Santoor virtuoso Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who took the stringed instrument to the global stage and successfully straddled the worlds of classical and film music, died in Mumbai on May 10 at the age of 84.
Recalling his interactions with the music maestro, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Our cultural world is poorer with the demise of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma Ji. He popularised the Santoor at a global level. His music will continue to enthral the coming generations.”
Pt. Shivkumar Sharma exalted the santoor – once a little-known trapezoid-shaped, stringed instrument – from the folk circuit of Jammu and Kashmir and placed it on the proscenium alongside other more traditional and heavyweight classical instruments such as the sitar and sarod.
But the path to owning an instrument that has been an accompaniment for Sufiana mausiqi (music) for centuries and turning it into one that would fit into the complex world of ragas, riyaaz and relentless critique — all this while creating slides and embellishments like other string instruments but not imitating them — was long and arduous.
The challenges he faced as he worked to place the santoor on the classical centre stage, Sharma would sometimes say, were nothing compared to the meditative trance it offered him.
In the process, he created music that will be remembered for the inventive inflections he created as he handled a demanding and difficult instrument.
In a world that encourages slick branding, Sharma did the extraordinary – he made great music without talking much about it. Sharma began learning music from his father, classical vocalist Uma Dutt Sharma, who worked as a music supervisor at Radio Kashmir in Jammu and later, Kashmir.
The young Sharma was, however, soon drawn to the tabla and learnt its basics from his father. He began accompanying him to the children’s programmes at the radio station when he was about eight.
Later, when Uma Dutt was transferred to Radio Kashmir (Srinagar), he suggested his teenage son, Shivkumar, to try his hand at the santoor.
PT SHIVKUMAR SHARMA
Jan 13, 1938—May 10, 2022
Unlike other classical string instruments that are strummed with fingers or a plectrum, the santoor is played with small mallets created out of walnut wood.
It is said to be the only string instrument that isn’t played with one’s fingers and that makes it harder to produce the exactness of microtones– the hallmark of classical music.
Yet, Sharma stuck to the instrument, literally nurturing the instrument on his lap. His first national performance was in Mumbai, with the icons of classical music such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar, Amir Khan, Mushtaq Hussain, Omkarnath Thakur, Kesarbai Kerkar, Moghubai Kurdikar, Siddheshwari Devi and RasoolanBai, among others.
It was around the same time that filmmaker V Shantaram asked him to play the santoor in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955). Sharma composed a piece that featured Kathak dancer Gopi Krishna in a seminal dance section from the film.
Sharma struggled for a few years before managing to bring out a solo album in 1960. For many years, he was a sessions musician in films before teaming up with flute exponent Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia for an album, Call of the Valley (1967).
Offers from filmmakers followed, leading the two to team up as ShivHari and compose music for films such as Silsila (1981), Faasle (1985), Chandni (1989) and Lamhe (1991), among others.
Despite massive success in films, classical music remained Sharma’s focus and he carried the delicate santoor to concerts around the world.