Asian Music and Dance

Shivkumar Sharma – Re-inventor of the Santoor

Pulse is delighted to bring readers in-depth portraits of two musical giants: Shiv Kumar Sharma, the re-inventor of the hammer and string santoor, who will be playing the closing concert of the Darbar Festival this year; and the indisputable master of the tabla, Zakir Hussain.

Ken Hunt was granted an exclusive interview with Zakir Hussain at the Alchemy Festival in 2015, while the profile on Shivji was written following the Darbar Festival in 2010. As we await Shivji’s concert on 20 September 2015, we can once again marvel at his contribution to adapting a folk instrument into one capable of expressing the fine nuances of Hindustani classical music.

Melody and rhythm are represented by the two great artists, and although a generation apart they share some past. Shivji and Zakir Hussain’s father, the legendary Alla Rakha, were both born in the state of Jammu and shared Dogri as their mother tongue. Young Zakir, a schoolboy at the time, played Bollywood sessions with Shivji in Bombay, climbing into his car at lunchtime and being driven off by Shivji to Film City…

One of the indisputable highlights of the 2010 Darbar Festival events in London was its final concert. It fell to the translucent and lyrical santoor virtuoso, that master of quicksilver phrasing, Shivkumar Sharma to close the show. The honour was deserved. What he has given and gifted Hindustani music down the decades is incalculable. He has created, and continues to create, a body of work among the most illustrious in the history of the subcontinent’s classical music. 

“Santoor has got its own character as an instrument,” explains Shivkumar Sharma, Shivji for short. “Which is very, very soft. I think santoor is the softest instrument. It’s sometimes like a whisper when played in alap [a rāg’s mood-setting opening movement].” Born on 13 January 1938 in Jammu, he recalls, “I had heard this instrument played in the Valley of Kashmir but I never thought that one day I’d be taking up the instrument.” In 1952 his father Uma Dutt Sharma (1900-1973), a Sanskrit and Persian scholar and singer, tabla player and, later, Srinigar-based radio producer, guided him in a way that brooked no argument onto the path of the santoor. The Kashmiri santoor, after all, had no presence and no place on the Hindustani stage. Its position there was hard-won and is down to one man.

Santoor is Shivji’s preferred English-language spelling for the instrument, certainly over santur which he and many musicologists reserve for its Persian or Iranian cousin. It is a trapezoid-shaped member of the hammer dulcimer family struck with wooden strikers. Qalam – or kalam – is the local usage for such a striker. According to Indian mythology and philology, the santoor was said to have had 100 strings. In part this is because shatatantri vina, one ancient name ascribed to it, means ‘hundred-stringed vina’. Vina in this context is the generic term for ‘stringed instrument’, not to be confused with the specific stringed instrument, the vina or veena familiar from the South or its unfretted southern or northern offspring like chitravina (also known as gottuvadyam) and vichitra vina. Actually, some Kashmiri santoors do have twenty-five bridges with four strings to each bridge. Shivji would re-invent the santoor, reconfiguring it massively.

“…The santoor …had no presence on the Hindustani Stage.”

From his research and intuition, Uma Dutt Sharma had sensed a trapped voice in a mulberry wood box, despite received wisdom deeming it unfit for purpose on any respectable classical stage. Traditionally, the Kashmiri instrument had been associated with the region’s folk music and accompanying a form of hafiza (tawaif or female courtesan) entertainment known as sufyana musiqi and its poetic counterpart sufyana kalam (other transliterations are possible). The instrument’s jerky action and staccato voice, it was believed, rendered it incapable of presenting cogent, refined thoughts, let alone the nuances of the Hindustani classical principles. Aside from its range, its chief shortcoming was its inability to produce the graceful, uninterrupted glide between notes or meend, that Indian term variously translated as glissando or portamento, in part because non-Indian musics – jazz, for example – draw little distinction between the two. Meend might be likened to the portamento of bowed instruments and it is a performance technique inherent to and defining of Hindustani art music. Shivji discovered eventually that by gentle circular motion with the hammer on the strings, notes could be sustained and produce the meend.

“…by gentle circular motion with the hammer on the strings notes could be sustained and produce the meend.”

Sharma’s mission was to spring the instrument’s trapped or hidden voice. Achieving this took years of rebuilding and experimentation with different woods, qalam designs, permutations of strings and their composition. Experiments using a bar, vichitra vina-fashion, to make it sound like the Hawaiian guitar or Japanese koto proved fruitless. “I realised,” he told me thirty years ago, “that if I had to play santoor, all these kinds of sounds were just making it a poor imitation of other instruments, a caricature of another instrument.” Unencumbered by any veteran player’s model in the classical realm stipulating how it could or should be done, he set about devising his own model. It would be a hard slog.

“My whole life,” he admits, “has been devoted to this instrument and to this mission to prove to every section of listeners that this is possible. That was the reason why for a long period of time I didn’t play but once that had happened I came back with selected programmes. It’s true when you combine with some other instrument, no matter whether the instruments are gelling or not, each one has got its own manner of expression. One has to adjust and adapt. When you’re playing your solo you’re totally free; there’s total freedom. That is why we have limited the jugalbandis [duets]. I feel santoor and flute jugalbandis and the kind of rapport Hariji [Hariprasad Chaurasia] and I have with one another when we share a platform is special.”

Hearing about, or reading of, the blinkered reactions that santoor first engendered in conservative Hindustani circles sounds as if critics cast him into a conservative wilderness. It is tempting to compare what he did when attempting to elevate the ‘humble santoor’ to the concert podium with the baffled reception that modernist composer Pierre Boulez’s masterpiece Le marteau sans maître (‘The Hammer without a Master’) provoked. No hammer, mallet or indeed qalam puns implied or to be inferred.

Coincidentally, Le marteau sans maître and Shivji both debuted in public in the same year. “…The reaction to my first performance, in 1955 in Bombay,” he recalls in his highly-recommended English-language autobiography, Journey With A Hundred Strings: My Life in Music (2002), co-written with Ina Puri, “was mixed, and critics were quick to point out the santoor’s drawbacks. They were right, and I knew it. I had already been privately frustrated at my inability to reproduce on my instrument what my father had sung while teaching me.”

He persevered, finding lucrative work in the Bombay film industry as a principal soloist (later as co-billed ‘music director’ with Hariprasad Chaurasia). Yet his masterstroke was to play off the stick-in-the-mud cognoscenti’s club-like conservatism against the aspiring, the music’s green shoots, its looming brave new world. Despite all his landmark achievements, there are still factions ill-disposed to giving credit to his breakthrough. Dr Sunita Dhar, in her book The Traditional Music of Kashmir In Relation to Indian Classical Music (2003), does herself a profound disservice. She hails Tibat Bakal as the “Twentieth-century leading player of santoor”. She cites Saz Naivaz, Kaleem and Shekh Abdul Aziz before stating unequivocally in her idiomatic English that “Pandit Bhajan Sopori is making [santoor] popular on classical stage and popularizing it all over the world”. Bizarrely, she marginalises Sharma to “claim[ing] that he was the first Santoor maestro who brought it to classical stage.”

It is not laziness to declare the triple-hander recording Shivji made with the bansuri (bamboo flute) maestro Chaurasia and master guitarist Brijbhushan Kabra in the late 1960s, Call of the Valley, to be the perfect portal into the wonderful world of Hindustani music. “In those days,” he recollects, “there was no concept of thematic music in Indian classical music. HMV had already released a couple of my solo LPs and they asked now if I could try something different, try some thematic music. I started thinking what we should do. I wanted a theme and at the same time I didn’t want to deviate from Indian classical music because those were the days when I was trying to establish this instrument in classical music. I wanted something definitely based on the Indian classical rāg system. An idea occurred to me. The rāg system has got timings from morning to afternoon, from evening to late night, so why not create a story where we can bring out these things?

“I thought of one theme about Kashmir, naturally, where this instrument comes from, about a day in the life of a shepherd in the Valley of Kashmir starting in the early morning. Once the idea was there, I sat with my friends Hariji and Bhijbhushanji. We thought we’d divide these characters and the whole story among the instruments.” Call of the Valley is front-runner for the project that awakened more people to the joys of Hindustani music at home and abroad than any other. That gives a measure of its musicality and its accessibility. It is the only Indian classical album in history never to have gone out of publication.

Hindustani music, put at its simplest, is a handing-on process, a process of onward transmission. Parampara denotes the generational sequence and succession of teachers and disciples that hand on and receive knowledge in varying fields of Indian culture, whether the arts, sports or other professions. So, deep breath, how do the tradition and the continuity of the tradition sit with and fit into his work? And does he see himself as somebody having information passed to him and then passing on information in turn? “Definitely. Definitely!” he replies animatedly. “This music has evolved. I wouldn’t say that this music is a stagnant music. I feel any art form that remains stagnant dies down. Music is passed on from one generation to another generation. What my father learned from his guru, Ram Dassji he must have given his own personality and ideas. What I learned from him, I tried in my own way to give it a new direction, new possibilities, new imagination.”

“…it’s [music] going in my family to the third generation.”

Shivji and his wife Manorama’s two sons – Rohit, born in Bombay in October 1967, and Rahul, born in the same city in September 1972 – are maintaining the family tradition. They add another generation to a musical dynasty. Rahul Sharma, for example, is key to Music of Central Asia Vol. 9 – In The Footsteps of Babur – Musical Encounters from The Lands of the Mughals, released by Smithsonian Folkways in partnership with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2010. His santoor-rubab explorations with the Afghani rubab lute player Homayun Sakhi in Kirwani and Dhun: Misra Kirwani are sumptuous experiences.

“Now,” Shivji resumes, “it’s going in my family to the third generation. Of course I have my senior students who are established musicians. But I am talking of Rahul in the sense that he is my youngest student, who, as a person, represents the youth of India of the twenty-first century. He is a very modern young man. He has a modern outlook; he’s exposed to the modern world; he travels all over the world; he’s educated. He’s taking classical music seriously. That is something significant. Sometimes people think modern young people don’t have that kind of devotion, commitment or dedication to take classical music. There is another scene happening in India where somebody brings out a Hindi pop music video or plays bhangra and becomes an overnight celebrity. At the same time there are young people taking classical music seriously.”

On-stage, Shivkumar Sharma is the softly-spoken patrician. Off-stage, he radiates an aura of urbanity and honest unflappability. His urbanity may be coloured by his proclivity for language, whether a handful of the subcontinent’s languages, including written Urdu, or English. As he explains in his autobiography, “While the santoor originated in Kashmir, I am a Dogra from Jammu, and my style encompasses musical content from both states. My Pahari is influenced not by the Kashmir Valley, but rather by Dogra folk music…”

That last observation is telling. As a tabla player before he was a santoor player, rhythmicality colours Shivji’s playing, just as language shades and shapes his instrumental music. After all, any language’s inflexions, cadences and the idiomatic logic governing how syllables break and fall has to inform how we articulate ideas. Whether Aruna Sairam singing a rapid-fire Telugu or Tamil song blast, the Dogri mother-tongue Alla Rakha playing tabla or the violinist Kala Ramnath performing one of Pandit Jasraj’s compositions rooted in Braj Bhasa – one of the so-called ‘classical’ antecedents of modern-day Hindi – the same principle applies: language conditions. Pandit Shivkumar Sharma’s instrumental eloquence, of course, reflects his cultural upbringing, but you can also bet your sweet bippy that Shivji’s santoor is verbalising something more than qalam strokes as he plays. But perhaps you knew that already.

Unless otherwise stated, all interview material is original and copyright Ken Hunt.



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