New Delhi: Shiv Kumar Sharma, the legendary santoor player, considers silence, not applause, to be the deepest praise for his craft.
In an interview to DesiYUP, a portal for Indian music, in 2017, Sharma recounted a time when his performance at the Osho ashram in Pune left his audience in a trance-like state.
So moved were they by the music, they didn’t stir once it came to an end. “That, for me, was the biggest compliment,” he said, “When people connected with my music like spirituality.”
Sharma is known to be a harsh critic of himself, even though keen listeners of classical Hindustani music revere him for his unparalleled prowess of an instrument as complex as the santoor.
The santoor comprises 100 strings stretched across a hollow body, and is played with tongs rather than plucked.
Traditionally, its sound – something of a cross between a harp and sitar – is rooted in Sufi music, but Sharma changed that when he incorporated it into Hindustani classical music, a blend made formidable by his skill.
In fact, in 1955, when he was 17 years old and his career as a musician was taking off, Sharma modified the instrument slightly to soften the notes the santoor produces, making it better suited to Hindustani classical.
At first, his attempt to migrate its sound was not looked upon favourably. Progressive listeners were supportive, but among traditionalists, Sharma was thought to be overstepping a strict boundary. That didn’t deter him from going on to perform with the santoor on national platforms till it was gradually accepted.
“I literally nurtured it in my lap,” he said of the instrument in another interview, to The Hindu in 2013, recounting how he was discouraged from merging the two genres.
“People even advised me to take up vocal music or play the tabla, in which I am well-versed too. All this only made me more determined in my mission,” he added.
Not love at first sight
The santoor is now synonymous with Sharma, but it wasn’t the first instrument he was drawn to.
“No sooner had I heard it than I had dismissed it from my thoughts, never imagining the role it was destined to play in my life,” he wrote in his autobiography Journey With A Hundred Strings: My Life In Music, which he co-authored with writer Ina Puri.
It was on his father’s instruction and insistence that he took it up.
By the time he was five, Sharma was already an apprentice of music, having inherited the musical genius of at least two generations: His father Uma Dutt Sharma was his first guru and a Hindustani classical vocalist and tabla player who learned from Pandit Bade Ramdasji of Banaras, an expert in the ragas.
By 12, Sharma was performing vocals and the tabla on local radio broadcasts in Jammu, where he was born and brought up.
Until this time, he was also given a free rein to experiment with the instruments of his choice. In his memoirs, he recounts spending hours playing the sitar, sarod, violin and harmonium.
When his father felt he was mature enough, Sharma was gifted the santoor, and told it was to be his instrument. He has never left it since, even lending the santoor’s sound to Hindi cinema.
Among Sharma’s most memorable contributions are the soundtracks of the films Silsila, Darr and Lamhe, which he composed in collaboration with flute virtuoso Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, one of the many maestros he has worked with. The duo, in the tradition of musical pairings in Bollywood, came to be known as Shiv-Hari.
The next generation
Sharma has also occasionally collaborated with a musician considered a maestro in the making — his son, Rahul Sharma, 46.
Rahul picked up the santoor and, like his father, sought to alter the sound to make it his own.
“As Rahul developed his own style,” Sharma told The Asian Age in an interview in 2016, “we decided to do less collaborations so that he could grow as an artiste in his own right and I am proud of the results of that growth.”
This article was originally published in 2019.