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Santoor magic

Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma was instrumental in bringing the santoor on to centre stage of classical music. He tells BIBHUTI MISHRA of his journey to fame.

MYSTERIOUS and distant, yet fascinating. That is how he always struck me. Like the place he comes from — Kashmir. His jade green eyes, his curly hair, his tall slim fair and striking frame belie his 60 years. And his soft words, gentle manners and intense feelings win you over.

"I am not Kashmiri though many people are under the impression that I am. Kashmiris are from the Valley. I am from Jammu, a Dogri."

Early days

Just four decades back the santoor was a little known instrument, confined to Jammu and Kashmir and Shiv Kumar Sharma was a nonentity. Today, the instrument has ensconced itself in the upper echelons of the classical concert outpacing other instruments in popularity. And the name Shiv Kumar Sharma has become synonymous with the santoor.

Born in Jammu in 1938, Shiv Kumar Sharma is the only son of Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, a famous vocalist and tabla player of Jammu and Kashmir. Pandit Uma Dutt was a disciple of the legendary guru Pandit Bade Ramdasji of Benaras; Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and he had played together in their childhood as the latter's father was a court musician in Kashmir.

"My father thought I had some inclination for music. So when I was five I was given training in the tabla and vocal music," reminisces Panditji. But why the santoor? And when?

Before answering that Pandit Sharma explains the background of the santoor, which as a classical instrument is only a little over 40 years old. "It is played in `Sufiana Maushiqui' and combines the influences of Indian as well as Persian music and connected with the Sufi spiritual tradition of Kashmir. Its origin is, however, very old. In ancient Sanskrit texts, it has been referred to as Shatatantri vina (100-stringed vina). My father was working for Jammu and Srinagar Radio as music supervisor when he saw the instrument played in the Sufiana style. He introduced it in the classical style. I was about 13. By then I had been studying vocal music and the tabla for 8-9 years. My father worked out a system tuned to the needs of the Indian ragas. When I was asked to play it, I picked it up very fast. After a couple of years, I began playing in children's programme on radio."

But the real break came in 1955 when 17-year-old Shiv Kumar was presented at the Haridass Sangeet Sammelan in Mumbai.

For the first time, people heard the instrument in a major performance at the national level. Some found it fascinating while a few music critics said classical music could not be played on this instrument.

Evolving style

They were to be proved wrong. Pandit Sharma successfully tided over the problem of the staccato notes of the santoor by evolving a style whereby the notes could be prolonged and sustained after making certain changes in the instrument.

"It was a long struggle after I left home to do something in Mumbai. My father was very learned but not well known, so there was no question of piggybacking on him. There were days when I had only an anna in my pocket and nothing to eat!"


But all that is a thing of the past. Today he lives in Bombay with his wife and two sons. His younger son Rahul, having taken to the santoor, is also in the musical circuit — his recent album "Jannat" has been getting rave reviews.

Teaming up with the flute wizard Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma has composed for Hindi films like "Silsila", "Lamhe" and "Darr".

"I was doing film music as long as it did not interfere with my classical music. Now it is difficult because both of us are touring all the time. Besides film music is a director's concept. It depends a great deal on his taste and thoughts. Nowadays, in film music, there is a strong influence of the West, of MTV culture. We are great imitators. Mediocrity is in abundance today. We may not get the right kind of directors to work with even if we had time," he says.


A recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and other honours, Pandit Sharma does not think much of awards. "All awards can be manipulated, the listeners' response cannot be. So that is the true award for me."

Talk of music therapy and he says, "My disciple, Dr. Bhalachandra Phadnavis, has been working on it. The results have been fascinating. It has been proved that music especially the sound of the santoor eases pain. But a lot of research needs to be done to put it into a system. In the U.S., there are doctors who have used my music and my album `Feelings' is much in demand."

Sometimes he is nostalgic — "I do miss my beautiful state, Jammu. But to achieve something, one has to sacrifice something. I sacrificed the lure of my home."

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