Until about sixty or seventy years ago, the santoor was hardly known to anyone connected with Indian classical music, even though musicologists trace its origin to centuries ago when a string instrument called the shata-tantri veena, or veena with hundred strings, was in existence. Later, somehow the santoor got popular only in Kashmir and for centuries has been used there mostly as an accompanying instrument for vocalists singing Sufiana Mausiqi or music related to the Sufi philosophy. Occasionally, the santoor is still used as a solo instrument in Kashmir but only to play Sufi music. The word santoor, derived from Persian, also means a hundred strings.
Shivji is the son and disciple of the late Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, who belonged to a family of priests and later turned into a musician. He lived in Jammu and was trained by the legendary musician Pandit Bade Ramdasji, one of the all-time greats of the Banaras gharana. Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma was not only a learned vocalist but also an accomplished tabla, harmonium and esraj player. In the early fifties he was the music-in-charge of Radio Srinagar. It was during this period that he did extensive research on the santoor and started teaching his son, Shivji, the intricacies of the instrument, particularly in relation to Indian classical music. He taught classical music to Dr Karan Singh, the ex-Maharaja of Kashmir, as well.
Shivji was introduced to music at the tender age of five. He was first taught vocal music, then the tabla and finally the santoor. His performing career started as a tabla player, broadcasting from Jammu and Srinagar radio stations. Few people know that in his early days Shivji provided table accompaniment to musicians of the calibre of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan, Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, Hirabai Barodekar, Begum Akhtar and Siddheshwari Devi. Around 1961, he also provided the table accompaniment in a jugalbandi with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
While Shivji devoted his life to music, he did not neglect academics and studied for a Master’s degree in Economics from the Jammu & Kashmir University. Given the kind of intellectual and spiritual background he came from, it is not surprising that he finally decided to accept the challenge of playing the santoor as his main instrument. To him goes the credit of converting the santoor to one of the major instruments of Indian classical music. Till then only the sitar, the sarod, the shehnai, the flute and the violin were considered major instruments, with the sarangi being used mostly as an accompanying instrument to vocalists. The santoor had many limitations such as striking the strings with mallets only and not with fingers. This made it difficult to produce the vital effects of the important kriyas (actions) of classical music such as meend (a glide) and gamak (a kind of musical jerk).
Shivji experimented on the santoor for years in order to enhance its tonal quality and its string arrangement with a view to improving its playing techniques, but without interfering with the inherent character of the instrument and maintaining the conventional techniques of playing. In Kashmir, musicians keep the santoor on a wooden stand in front of them while playing it. This gives an extra resonance, which is often disturbing. Shivji was the first musician to keep the santoor on his lap while playing and this helped to eliminate the resonance.
Placing a weight of eight kilograms on the lap is not easy. Further, it has to be played for hours at a time. Indulging in delicate intricacies and skills with perfection needs an extraordinary strength of posture as well. To achieve this, Shivji had to turn a yogi not only in terms of physical asanas (postures in yoga) but in meditation as well. Till today he
practices yoga in its purest form. His gait, his sitting posture, in fact his total personality is ample evidence of the fact that he is not only an extraordinary musician but also a yogi. He is an extremely honest person; a fact acknowledged by all those who have came in contact with him, including impresarios and music organisers. Shivji is responsible for having changed the string arrangement of the santoor by using thirty-one bridges instead of twenty-five and reducing the total number of strings from hundred to ninety-one. The modified santoor was thus able to get three clear octaves and chromatic tuning.
He insisted that two mallets must be held in the conventional and particular manner, between the trigger and the middle fingers. Any other way of holding the kalam would interfere with the instrument’s desired tonal quality. With this, he changed the history of the santoor, its stature, its appeal and attraction to music lovers. He was also able to change the instrument’s emotional and spiritual expression, which gave the santoor a new identity.
His All India Radio broadcasts of the santoor from Jammu and Srinagar stations in 1952 demonstrated authentic Raga Sangeet. In 1955, Shivji was invited for a performance by the Hari Das Sangeet Sammelan, a major music conference held in Mumbai. A year later, he was invited by Lala Babu’s famous All India Music Conference in Kolkata. For this presentation, Shivji was accompanied on the tabla by the legendary Pandit Anokhe Lal of the Banaras gharana. His recitals created a tremendous impression and since then he never looked back. Today, there is no well-known music platform, in India or abroad, where Shivji has not been included. All the major international music festivals in the world have invited him and given him the highest honour and position.
As a music critic, I am amazed at Shivji’s genius in raising himself to the status of the highest grade of musicians of his times. He did not have the benefit of learning the traditional gats (fixed compositions) of the santoor since the santoor had no history of classical music. With his background of vocal music, he composed gats of extraordinary excellence, with a melodic and rhythmic blend. Indeed, some of his gats are mind-boggling as far as rhythmic movements are concerned. His knowledge of the tabla is also amazing and it has helped him in structuring his entire baaj. All the table maestros agree that they are at their best when accompanying Shivji in any performance. Some of his performances with the phenomenal tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain have been stunning and have left audiences frozen with ecstasy.
This excerpt from ‘Shiv Kumar Sharma: The Man & His Music’ (2014), by Ina Puri, has been published with permission from Niyogi Books.