When I started studying Indian classical music on my cello in 1992, I started on my regular Western cello. During my first lesson of Indian classical music, my teacher was sitting on the floor while I was seated on a chair as is the way the cello has always been played. Somehow this didn’t feel right. It was immediately clear that when I would distance myself in such a direct, physical manner from the music and its context by sitting on a chair, I would never get the right perspective of learning Indian classical music. Lesson two…I sat down on the floor, with a belt around my waist to keep the end-pin from slipping away and started learning. Thirteen years have past since that moment and from the absolute beginner stages, and the music I started out with has grown since then. An instrument is just so much more than a construction of wood; I consider my cello to be a living entity with whom I share my innermost feelings! My instrument and I are in that way inseparable and we had to adjust together to a new world of music. The wonderful violin builder Eduard van Tongeren ( www.kadens.nl ) who built the Indian cello and its predecessors did a tremendous job. The collaboration between Eduard van Tongeren and myself was the driving force behind the conception of this instrument. He is one of the most innovative instrument builders I know.

 

I was playing a 1897 built German cello when I started learning North Indian Classical music. I adjusted the standard tuning of A D G’ C’ to G# C# G#‘ C#‘ , SA became C#. The sound was deep and sonorous but even for a Western cello it was quite heavy and big to play. The instrument was wonderful for the Romantic German music and folk music I was mostly involved in at that time, and in the Indian context still suitable for a Dhrupad Alap, but for more intricate embellishments and faster movements it was not the right instrument. At this point another idea of mine was to create a distinct Indian sound on the cello. Even while playing an open string. I started envisaging the possibilities that resonating strings, as many indigenous instruments of India have, could give me. I approached Eduard van Tongeren and discussed my ideas and the journey began. The first instrument he worked with was a basic students cello from China. He attached 8 resonating strings. The number based on one octave in which each note corresponds to the ones of the specific raga I played. These strings were attached by pins on the bottom and top of the soundboard. Tuning was done with a special key. The resonating strings had a special bridge as is common in many Indian string-instruments with Javari, a kind of extra tinkle and resonance of the string as is common in sitar and tampura. This bridge and the right thickness of strings was made, as with all my other instruments, by Sanjay Sharma of Rikhi Ram Musicals in Delhi. By this time, my technique had greatly developed and even while practicing for a minimum of 8 hours a day, the full size cello was not suitable for playing the extremely fast gliding techniques which I invented for playing characteristic gamakas . My next instrument was a half sized cello with 8 resonating strings, with the same design as its predecessor. A friendly little instrument, very easy to play and amplify on stage. But as this was built as an experiment we did not use a great instrument and it had no distinct character . With this instrument two of my wishes were fulfilled; to create an Indian sound even when playing open strings by the use of resonating strings and to be technically able to play the very fast gamakas.

 

   

I selected a 100 year old North-German instrument for which Eduard van Tongeren designed a new neck which would hold 5 playing strings and 10 resonating strings going through the neck. The sound of the instrument was very rich and the resonating strings were tuned one octave lower then my previous instrument. The two novelties were the fifth playing string which gave so many possibilities in the higher octave. The other was the actual structure of the instrument. I played on this instrument for two years until on a flight to South Africa, the instrument was broken beyond repair by Air France, even though it was packed in a specialized flight case. In my experience of fighting this lonely cause, I do have to say that airlines don’t feel any responsibility towards the Arts. The only two things not to be done with a case like the one I use is to drop 20 heavy suitcases on it or throw it down from a great height. The reason I am including this is because it happened recently again here in India with Kingfisher Airlines who have not taken any responsibility towards the damage caused despite repeated attempts by me. It is frustrating to be hampered in my profession by such unnecessary troubles when all that is needed is a little care! The irony is that golf clubs are given a preferential treatment on any airlines in the world, but music instruments which are irreplaceable are not seen of any significance. After this event, eduard van Tongeren built his masterpiece; an instrument which I call ‘ the Indian cello’. This has the sound I had wished for all these years. It has 5 playing strings which are tuned to: D A D A D, D being the Sa. The resonating strings atre attached on the body of the instrument in a diagonal line from the right top to the bottom left. It has a very practical tuning system and the resonating strings do respond very well. Sanjay Sharma has attached the resonating strings and also outdid himself. I am currently playing this instrument and pray to God and the airlines to keep it safe!

I had to develop my own techniques for playing Indian music since it is a new instrument to the music. The cello strings are ten to fifteen times as thick as the strings of a violin, so are a lot heavier to play. The distances are also much larger. In the sarangi, an instrument that also has thick strings, the friction of the fingers on the string is dissolved by playing the strings with the cuticles without pressing them down. On the cello it took a lot of practice and strength to develop gamakas. I invented a technique in which I use two fingers so close to each other that move together as one. Other left hand techniques are the slow andolan and the faster embellishments like murki and zamzama. In alap I follow the Dhrupad alap, as in the Maihar gharana style of playing. I remember Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia telling me that I would have to find my own distinct style for the cello and not to play like anyone else, because I had to find what was best for my instrument. The cello is very close to the human voice, yet it has so many other possibilities too.