How Shivkumar Sharma went on to master the santoor

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Each musical instrument has its own melodic potential and innate charm, which has to be awakened by the caressing touch of some musical genius. For the romantic and resonant santoor came in the person of the tall, fair, jade-eyed and strikingly handsome Shiv Kumar Sharma from Kashmir. Pannalal Ghosh and the bansuri, Bismillah Khan and the shahnai, Ram Narain and the sarangi, Bhaiyya Ganpatrao and the harmonium, Shiv Kumar and the santoor-these artistes and their instruments have become almost synonymous because they have, through their individual creative genius, won concert status for their respective chosen instrument. An international celebrity today, this santoor wizard has deep study of the various counterparts of the santoor in different parts of the world. He has emerged as a peerless maestro of this complicated instrument the ancestor of which was probably the ancient hundred stringed lute – the shata-tantri veena.

Surprisingly, critics discouraged him at the beginning and wrote that the santoor’s staccato notes made it quite unsuitable for playing a lingering alaap meend, etc., and that its innumerable strings problems like tonal haze, and slipping of strings under the unrelieved impact of the striking kalams and so on. Shiv lucidly explained to me and demonstrated the amendations he has introduced to make the instrument yield convincingly classical and melodious music:

“I studied the various counterparts of the santoor in many continents such as the santoori of Greece, the santoor of Iran with its 72 strings, the yang chin of China, shiblum of Rome, cymbalom of Hungary and Romania, and so on. The music on the chang in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is based on the system of moqqams, and not raga-raginis. The soofiana mousiqui played on the Kashmiri santoor is really a combination of Persian, Turkish and Hindustani music, and they are linked with the ancient music of Central Asia. At one time I even tried the technique of the Japanese taishokoto (pressing the strings), but gave it up as it does not suit our music. I have added 16 more strings to the original hundred, added four more bridges to the existing 25, and reduced the clusters of four strings, to three strings each. By these alterations, the tonal clarity has been improved and enriched. I can now produce komal and teevra notes one after the other. In order to make up for the lack of meends (glissando), I have devised an alternative device by which I can produce prolonged and continuous vibrations of a single note, so that the continuity of the notes can be sustained long. For prolonged pauses on a note, I slide the kalam on more than one note at a time.”

There are two surprising facts about Shiv Kumar’s emergence as a master of this rare instrument.

Firstly he does not hail from a khandani family of professional musicians. Secondly, the santoor was not his choice at all; it was imposed on a most unwilling young Shiv by his doting but autocratic father, Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma. Shiv told me:

“There was no music in my family until my father’s time. My paternal grandfather was the raj-purohit of the Kashmir darbar which was always full of great musicians. My father was able to listen to all of them. They included the father of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Miyan Qadar Buksh, the my paternal grandfather was the Rai-purohit as able to listen to all of them. on, the grandfather of Salamat and Nazakat, and many others, and thus he became very interested in music. Music being taboo for boys and girls from good families, he began to learn tabla secretly from Sardar Harinam Singh, a disciple of Kudau Singh Pakhawajiya. Later on, he was deeply drawn to vocal music and somehow he managed to go to Bade Ramdasji in Varanasi and get himself accepted as his shishya after months of waiting and patient devotion. After several years of training, my father returned to Jammu and was appointed Music Supervisor on the staff of AIR, Jammu.”

Shiv Kumar’s father was an ardent Shiva-bhakta. It was after many years of Shiva-puja, and nine long years after the birth of his daughter, that this precious son was born to Uma Dutt Sharma and his beautiful and pious wife. Naturally he was named Shiv Kumar. At the age of one, when the toddler matched his shadja with his father’s, the fond father at once detected great musical potential in his son! Therefore, he began to teach the boy vocal music as well as tabla from the age of five. Little Shiv began to dabble in all sorts of instruments like sarod, violin, harmonium, tabla etc. which were kept in the Sharda Sangeet Vidyalaya where Pt. Uma Dutt Sharma used to give music training to many students. By the age of 12, Shiv Kumar had become such a well-graded table artiste of AIR, that he began to get bookings to accompany some of the reputed artistes like Pt. Ravi Shankar, Begum Akhtar and others who were invited to give radio concerts from AIR Jammu.

Meanwhile, Pt. Uma Dutt was transferred to AIR, Srinagar, because the then Chief Minister, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad who had great respect for him, wanted him to popularise classical music in Srinagar.

About this period of his. life, Shiv told me: “When my father came back from Srinagar after a year-and-a half, he brought a large parcel for me. I was quite excited. But when I opened it and found that it was a santoor, I could hardly conceal my disappointment, because I had never been impressed by the soofiana mousiqui that used to be broadcast on the santoor often. Noticing my disappointment, my father said to me, ‘Beta, from now on, this is the instrument that you will have to learn and master. I resented my father’s imposition of such a handicapped instrument on me. To me it seemed an instrument with no potential, and no future. How could he saddle me with an instrument so unsuited to our music! And then my father said something which puzzled me at that time, but has recurred to me frequently since. He said: ‘Beta! you have no idea of what you can achieve with the santoor! You and Santoor are going to become synonymous one day!’ My father was a very versatile person, a scholar, musician, linguist, astrologer, a man with a highly spiritual temperament and many siddhis. He was not only my father but also my guru; I loved and revered him.”

Pt. Uma Dutt taught young Shiv Kumar how to tune the innumerable strings of this cumbersome instrument, how to hold the two slender walnut-sticks known as kalams, and how to evoke gentle, soft notes and resonating clusters of notes by light strokes. Shiv continued to feel frustrated because he had already undergone training in vocal music and knew what was missing in the santoor. Only “cut-notes” or staccato notes could be plucked out of it. Meends and gamaks, two of the vital elements in our classical music are impossible to produce on it. He began to think of ways and means to compensate for these drawbacks, and started trying various experiments through long hours of daily riyaz, and gradually mastered the instrument through sheer sadhana.

As a college-student, Shiv represented his University (Jammu) in the Inter-University Youth Festival in Delhi in which 36 universities were represented. He won the first prize for tabla in 1956 and 1958, and also performed on the santoor at the request of the judges. The then Chief Minister Ghulam Mohamad Sadiq offered him a good teaching post in Jammu, but Shiv politely refused, as his mind was set elsewhere already. He had taken his Master’s Degree in Economics and his father expressed his cherished ambition to see his only son groomed for a distinguished military career. Both Shiv and his mother rejected the suggestion jointly. If Pt. Uma Dutt was disappointed, he did not reveal it because of his deep affection for his son. The choice of a career was before them, but it was providentially solved, and for this, Shiv Kumar feels grateful to Dr. Karan Singh, then Sadr-i-Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir, who was a disciple of Shiv’s father, and a great lover of classical music.

During one of his visits to Mumbai to meet his father Maharaja Hari Singh, Dr. Karan Singh met Brijnarain, the dynamic founder-director of the famous Sur Singar Samsad and strongly recommended Shiv Kumar. Brijnarain gladly booked Shiv for the prestigious Haridas Sammelan in 1955, which included not only reputed artistes but brilliant up-and-coming young artistes too. In this particular conference, many veterans like Ustads Hafiz Ali Khan, Mushtaq Hussain Khan, Pandits Omkarnath Thakur, Nikhil Banerji, Radhika Mohan Moitra, Pannalal Ghosh, Jasraj and many others were booked, and the youngest artiste was 17 year-old Shiv Kumar from Jammu University. He had the unique privilege of being offered a platform for both santoor and tabla, though he was allowed only a total of 60 minutes. However, he performed on both with such confidence and excellence that when he got up after a tabla solo of 20 minutes, and the novel instrument santoor for 40 minutes (accompanied on the tabla by the now famous Shankar Ghosh), the audience would not stop clapping until Brijnarain went on stage and announced that Shiv Kumar’s santoor recital would be scheduled again in the following day’s session. Smt. Madhura Jasraj who was in the audience, was so impressed that she went to her father, the celebrated Film Director V. Shantaram and praised the young artiste very highly. Sri Shantaram invited Shiv to Rajkamal Studios, and both he and his famous music director Vasant Desai listened to Shiv’s santoor recital for one hour, at the end of which he was offered not only a place as a santoor player, but also as a possible hero in one of their future films! Shiv had no interest in becoming an actor, but he happily accepted the other offer, and the very first film for which he played on his santoor was the unforgettable superhit Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. Vasant Desai let him compose the tunes he had to play in the background. Unique in various respects, this was the first time that santoor was used in background music. It was also the film which launched Shiv Kumar’s long and successful association with films. Subsequently he has played the santoor in a countless number of films providing background music and accompaniment for many songs which continue to be hits to this day. In recent times he has emerged as a popular music director with his friend Hari Prasad Chaurasiya. Shiv-Hari have given music for a large number of films like Silsila, Chandni, Lamhe, Darr and so on.

In 1960 Shiv Kumar shifted to Mumbai, the Mecca of music-artistes, to look for a career. His father very reluctantly let him go, and insisted on sending a family servant along with him. Pt. Uma Dutt Sharma told Shiv that he must unhesitantly ask for money whenever he needed it. But the young artiste had resolved to fend for himself. Narrating the details of those early years of struggle, Shiv told me: “I must confess that those initial years were full of pecuniary problems because I hardly had any income. But I concealed my real plight from my father because I knew that he would rush to my help if he got any inkling of the fact that for me each meal was a problem. I lived in a dark, low-priced room in a third-rate dingy hotel in Dhobi talao. Pt. V.G. Jog who became very fond of me, kindly arranged for my stay with a student of his; but unfortunately, this student used to collect the rent from me regularly, but I did not realise that he never passed it on to the landlord, until one fine morning we were literally thrown out bag and baggage on to the footpath! I had only four annas left in my pocket. At that moment a paltry re-broadcast fee of Rs. 13/ 12 annas only arrived from AIR Jallandhar like a godsend! That was the rock-bottom phase of my career and the year was 1960. Soon things began to look up when Pt. Ravi Shankarji took me under his wings. He not only booked me to play the santoor for his music in the film Godan, but he generously asked me to go and stay with him in his Malabar Hill residence as I had no roof over my head. I stayed with him for a few weeks until I moved into my Bandra flat (rented.) Since Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje was such a super-hit, and my background music on santoor was exclusively released on a record, I became well-known in film-circles.”

Then followed a continuous chain of bookings to play on the santoor for innumerable films such as: Hum Dono (Jaidev’s music), Barsaat ki Raat (Roshan’s music), Noori, Trishul (Khayyam), Kabhi Kabhi and so on. In fact, Shiv Kumar has been a favourite santoor artiste of a number of famous music-directors like Madan Mohan, Vasant Desai, Jaidev, S.D. and R.D. Burman, Khayyam, C. Ramachandra, Rajesh Roshan, Naushad, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, O.P. Nayyar, and Kalyanji-Anandji. Life became comfortable and he became easy-going for a while. Then followed a strange period of lethargy when he lived a lazy and relaxed life hardly ever moving out of Mumbai. Luckily, before long, he shook off his lethargy and suddenly felt that he should devote his time to the propagation of classical music all over the country. He started accepting a series of bookings for sammelans, conferences festivals etc. Then he got a chance to perform before the great musicologist Thakur Jaidev Singh, the Chief Producer of Hindustani Music at AIR headquarters in Delhi, when the latter visited the Jammu-Kashmir Radio station officially in 1958. Immediately on his return to Delhi Thakur Saheb booked Shiv for a National Programme, but the offer had to be withdrawn owing, to the opposition of some “big-wig salahkars” who refused to give National Programme status to the instrument santoor!

Later, he was offered a half National Programme which he refused. But soon, he was again offered a full National Programme, and he gladly accepted it. The opposition must have been overcome by then, and Thakur Saheb’s proposal put the seal of acceptance on the santoor as a full-fledged concert instrument of solo status.

It was another feather in his cap when he was booked in Lalababu’s prestigious All India Music Conference in Calcutta.

Shiv’s programme was sandwiched between those of celebrities like Smt. Kesarbai Kerkar and a Salamat-Nazakat Ali jugalbandi. However, he won such acclaim that he was booked again the following year. He was also able to hear a large number of celebrities of those years. He had the privilege of being accompanied on the tabla by top-artistes like (late) Pt. Anokheylal Misra, Ustads Habibuddin, Karamatullah, Allahrakha, Pt. Shankar Ghosh and many others. Today north India’ abounds in large number of brilliant young tabla experts and we have heard Shiv being accompanied by nearly all of them. But I personally feel that the personal rapport between Zakir Hussain that “Prince Charming of the tabla”, and Shiv Kumar “the Badshah of santoor is so excellent that each propels the other into a furore of irrepressible creativity. Zakir can match and anticipate every mood and move of Shiv Kumar. Others who have won acclaim for accompanying the santoor maestro are Shafat Ahmad of Delhi, Anand Gopal of S.R.A. (Calcutta), Sabir Khan of Calcutta and Fazal (younger brother of Zakir) among others.

Although Shiv Kumar won much acclaim and popularity, there was no dearth of brickbats too because many critics found it impossible to overcome their mental resistance to the instrument. Purists condemned the santoor for the lack of continuity in notes. Some critics advised him to give up this useless instrument for one that had greater acceptance.

This hurt and piqued him all the more to strive, enrich, and improve his chosen instrument. “Do you ever regret your choice or rather, your father’s choice?” I asked him once. “No,” he replied. “It was this very element of challenge that offered me scope to experiment, venture into untrodden musical paths, and add my own innovations to the baaja. I had to invent new techniques to make the santoor more acceptable, popular, and suitable for our highly developed classical music.”

By adding 16 more strings to the existing 100, four more bridges to the existing 25, and reducing the clusters of strings from four to three, he has enhanced its tonal clarity, and innovated other devices so that now he presents full-fledged alap, jod, and jhala, vilambit and drut gats – everything that can be played on other instruments like the sarod, sitar etc.

During his visit to India, the (late) Shah of Iran had been so deeply impressed by Shiv Kumar’s santoor that he invited the latter to perform in the famous “Shiraz Festival” where santoor experts from various countries had been invited to participate. This santoor maestro is able to produce tonal variations ranging from notes like the gentle rustling of leaves, gurgling of mountain-springs, cascading Himalayan waterfalls, to the pleasing patter of raindrops and torrential rain! He says: “Nature has always had a deep effect on my moods. As a schoolboy I used to spend hours watching the sunbeams dancing on the shimmering water of the river Tawi, the tall fur-trees standing erect like faithful sentinels, and the snow covered mountainranges of Vaishnomata all of which I could see clearly from the terrace of my home. If I watched long enough, I could get an illusion of proximity to the lofty mountains. Even when I hold the two walnut kalams to practise on my santoor, those scenes rush back to my mind’s eye so vividly!”

I have very often felt that the music a maestro presents, strongly reflects his or her own personality and temperament. For instance, Shiv’s personality is well reflected in his santoor–charming, dignified, reflective, vibrant, and giving a clear vision of ragas rich in technique as well as in aesthetic imagination. Though he has been playing for films for so many years, nobody in the audience has ever dared to ask him to play a film-hit in his classifical concerts, because they know he will firmly decline. Even critics who have to attend his frequent concerts (“as often as the full moon nights”) in cities like Delhi, confess that Shiv Kumar succeeds each time in wooing and totally winning them over by “an enduring, quick-silver” quality, an ever-fresh imagination and a pervading soothing and yet vibrant quality.

Shiv Kumar had a college-mate who used to go into a trance-like swoon each time he heard the santoor! When he was psycho-analysed, he confessed, “Each time I heard the dulcet tones of his santoor, I felt I was soaring higher and higher into the skies while looking into the bottomless blue surging oceans below!”

One critic wrote, “When Shiv Kumar awakens the sleeping raginis by his caressing touch on the 116 strings of his santoor, it is like watching the waves on a lake shimmering in the silvery moonlight when caressed by a gentle breeze. Listeners are simply charmed.” Another rasika wrote: “Producing a peculiar hypnotic effect, Shiv Kumar takes you to transcendental realms, the moment he strikes the strings of his santoor.”

My own reactions on hearing a recent concert are summed up in the following review I wrote: “So possessed was he with the ethos and beauty of the raga Chandrakauns that he kept the packed audience under his spell for a full two hours. Wooing the swaras of the raga slowly through a contemplative alap, he unfolded the unlimited beauties of its note-combinations, gradually working up the tempo to a crescendo of speed without ever losing the melodious aspect. The incredible varieties of strokes, taans etc. that he built up around the note-combinations (ma, ga, ni, sa) gave it a haunting quality so that it echoed in one’s ears long after the recital had ended.”

When he takes up lighter ragas for thumri-like renderings, he seems to paint ragmala pictures for our musical imagination. In spite of all the inherent handicaps of his instrument, he manages to do full justice to whatever raga he takes up for elaboration such as Yaman, Bihag, Chandrakauns, Kaunshi-Kanada, Sree, Jog, Darbari, Bagesri, Ragesri, Hamsadhwani, Keerwani, because of his excellent conception of each raga, his colourful musical imagination, systematic elaboration, and perfect control over his instrument. It is only when you examine his santoor closely that you will realise what he has mastered! Each cluster of strings i lying close together represents one swara. What he evokes out of these is a richly woven tapestry of glowing notes. In order to fill up the glaring absence of meends, he resorts to a self-devised trick of vibrating strokes on a cluster of closely-knitted strings which gives a sort of continuity to the notes. The strokes too are varied-such as soft and caressing, stressed, staccato or with prolonged vibrations, muted or “stopped” and so on. With his early expertise on the tabla, he is naturally a master of laya, and the rhythmic complexities he unleashes at the end of his drut gat are both a delight and challenge to his gutsy and accomplished young tabla accompanists. One trick of his that invariably wins applause is the way he muffles the strings . by stopping the vibrations with a flat palm, and the next moment releases the vibrations with rainbowhued clusters of swaras. The santoor is a cumbersome instrument to carry, to tune, to play. However, carefully and perfectly he may have tuned the strings in the greenroom, once on stage, some of the strings get deflected from the pitch. But by years of practice Shiv effortlessly “screws” them back into perfect pitch.

Among the stalwarts who have encouraged and helped him most, he specially mentions three names: late Padma Bhushan Thakur Jaideva Singh, Pt. V.G. Jog, and Pt. Ravi Shankar. It was Pt. Ravi Shankar who launched him into the west through the “Festival from India Troupe”* which performed extensively all over the USA and Canada for several months. Shiv Kumar’s foreign trips have become so frequent that one has to book him months in advance in this country! Today he is one of the most popular and frequently booked artistes with a vast fan-following everywhere.

Shiv Kumar’s great desire today is to inculcate tastes for good classical music among the younger generations today. Hence he readily accepts SPIC MACAY’s offers for his lecture demonstrations. His record titled Feelings (mood-music on santoor) released in 1988 rose to the category of the “ten top favourites”, and was the only record of instrumental music in this list! The Call of The Valley has been a long favourite. This was a trio with Chaurasiya on the flute and Brijbhushan on the guitar.

Shiv Kumar’s life as a householder has been one of peace and harmony. In 1966 he married Manorama, the girl chosen by his parents from Jammu. She has acquired a taste for classical music so that she can appreciate his art. Their sons Rohit and Rahul are handsome and extremely musical but have chosen other careers. Shiv never tried to impose his will on them. But the younger son, Rahul, is being regularly trained in santoor by Shiv.

As for his shishya-parampara I hear nothing but praise about their guru from his shishyas. He has carefully chosen a few genuine and hard-working pupils, among whom he specially mentioned Sri

Visweswaran of Madras (the accomplished Carnatic vocalist, and husband of the famous Bharata-natyam dancer Chitra Visweswaran), Sri Satish Vyas (son of Pt. C.R. Vyas) of Mumbai, Sruti from Bhopal, Harjinder and Kiranpal Singh Namdhari and Nand Kishore. It was only after a decade each of training that he permitted the first two to perform in public. Shiv Kumar added: “I have prepared a musical path anda makaan for them. All they have to do is to do riyaz and more riyaz. I am sure that my younger son Rahul and they will carry my art forward. But they must first master the instrument and its complicated techniques, the myriad expressions of the ragas, and the talas; only then can they express emotions and moods through the strokes and fingers on those 100 and odd strings.”

Today there is a soap named Santoor; a pan-masala called Santoor; and a restaurant belonging to an admirer in Mumbai who has named it Santoor! On its menu are dishes called Alap, Jod and Bandishes. Are these not adequate indications of the popularity that Shiv Kumar has earned for his santoor through long years of sadhana even though the instrument was imposed on him by his father more than three or four decades ago? Pt. Uma Dutt Sharma was lucky to have lived long enough to see his prophecy fulfilled before he passed away in 1974.

Among the awards Shiv Kumar has already won are the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Padma Sri, Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskaar, and HMV’s celebration of their 30 years association with the santoor wizard.

This is an edited version of a section from Susheela Misra’s Among Contemporary Musicians.

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