The santoor maestro

May 15, 2022

Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, who died last week, was undoubtedly the greatest player of the santoor in the subcontinent

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andit Shiv Kumar Sharma, who died last week, was undoubtedly the greatest player of the santoor in the subcontinent.

This can be said with certainty because he created that instrument that he excelled with. Over decades, he elevated a folk instrument and created the musical capacity to play ragas on it. He thus expanded the scope of an instrument that was made to strum folk melodies into extended exploration of the ragas according to the subcontinental scheme of music.

To enunciate a melody is easier, and if it is on a folk instrument, then it is a quaint repetition of sorts with the skill of the player being the saving grace; but to extract the folk melody and to expand on its tonal structure is what a maestro is supposed to do. Shiv Kumar Sharma did exactly that. He brought the santoor at par with other instruments that were considered to be suitable for raagdaari.

He was also able to add greater resonance to the musical sound of the santoor. Santoor is usually seen as being light and lacking resonating depth. Shiv Kumar, however, created more sound variations in the instrument than traditionally associated it and thus made it suitable for the unfolding of the ragas. Through this he was able to play more musical graces than had been possible with the instrument before him. The instrument thus came be seen as fit to hold its own in a performance based on the exploration of a raga.

The santoor is an instrument associated with Kashmir. It is played in quasi-folk and religiously inspired melodies that form the bedrock of music in the Valley. Shiv Kumar, born to a family of musicians, needed more and demanded more from the instrument and made it appropriate for being played solo.

This was also the time when Indian instrumental music was becoming more popular in the West. Indian instruments like the sarod, the sitar, the tabla, the shehnai and bansuri were increasingly recognised. The instrumental music was about the note and its intonation rather than the lyrics that make the melody specific to the area because of the language. As these Indian instrumentalists went about conquering the world, Shiv Kumar Sharma, though a late entrant, was equal to the task he faced in dealing with embedded musical challenges.

His father Uma Dutt Sharma was a well-known vocalist and a tabla player. He had started teaching his son singing and table playing, when he was just five and introduced him to the santoor. Sharma started learning santoor playing at the age of thirteen and gave his first public performance in Mumbai in 1955.

A star was born. Hari Prasad Chaurasia mesmerised the world with his bansuri virtuosity. He seemed to be the greatest since Panna Lal Ghosh whom many considered to be the greatest flutist since Lord Krishna. Chaurasia and Sharma teamed up to play together. That also led them to compose music under the label of Shiv Hari for many films.

Sharma is credited with introducing the santoor as a popular Indian classical music instrument. He recorded his first solo album in 1960. He collaborated with Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain and with flutist Hari Prasad Churasia for many of his performances as well as albums. In 1967, he teamed up with flutist Hari Prasad Chaurasia and guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra to produce Call of the Valley (1967), which turned out to be one of Indian classical music’s greatest hits.

He won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1986, the Padma Shri in 1991, the Padma Bhushan in 2001 and Pandit Chatur Lal Excellence Award in 2015 besides Platinum Disc for Call of the Valley, Platinum Disc for music of film Silsila, Platinum Disc for music of film Chandni and Gold Disc for music of film Faaslay.

Sharma composed the background music for one of the scenes in V Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baajay in 1956. Further, he composed music for many films in collaboration with Hariprasad Chaurasia, starting with Silsila in 1980, Faaslay (1985), Chandni (1989), Lamhay (1991) and Darr (1993).

Sharma also played table, including in the very popular song Mo Say Chaal Kiye Jaaye sung by Lata Mangeshkar in the 1965 movie Guide, on the insistence of RD Burman.

Many in Pakistan too started to play the instrument – Mukhtar from Kashmir was a very good santoor player. Exposure to the diverse and initiated audience lifts the level of the musical performance. Here, Mukhtar was always forced to play film compositions and Punjabi folk while although he wanted to play, if not the ragas then at least the folk melodies of his native land and expanding on them. The limited taste of the audiences always hampered him – and pulled him down.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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