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…

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