The popularity of an Indian classical musical instrument – whether it sounds good to the ear of the listeners — depends on the exponent and the way the instrument is played, says “santoor” maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma — an iconic classical instrumentalist from Kashmir, who has taken the traditional north Indian string instrument to the realm of classical and mainstream music in India – and across to America and Europe. The philosophy applies to his calling — the musician with flying fingers who makes his instrument, the “santoor” veritably speak.
History cites that the Indian “santoor”, an ancient string instrument from Jammu and Kashmir traces its roots to Persia and Mesopotamia – where it was played around 1600-900 BC. A traditional “santoor” is trapezoid shaped dulcimer (fretted instrument) often made of walnut wood with 72 strings — and sets of two bridges that produces sounds in three octaves.
It is extensively used across northern and northwestern India as a classical and a folk instrument – either as an accompaniment or as a solo instrument. The strings that can be plucked or fretted are played to complex patterns of notations— that requires deftness, a flair for fine melody and a dash of exotica that makes the “santoor” different from the rest of its “classical counterparts” in its evolved musical notes. “It is not easy to master santoor,” Shiv Kumar Sharma told this writer on the sidelines of the launch of a pictorial biography of his life as India’s foremost “santoor” exponent.
The coffee table anthology, “Shiv Kumar Sharma: The Man & His Music”, edited by Ina Puri features “rare photographs and essays documenting the journey of Shiv Kumar Sharma’s music from the sylvan valleys of Kashmir to rest of the country — even to the movie town of Mumbai where the maestro popularized the “rarely heard strings” as a playback and theme instrument.
In the process of carrying the “santoor” to the heart of India’s commercial entertainment in Mumbai, the musician brought the Dogri folk musical traditions to Bollywood as well — while composing music for films like “Silsila” and “Chandni”.
“Classical music is a different field and film music is different. When you are working in a movie, you have to compose and compere according to the location and situations. In our times, perfection was very important (digital correction technology was not around). But when you are deep into films, you drift from classical calling…,” the musician recalled— explaining his forays into film music and back.
Mastreo Shiv Kumar Sharma’s inroad into the dream world of “Bombay cinema” happened in 1955, writes musicologist and scholar of mainstream Indian cinema Manek Premchand, who has authored three books, “Yesterday’s Melodies; Today’s Memories”, “Musical Moments from Hindi Films” and “Romancing the Song”. The young Shiv Kumar Sharma “was not even an adult: when he came to play for a concert at Mumbai’s Swami Haridas Festival in February 1955- which was his first “santoor” recital in Mumbai. The youngster’s journey to Mumbai was facilitated by Karan Singh, the scion of the former Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, who “recommended Shiv Kumar Sharma to an event organizer” .
“Sitting in the audience was the daughter of the great V. Shantaram, a young lady called Madhura, who would go on to become the wife of Pandit Jasraj. The young lady met him: ‘I am V. Shantaram’s daughter. I liked the sound of the santoor. During the performance, I called up my dad and told him about this new instrument I had just heard and liked. Dad said, ‘Call him tomorrow to the Rajkamal Studio. Let me hear this musician. So do please go and meet him tomorrow”. Initial reluctance and the musician’s “college examination” deferred the meeting. Two months later in April, the maestro received a telegram from the Raj Kamal Studios for an audition. V. Shantaram, who was impressed with the instrument that the young musician from Jammu played summoned music composer, “Vasant Desai, who had just completed the music for the movie, “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje”.
Neither of them had heard the santoor before “and their synergy of excitement was palpable”. But there was an issue now. The songs “were done”. Composer Vasant Desai suggested to young Shiv of he could compose and play the “santoor” for a scene in a lake. He watched the scene a few times and readied a tune. That was how the santoor and the man behind the santoor made their first audio appearance in Hindi cinema — in a scene featuring Gopi Krishna and Sandhya romancing on a boat, Premchand writes in an essay, “A Parallel Journey: Composing for Cinema” in the biography.
The maestro joined “musical forces with ace flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia under the Yash Chopra banner — to capture Bollywood fame as the duo Shiv-Hari, who made superstar Amitabh Bachchan sing for them in the movie “Silsila”, Anupam Kher in “Vijay” and Sridevi in “Chandni”. The two musicians came together because they had worked in several movies as background musicians and understood each other well. But the raison de etre of their “partnership” was the fact that the sounds gelled — the wild sweetness of “santoor” was a perfect compliment for the haunting strains of the Indian flute, Premchand points out. Shiv Kumar Sharma has worked in nearly 52 movies since his debut performance in Mumbai — as a teenaged performer in “Brij Narayan ji’s mega classical music soiree under the banner of Sur Sringar Samsad at the erstwhile Jahangir Hall”.
“I played two instruments — the table and the santoor at the concert,” the maestro recounted.
Editor Ina Puri, a culture activist, writer, researcher and critic, picked up the leaves for “The Man & His Music” from an earlier book, “A Journey with 100 Strings: My Life in Music” — “Shiv ji had turned 60”. It was a commissioned biography. “He was completely open to the idea… He allowed me to meet people close to his family, his shagirds (disciples) and people around him who made him a real person,” Puri told this writer. The book was translated into several languages and was the source text for the award-winning biopic on the maestro, “Antardhwani” – made by Jabbar Patel in collaboration with Ina Puri.
When the maestro was turning 75 last year, Patel suggested that they should bring out a pictorial memoir of the maestro. It had to be like “how he grew up — to now and all that had in between through photographs” that saw her knocking doors like that of the Sangeet Research Academy’s, the maestro’s family archive and sifting through photographer Dayanita Singh’s personal collections. “There were nearly 8,000 photographs – I chose around 4,000 because I had to do justice to Shiv ji… I had to take photographs not just because Shiv ji was looking good, but the fact that they threw light on his musical odyssey,” Puri recalled.
The photographs are musical historians’ delight with rare shots of “sitar legend Ravi Shankar, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Beatles member George Harrison and actor Peter Sellers” outside their “personal aircraft in United States” during a world concert tour in 1974, childhood shots of his home, parents, wedding, at leisure playing cricket on a Mumbai beach, amid the movie-tone glamour of Mumbai, live concerts across the country and official felicitations.
The musician traces his musical lineage to his father Uma Dutt Sharma—a radio musician, who was close to the erstwhile royal family of Jammu and Kashmir.
“My father, the first generation musician in our family, trained in secret with a Kashmir court musician (percussionist) Guru Sardar Harnam Singh because music as a vocation was looked down in Brahmin families in Kashmir. He left Kashmir to learn music from Pandit Bade Ramdas ji in Varanasi and began to broadcast from Radio Lahore before Independence and from Radio Jammu after Independence. He rarely left home…,” Shiv Kumar Sharma recalled— sharing musical experiences and “pasts” with “guru-bhai (fellow student of Uma Dutt Sharma)”, Karan Singh, the director-general of Indian Council for Cultural Relations at the launch of his book in New Delhi last week.
Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma played the “tabla” till the age of 13 under his father’s guidance – while “brother Karan Singh was tutored in Hindustani music”.
The journey has been deeply fulfilling and self-rewarding since then. The maestro has turned inwards with years as he shares with editor Ina Puri in a conversation. “I will play my music till the day I feel I am doing justice to the instrument… The day I feel because of my age or any other factor, I am not doing justice to my music, I will give up playing in public. I am looking at different avenues to find what I can do…” the maestro said. He is trying to make his music a spiritual experience – meditative and transcendental among the Generation Next — a segment of audience for whom Pandit ji is working tirelessly with the help of SPIC-MACAY, a music and culture promotion platform.
“Santoor will survive by itself, you need not panic,” he concludes.