A maestro is one who has perfected established techniques and aspects of music. But what do you call someone who gives music a whole new identity and joins the ranks of Mozart, Baray Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Ahmad Jan Thirikwa or Vilayat Khan. Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma is the latest addition to the list of such immortal legends. The father of the santoor (a trapezoidal-shaped hammered dulcimer, a variant of the Iranian santoor), died on May 10 at the age of 84.
I was introduced to the music of Pandit Shivji by Adnan Sami Khan. The latter was so influenced by him that he tuned his electric piano to that of his santoor, memorized Shivji’s music by heart, and performed it in concert.
At that time, there was no YouTube. Not a single music store in Islamabad had Shivji’s music. When my boss and friend, Dr. Tariq Banuri, traveled to Mumbai to attend a conference, he brought back an audio cassette: a Music Today production with Bhopal Todi and Kirwani of Shivji. It was in the early 90s and I still listen to it. Every time I play it I feel like I’ve never heard it before. There is always something new to discover every time. Such is the beauty of music made by legends – always fresh even in recordings.
Shivji chose an instrument very unsuitable for rendering ragas. It was almost like the piano. Adornments such as meedh, gamak, taan and murki (which the sarangi, sitar and sarod could have testified to) were out of the question. And it is these subtle expressions of notes that make our music totally different and more beautiful than that of the West. In addition, the santoor was placed on a tripod and, when struck by mallets, its strings rattled.
The soft-spoken and simple-spoken Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, who died on May 10, was not only an unparalleled santoor player, but also a singer, tabla maestro and composer.
Like Vilayat Khan, Shivji redesigned the instrument: changed its size and used strings of different numbers and gauges. He increased the number of bridges from 25 to 31 and reduced the number of strings from 100 to 89. He also selected the wood used to make the sticks.
Instead of setting up the santoor on a tripod, he placed it on his lap. He could have plucked the strings of the santoor with his fingers — like the sitar or the sarod — to create meendhs (glides) but then it wouldn’t remain the santoor. Santoor must be struck with a mallet and yet produce meendhs. So, instead of hitting the strings, he rubbed them gently with the mallet and produced the sound effects of gamak, taan and meendh. Its detractors never recognized tonal effects such as meendh or gamak. Yet he was one of the most successful and sought after musicians.
Our classical music is not in written form. This means he has endless room for improvisation. Therefore, an instrumentalist or singer must be an improvisational composer on stage. And Shivji was exceptional. He could have played a raga for hours and hours without repeating a single phrase. I have a dozen of his kirwanis and bageshris played in different places and at different times; all are different, but all are essentially kirwani and bageshri.
Shivji was not just a santoor player. He was a singer, tab player and composer. How good was he at tabla? He had accompanied Pandit Ravi Shankar on the tabla. Anyone who knows music knows how difficult it was to provide Ravi Shankar with tabla accompaniment.
Shivji, along with flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, has given Bollywood some amazing songs. The duo composed the music for Silsila (1981) and Chandni (1989) by Yash Chopra.
Once I asked Ustad Shahid Parvez (a very good laikaar in sitar music) who was the best laikaar in his opinion. He singled out Zakir Hussain (tabla), Birju Maharaj (kathak dancer) and Shiv Kumar Sharma. Speaking on the phone the other day, Shahid (who was very close to the santoor legend) said, “When we hear the name of Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, santoor instantly comes to mind. An artist can only create a relationship with his instrument after having conquered it. Shivji had complete control over his instrument. He did everything on the santoor and he could have done everything on it. He demonstrated all aspects of classical music on the santour which had many limitations. This is no ordinary feat. He made a name for himself in history. The santoor cannot be discussed without him. An instrument like the santour is ideal for rhythm. This is why Shivji focused on lai and rhythm. He opted for a very neat and clean laikaari that matched the instrument. I was influenced by his laikaari on a significant level. And I confessed on several occasions that I incorporated his laikaari in my sitar in my own way. Shivji was a very gentle and direct man, very sincere in teaching music and generous in encouraging his juniors. His name will live forever.
Since Shivji’s trademark was rhythm, a very good tabla player could have done his music justice. Almost all the big names in tabla accompanied him, but his best came out whenever he was with Zakir Hussain. It seemed that God had created him for Shivji. When he played with Shivji, the audience was doubled and half the room was made up of Zakir fans.
Shivji loved Zakir so much that he visited his house in Malabar Hill, picked up his table, then went to his school, picked him up and took him to the concert hall.
At some point, Zakir got very busy. Shivji then chose the late Ustad Shafaat Ahmad Khan of Delhi gharana. Shafaat once told me that he could easily accompany anyone, but found it very difficult to play with Shivji.
And what a tribute Shivji paid to Zakir. In an interview he said that he would inform tabla players in advance of the rhythmic cycle (taal) he would be playing but with Zakir he could have chosen any complex taal on stage without telling him, and Zakir would take it back. If he did the same with others, they would think that Shivji was trying to expose their weakness and put them down.
Shivji has received the Padma Shri award as well as the Padma Vibhushan awards. He remained active until his death. His music will be carried by his son Rahul Sharma — an ideal example of “like father, like son”.
The writer is based in Islamabad. He is a journalist and student of tabla and vocal music. He can be reached at [email protected]
Posted in Dawn, ICON, May 29, 2022