh’s arrival in Sholay was wrought from an amplified cello by Basu Chakravarty.

A group of Indian cinema lovers, Team REWIND, along with connoisseurs Joy Christie and Nickey Christie, put together a list of Hindi film songs in which the cello made its presence felt, often to express sorrow. This song from ‘Khamoshi’ composed by Hemant Kumar uses the cello to create a sense of nostalgia and poignancy.

Though Carnatic music embraced the violin with great and instant enthusiasm way back in the late 18th century, the cello remained a forlorn outsider in raga music for a long time. It was not until the 1980s that renowned international cellist Anup Biswas, who studied in Kolkata, made occasional forays into Hindustani music. But in the end, Western classical music remained his primary passion.

It took two Western classical cellists, Rao and Nancy Lesh, to bring the cello as an ‘Indian’ instrument to the Hindustani concert stage – the former in a dynamic array of works and the latter, to haunting effect in dhrupad.

“Any kind of cultural integration takes time,” said dhrupad vocalist Ritwik Sanyal. “The violin was incorporated into India music well over 100 years ago but the cello too has a sonorous sound that works very well for Indian music. It has the gehrayi (depth) characteristic of the dhrupad but works equally well for other genres.” Sanyal taught Lesh her earliest lessons in the 1980s before she sought the tutelage of dhrupad veena stalwart Zia Mohiuddin Dagar.

In 1987, when Lesh played raga Puriya Dhanashree at the annual Dhrupad Mela in Varanasi, most in the audience had never heard the cello. Five years before, when she arrived in India on a Western concert tour, she had played Bach at the Benares Hindu University. Musicologist Prem Lata Sharma, who had been among her listeners, suggested that the cello would work seamlessly with dhrupad and pointed her to Sanyal. Lesh started learning with Sanyal the very next day.

Nancy Lesh is using the Indianised cello to interpret Western composers such as Mozart and the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Courtesy: Nancy Lesh.

“We started with raga Bhairav and as soon as I heard his beautiful alaap, I was sold,” recalled Lesh, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia. “It was the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I decided to leave Western music and focus entirely on dhrupad.”

It was in the early 1990s when Rao, already a trained Western cellist, heard the Dagars at the Tropical Institute in Amsterdam and was intrigued enough to seek out Indian music lessons first at the Rotterdam Conservatory and then in Delhi. Sumati Mutatkar, the great Agra gharana vocalist and scholar, was her first guru and later, flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia, sitarists Deepak Chaudhuri and Koustuv Roy and violinist DK Datar helped her hone her skills.

Rao debuted in Delhi in 1999. “All my gurus encouraged me to research and experiment,” she said. “I am a rebel that way. But mine is the Maihar school of instrument music – long alaap followed by jod and jhala, very gayaki ang (like vocal music). Dhrupad, khayal, thumri, the school embraces all.” Rao performs widely, either solo or with other musicians, including husband and sitarist Shubhendra Rao.

Cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas fell in love with Indian classical music in the early 1990s when she heard the Dagars play in Amsterdam. Courtesy: Saskia Rao-de Haas.

‘Indianising’ the cello was not easy. One of the biggest challenges of adapting the large cello was ensuring that it could be played sitting down.

“In Western music, cello is always played while sitting in a chair,” recalled Lesh. “I started by sitting on a low stool, then on a few pillows, then on one pillow, and finally after about four months, I could feel comfortable sitting cross-legged directly on the carpet. I replaced the straight endpin with a T-shaped one [for stability]. Along with this change came a change in posture. Changing to a seating position on the floor meant the cello was at a more horizontal position, which affected my fingering and bowing angles as well.”

Adjusting the notions of gamak and meend, distinctly Indian tools of transitioning between notes and microtones, can be challenging for Western musicians. There was also the need to incorporate chikari or resonance strings to instruments for enhanced effect. Adapting for these challenges, Rao now has a smaller cello which she uses for ease of travel and faster passages. In an interesting twist, she is now using the Indianised cello to interpret Western composers such as Mozart and the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Unlike Hindustani music, the cello has made somewhat smaller inroads into Carnatic music. VR Sekar, the son of violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan and a member of the Madras String Quartet, plays the cello on multiple platforms – for films, as an indie musician as well as a classical artiste. But it was Ilaiyaraaja, he says, who did the most significant work with the cello, followed by AR Rahman, most memorably in the theme music of Bombay.

In her book Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics Of Music In South India, cultural anthropologist Amanda Weidman talks of the arrival of the first violins in the 1760s at the Calcutta Harmonic Society. It was likely around this time the early avatars of the cello too arrived in India.

In ‘Tu Pyaar Ka Sagar hai’ in the film ‘Seema’ (1955), Shankar Jaikishan employed the cello with great effect to evoke pathos.

Rao points to a painting by Johan Zoffany of Robert Morse, an advocate of the Supreme Court and Kolkata’s sheriff in 1783-’84, playing the bass viol, an early cello. By 1806, Morse is believed to have had a more modern cello made for himself. The instrument also joined late 19th century royal Western orchestras such as that maintained by the Gajapatis of Vizianagaram, according to Weidman.

The British who brought bass viol into India in the 18th century were mostly using it for church music and as a violin accompaniment in classical music, says Rao. It evolved fully as a solo instrument only in 18th century in Italy. It was another 50-60 years before the cello as we now know it came to India, documented in the British shopping lists of the era, she says.

The Kolkata legacy likely gave Maihar its cellists – Allaudin Khan, who was born in what is now Bangladesh, had a long creative connection with the city. The Oxford Mission charity in Kolkata and its former head, Father Theodore Mathieson, himself a cellist, produced a lot of musical talent, including Biswas.

The cello conjures the grandeur of waltz in ‘Dil ki girah’ in the movie ‘Raat aur Din’ (1967).

But it was in Mumbai’s music circuits that the instrument flourished, nurturing many careers and talents. Bollywood music scholars such as Auckland ethnomusicologist Gregory Booth have extensively documented the work and lives of its legendary cellists such as Edigio Verga, Benny Gracias, John Gonsalves, Alfonso Albuquerque and the RD Burman favourite, the versatile Basu Chakravarty.

So expressive was its use in film music that when Rao was training in the raga system, she shut out all forms of music except Indian classical and Hindi film songs. “You need to understand both the grammar and the heart of the music, the rasa of it,” she said. “How to express yourself with music – old film songs showed you that so well.”

Shankar Jaikishan once again used the cello with success in the romantic number ‘O mere shah e khuban’ in the film ‘Love in Tokyo’ (1966).

All the Hindi film songs embedded in the story were recommended by Team REWIND, a group of Indian cinema lovers, along with connoisseurs Joy Christie and Nickey Christie.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.