Duet Diaries: Becoming One With ‘Om’

Pandit Shubhendra Rao feels Australia’s pulse during a performance tour with renowned cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas and their son Ishaan. Between the Milky Way and melodies, they meet artistes and students who are embracing Indian classical music. 

Musical collaborations open and connect the world in marvelous ways. Sometimes, their impact and depth is revealed when other cultures and musicians respond to our tradition and receive it well. Recently, in our collaboration with the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir during a concert in Australia, we heard a soulful rendition of “Om” from them. In between the choir presentation, we had a short improvisation on the sitar and cello with tabla. There was a burst of applause from the audience — honestly, a burst! We are used to receiving standing ovations at many of our concerts. This, however, was just like a dam burst.

Music is a language that effortlessly connects people like nothing else does. We need to explore this language more and more to realise the power it has and the role it plays in bringing people together. Recently, I realised this beautiful force in music during our Australia tour.

Saskia (renowned cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas) and I were invited by a wonderful music festival, the Desert Song festival in Alice Springs. We were invited as the “headline act” of the festival and had some amazing experiences there — performing, conducting workshops for the local musicians, taking Indian music to schools there as a part of their school initiative and finally, composing and collaborating with the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. We were also very happy to have performed in Sydney for Confluence — the ongoing Festival of India in Australia.

The collaboration with Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir


A spectacular journey started in Sydney and its neighbouring cities — in the Central Coast and up in the Blue Mountains, and to Brisbane for another wonderful Indian music festival, Sangeet Mela, organised annually by a passionate musician Shen Flindell who plays the tabla. After Brisbane, we flew to Alice Springs for two weeks. On our return, we stopped at Sydney to perform at Confluence.

During this tour, we did not modify our concerts, and kept the classical element intact with long aalaaps, extended vilambit and drut compositions. Of course, we also presented a few of our own compositions.

A wonderful aspect of this tour is that our son, Ishaan, 11, made his Ozzie debut at a concert. He is an accomplished pianist, also learing the sitar. So, he has a grounding in classical traditions — Indian, as well as Western. He had prepared a composition for a concert there. He performed the popular ‘Rara Venu Gopa Bala’ in Raga Bilahari (Carnatic tradition) that he arranged himself for piano, combining it with a piece in the same raga by British composer, William Alwyn. He ended his presentation with one of his favourite pieces, a Chopin waltz. He was also a part of our school concerts, serving as a bridge between the children and our music. I think this is a big step for him and it will help him understand stage and performance better.

I have toured Australia previously, and performed at prestigious venues like Sydney Opera House. This was the first time we traveled as a family. I had always wanted to go back with Saskia and Ishaan because there was something in the country that I knew they would enjoy too. The experience of touring and performing with your family is really special.

I feel, that in many ways, Australia is less exposed to Indian culture in general and Indian classical music in particular. So, it is wonderful to be able to take this music to the people there. After our concerts in Alice Springs, for many days, people would stop us on the street or at shopping centres, telling us how much they enjoyed the music. In many ways, Australia is like the US or Europe in the 1960s — less exposed to Indian traditions and classical music. People are more receptive when music is given the right way and in the right doses. An old lady we met at one of the venues said, “Now I know why I was born — to listen to your music”. She loved Ishaan so much that she said that he now has an Ozzie grandma!

Ishaan performed ‘Rara Venu Gopa Bala’ in Raga Bilahari


Many people were listening to Indian music for the first time. It was almost like pent up energy being released on both sides. Obviously, people in Australia have a better sense of appreciation for western classical music since it has been there for a long time now, being taught at universities and conservatories. Australians have become aware of India and Indian culture a lot more in the recent years. However, the music they have been mostly exposed to is the popular kind — mostly Bollywood. They are now realising there is more to Indian music than just Bollywood music. I know some amazing Australians who have been learning, performing and teaching Indian music for over three or four decades now. It is wonderful to see their dedication.

A lot more needs to be done before our music becomes popular in Australia. I am very positive. With the right efforts, our music will find its own place in the Australian society too. Saskia gave a workshop for music students at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. When we were in Brisbane, we did a workshop where musicians and students of music were wanting to learn.

Staying as ‘International Artists in Residence’ for two weeks in Alice Springs, we interacted with other musicians, did an extended workshop for them, teaching them the intricacies and helping them know more on Indian culture in general and music in particular. Such interactions help in understanding each other, especially in today’s divided world. Prejudices fade.

At schools, where we conducted workshops and spoke about our classical music, children were taken in by songs from our music curriculum, Sangeet4All.

When on tour, we love to explore the country and learn about it. Whenever we get the time, we drive down from place to place. This time, we had enough time in between concerts. We rented a huge van and drove down from Sydney to Brisbane, at our own sweet pace, stopping at some amazing places like Nelson Bay, Byron Bay, Gold Coast — visiting beaches, museums, and a zoo. Of course, in Alice Spring, we went to the desert late in the night to see the beautiful Milky Way. Such beautiful experiences evolve our thought and imagination.

There are discussions on to see if we can bring the whole Aboriginal Women’s Choir to India to perform here. I am working on this idea with a few local promoters and organisations. It would be absolutely wonderful to be able to invite them and compose some new pieces for them.


— Pandit Shubhendra Rao is a renowned exponent of sitar


(All Pictures: Pandit Shubhendra Rao)