Relish a raag and learn a thing or two about it

Shailaja Tripathi | Updated on November 27, 2020

Aural wisdom: Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar sings and explains the nuances of the Dhrupad music style as part of the Unlock the Music series   -  IMAGES: SANJIT DEBROY

Musician couple Shubhendra Rao and Saskia Rao-de Haas have put together a classical concert series that is simultaneously live and virtual, and with detailed end-notes

“What does music have,” Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar asked, before proceeding to answer it with an exposition on the ‘Ps of music’. “It has pitch, pulse, pause, perfection and beauty. Not just singers but even listeners want to listen in a perfect way and then comes purity. Some people enter through purity and for some it comes later,” he told his listeners, of whom 15 shared the same room as him (while observing social distancing norms) and another 600 were tuned in online.

Sitarist Shubhendra Rao and cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas want to take music education to school students through the Unlock the Music series


The venue was the residence of the musician couple Shubhendra Rao and Saskia Rao-de Haas in Hauz Khas, Delhi, and the occasion was a concert organised by them under an ongoing series titled ‘Unlock the Music’.

What’s interesting about the series is that each of these concerts is simultaneously live and virtual, and both formats are ticketed. Secondly, it has a well thought out educational component. While Shubhendra, a well-known sitar player, was a disciple of the late Ravi Shankar, the Dutch-born Saskia, an accomplished cellist, trained under the flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia.

The first concert of the series, on October 31, featured the senior dhrupad singer Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar. The 75-minute performance ended with a short Q&A session with the audience, for whom Saskia had also conceptualised and written an ebook that gives a brief glimpse into the living history of the Dhrupad tradition. It showcases the family tree of the Dagars — the gharana or school synonymous with the Dhrupad music style, its compositions and notations, and links to well-known compositions. The ebook ends with a set of questions and an assignment for students.

Unlock the Music is supported by the Ministry of Culture, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and a few US-based cultural organisations like Indo-American Association, Houston, Sangeetha in St Louis, and Jhankaar in Cincinnati.

Over an email interview from France, Saskia says, “Shubhendra and I wanted to create a concert series that celebrates the best of Indian classical music and reaches out to a wide audience. At the same time, we have seen that the need of the hour for students is to give them music in their schools. We have to re-start music enrichment and music education. Especially in these challenging times, classical music and music education can play a crucial role in helping students cope with the stress that the pandemic has caused, and helping to navigate the mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, of students. At a time that arts education is more important than ever, it is largely cut out of the curriculum.”

Saskia and Shubhendra want to make the Unlock the Music series available to schools and colleges. “The artistic experience of a concert attendance is central in the music education of a student going through this programme. This way, we can really impact the way music education functions, even in these difficult times. The students receive the ebooks, get classes from their music teacher based on the books, attend the concert, learn a composition and write about the concert. They can even interact with the artists that perform and send in their questions,” says Saskia.

The ebooks come in two versions — for students under 16; and those above 16. Five upcoming concerts feature singer and slide guitar exponent Debashish Bhattacharya, dancer Sonal Mansingh, Shubhendra and Saskia, vocalist Madhup Mudgal and flautist Pravin Godkhindi.

The couple’s mission to take music to youngsters isn’t a new one. Back in 2014, they launched the Sangeet 4 All curriculum, with the belief that music is the birthright of every child. Partnering with schools, they reached out to 30,000 children and 100 music teachers to “promote Indian classical music in a manner that meets the developmental needs of children”.

“Our whole life is centred around music for children. We like to have an educational element in all our concerts so that children are guided towards classical traditions. We are not against pop music or anything but we always believe that roots or the foundation should be classical. Once that foundation is laid then anybody can experience and explore,” says Shubhendra, who has dedicated the series to his guru.

Last year the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) made arts education compulsory for Std I to XII. While lauding the step, Saskia points out that the project is still in the beginning stages and without a clear national curriculum, teacher training or methodology. “Now we need to give teachers the resources and training that are needed to meet those goals,” she adds.

About the choice of artists and music in the series, Shubhendra says they wanted to bring in variety and accessibility. “For instance, Dr Sonal Mansingh is a powerhouse of knowledge. She does a very interactive ‘Natya Katha’, which is all about abhinaya [expressive techniques in dance] and storytelling. Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya plays the guitar, something all children are familiar with. We also have poet Sudeep Sen, who attends the concert and writes a poem inspired by it. After the concert, he reads it out. Bringing together all forms of art and presenting it to children is real arts education.”

The first concert went off without any technical glitches. Shubhendra is now readying the stage for today’s concert featuring Debashish Bhattacharya, accompanied by Akram Khan on tabla. Note it, kids.

Shailaja Tripathi is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist

Published on November 20, 2020

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