The history of Hindustani music is replete with instances of experimentation that have shaped its course. These experiments have taken place in the realm of performance practice, pedagogy, modes of dissemination, and several other areas. However, there is enough evidence to prove that experiments in music were not always encouraged, and, sometimes, even derided when they met with success. In fact, even today, many Hindustani music aficionados who are quick to boast about the diverse repertoire and the plurality of genres, forms, instruments and styles, harbour deep prejudices that lead to needless comparisons between these elements: pitting vocal against instrumental, Dhrupad against Khayal, Dhrupad and Khayal against Thumri, rudra veena and surbahar against sitar and sarod, or these instruments against harmonium and santoor, all melodic instruments against percussion instruments — the list goes on.
Opposition to experimentation is often seen even among accomplished performers, scholars, teachers and critics. However, despite such orthodoxy that treats tradition as an unchanging and monolithic entity, Hindustani music has evolved due to the creative impulse of numerous path-breakers. Santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, a recipient of several awards including the Padma Vibhushan, was one such path-breaker who encountered challenges in his efforts at establishing the santoor as an instrument for solo recitals at a time when the sitar and the sarod reigned supreme. He met these challenges with great determination, and it is due to his tireless efforts that santoor has attained an enviable status in the pantheon of Hindustani musical instruments.
I had the good fortune of not only accompanying the maestro in performances and recordings, but also speaking to him at length on several occasions. He has recounted several anecdotes in these and other interviews that point to the uphill task he faced and the resolve that he showed. His grace and dignity prevented him from publicly haranguing his erstwhile critics. Instead, he believed his music would be proof enough of his success.
Born in Jammu, Shivkumar Sharma did not belong to a family of musicians. His grandfather Pandit Santramji was the raj purohit (chief priest) for the private temple of the Maharaja of Kashmir. Music in the family began with his father Pandit Umadutt, a versatile musician who had learnt tabla from Ustad Harnam Singh and vocal music from Bade Ramdasji of Varanasi. He also played the dilruba, esraj and harmonium. Sharma initially learned vocal music and tabla from his father. Though he tried his hand at different instruments, he concentrated on the tabla and would often accompany celebrated musicians like Begum Akhtar and Hirabai Barodekar during their radio concerts.
When his father, a music supervisor, was transferred to Radio Srinagar, it was there that Sharma heard the santoor played in Sufiana mausiqui. He had firm ideas about the manner in which the instrument could be tuned, the method of practising and using both kalams or wooden mallets so as to enable the presentation of raagdari music. But when Sharma took up the santoor, many felt that the instrument was inadequate for Hindustani music, as melodic ornamentations like gamak (oscillation of a note) and meend (gliding from one note to another), that were integral to this system of music, could not be reproduced. Realising the need to create a distinct tonal character and technique for the santoor in order to establish it as a concert instrument, Sharma built on his training and experimented until he arrived at a style that became synonymous with him.
Indeed, the introduction of the santoor to the Hindustani concert stage would not have been possible on such a large scale had it not been for an amplification system that aided the process. To that extent, Sharma was historically placed in an advantageous position to harness this technology for popularising his instrument. But the basic sound of the instrument had to be worked on before amplification came into play. Sharma applied his efforts in this direction in multiple ways.
He was convinced that he needed to create a distinct tonal character and technique for the santoor in order to establish it as an independent concert instrument. Initially, he tried to imitate certain techniques of the sitar or veena for producing meend on the santoor. He recounted that he would record his experiments on a Grundig spool recorder that he had bought from a friend. If he was convinced that he was going along the right path, he would introduce these elements in concerts. He tried to simulate the effect of the meend by sliding the wooden mallets along the strings, thereby also providing sustenance to the notes, otherwise impossible if the strings were struck. Thus, he attempted to play conventional aalaap or the introductory movement of a raag as presented in the dhrupad form and as followed by sitar and sarod players.
He also worked on the repertoire and the manner of musical elaboration, both of which were aided by his training in vocal music and tabla. For instance, he composed gats or instrumental compositions based on the taranas or vocal compositions using mnemonic syllables like ta, na, de, re. He also explored gats in different popular and rarely-heard taals and employed cross-rhythms in a manner that was unheard of until then in Hindustani instrumental music. In fact, his extended excursions into this area of cross-rhythms during raga elaboration with tabla accompaniment became an inseparable part of his style and was followed not just by his disciples but even by other instrumentalists. Equally, he drew upon Khayal compositions that he had learnt. He was not averse to presenting compositions that were inspired by the Thumri-Dadra genres, which many puritans even today consider “light” or “semi-classical” without comprehending their grammar and improvisatory scope. In fact, Sharma also included melodies from folk music of Kashmir, lending a special flavour to his performances.
The most commonly seen santoor on the Hindustani music stage today is the result of modifications that Sharma brought to the original instrument. His efforts at arriving at a distinct tonal character for the instrument were guided by its shape, the manner in which the sound was produced with the help of the kalams, their weight and several other factors. Sharma addressed each of these and standardised them to suit his temperament. Although the trapezoid shape continued, he increased the number of bridges to explore more octaves and reduced the number of strings to avoid the excessive vibration. Instead of placing the instrument on a wooden stand, he chose to place it on his lap in order to elicit better tonal quality. He changed the system of tuning to what is followed by most santoor players today. Above all, he looked closely at the method of striking the strings. Those who have watched his performances closely would have noted the delicacy he brought to the striking pattern. He never struck the kalams from a great distance, as that would have resulted in an aggressive and distorted tone. He sustained the notes by balancing the kalams between two fingers without using the thumb that is normally employed as a lever to initiate a hammered stroke. Similarly, he exercised a balance between both hands while exploring the entire gamut.
Sharma had visited Mumbai for the first time in 1955 to perform at the Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan, one of the most popular music festivals in the city. It was during this visit that he received an offer to record for the film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje directed by V Shantaram. This was the first film that included santoor as part of the background music. He composed his own part. Following this, he had other offers to work for Hindi films, not only as a music director but also as an actor, but he continued to work along the path that his father had chosen for him.
Sharma faced challenges even while working on film music. The sound of the santoor was new to recording engineers, music directors and arrangers, and everyone had to address the issue of the instrument’s volume and tone in relation to the rest of the ensemble. But the instrument soon became an integral part of film music ensembles and this too happened due to his diligence. He would be asked to compose his part that he felt would be apt for the songs or background music.
In 1967, Sharma collaborated with his close associates Brijbhushan Kabra, the noted guitarist, and bansuri maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia, for a record titled Call of the Valley. It met with great success and several music lovers had their first taste of Hindustani music through this record. Later, Sharma and Chaurasia recorded a jugalbandi or duet in Sweden, titled Shiv-Hari. They continued with this name when they began composing as music directors for Hindi cinema, and soon, their music for films like Silsila (1981), Chandni (1989), Lamhe (1991) and Darr (1993), became hugely popular.
Despite an active career as a music director, Sharma continued to present his solo recitals at prestigious venues across the world. In particular, his performances with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain continue to be remembered by music lovers. Over the decades, Sharma has trained numerous disciples who continue to propagate his musical style. Puritans continue to believe that the santoor is inadequate in representing Hindustani music. They need to ask themselves whether there is a singular idea of Hindustani music or has it been an ever-changing and flexible one. There are as many ways of listening to Hindustani music as there are ways to appreciate the diversity of Indian culture. The reality is that Sharma was successful in establishing a separate identity for the instrument and in making its sound integral to Hindustani music. His musical journey has been documented through various interviews including those recorded for the archives of the All India Radio, ironically, an institution that once upon a time did not permit an entire programme of santoor for its coveted 90-minute National Programme, because it felt that the instrument would not be accepted by music lovers.
(A leading tabla exponent, Aneesh Pradhan is a teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani classical music)