Legend behind the 100 strings

On Friday, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma will engage listeners and followers of the santoor in an interactive session at the NCPA. The Guide chronicles his remarkable contribution in catapulting this Hindustani Classical instrument to centrestage

On Friday evening, as part of the NCPA's Sangeet Chintan series, santoor legend Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma will be available for an interactive session. The maestro will be speaking about the history and development of the santoor at the Tata Experimental Theatre that seats only 285 people and holds the promise of a cozy interaction. The driving idea is to make Hindustani Classical music accessible to uninitiated audiences.

Santoor and the legend
A musical instrument rarely owes its identity to an individual artiste; it has been Sharma's singular achievement that his name and the santoor have become synonyms over the last five decades.

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma will interact with the audience

Born in 1938 in Jammu, the sound of the santoor, an instrument commonly played in the Valley, was an integral part of growing up. However, it was mainly used as an accompanying instrument with Sufiana mausiqi (music accompanying the religious rituals of Sufis) and was never perceived as a Hindustani Classical instrument.

It was Sharma's father, the late Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, who saw the classical potential in the hundred-stringed instrument and encouraged his son to be its first Hindustani Classical ambassador.

Sharma had begun his talim on the tabla and Hindustani vocal and had started to get recognition as a tabla player in his late teens. A fascinating anecdote revolves around this vocal-tabla axis. Sharma was scheduled to play for an All India Radio concert in Jammu and realised before the concert that the tabla player assigned to him was not up to the mark. Pandit Jasraj was also to perform at the same concert (Pandit Jasraj had also started his career as a tabla player).

At the last minute, Sharma pleaded with Jasraj who ultimately accompanied Sharma on the tabla. The story moves forward by ten years; Jasraj was left stranded at a concert in Mumbai because Ustad Nizamuddin Khan, his scheduled accompanist, didn't show up. Sharma was present as a listener. And Jasraj wanted his pound of flesh. Sharma, who was a well-established santoor maestro by then, appeared on stage as an accompanist; before starting, he related the Jammu incident and said, "I am paying off a ten-year-old debt today."

Ironically, it was Sharma's tabla-playing skills that had given him the opportunity to play a santoor solo in a major festival. In 1955, the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in Mumbai witnessed a gathering of stalwarts from across the country.

The organisers booked a pool of accompanying tabla players for the performing artistes to choose from and Sharma was part of it. But he informed the organisers that he would play the tabla only if he was allowed to play a short santoor solo. His request would have been rubbished had tabla maestro Pandit Shankar Ghosh not stepped in. Sharma went on to stun his listeners and the santoor entered the foray of mainstream Hindustani music.

Such a long journey
The journey behind that recital, though, wasn't as much of a cakewalk. Sharma's greatest challenge was to introduce the meend (glissando) on a staccato instrument; once he achieved this (by developing a technique of gliding the mallets on the strings), he succeeded in matching the nuanced presentations usually associated with traditional instruments like the sarod and the sitar.

He introduced other modifications: he started the practice of keeping it on his lap (as opposed to on a stand) to cut out the extra resonance and reduced the number of strings to 91. Of course, he had to devise several other changes to remove the 'folk' stigma from his instrument and bolster its status in the Classical arena. Not any less difficult was his personal struggle to be accepted in the rather rigid world of Hindustani music.

Few musicians can match Sharma's trajectory as a musician and a visionary and perhaps even fewer can match his humility. This reporter, as a ten-year-old, was lurking around a green room in Kolkata to catch the maestro for an autograph as he made his way to the stage.

He emerged from the green room, alone; free of the circle of sycophants that is a common sight around star musicians. Where even upcoming musicians get others to carry their instruments, he was carrying his santoor. It was just he and I in the corridor; I could barely move in awe. He saw the autograph book in my hand and put down his instrument. He smiled, asked me my name, signed in my little book and went on to face the two and a half thousand people that were waiting for him.

On: September 30, 6.30 pm
At: Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
Admission is on a first-come-first-serve basis.

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