Everyone immediately identifies the santoor with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. From the 1960s, he has ruled the stage with hundreds of live concerts and released numerous albums, making him the undisputed monarch of the stringed instrument.
Sharma, now 80, is singularly credited with the adaptation and popularisation of the santoor in Hindustani classical music. Earlier, it was played primarily in lighter forms of music, but under the guidance of his father and guru Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, he began playing classical compositions.
Compared to the sitar, sarod and bansuri (bamboo flute), the santoor has relatively fewer practitioners. Yet, it remains hugely popular among classical music fans, mainly because of the serene and captivating music it produces. It has a distinct look too, trapezoid in shape, and is played by striking it with a pair of mallets.
Here, we shall look at the instrument’s origins, how it is played, major players and its use in other kinds of music.
Origins: An ancestral archetype of the santoor was believed to have been invented in Mesopotamia before 900 BC, and much later used in different forms in Iraq and India. Some musicologists have other theories but there is no clarity or evidence.
In ancient Sanskrit texts, the santoor has been called the ‘shata-tantri veena’ or hundred-stringed instrument. In India, it was primarily played in Kashmiri music and Sufiana music as an accompanying instrument.
With Sharma’s efforts, it achieved the status of a solo instrument in Hindustani classical music, and is now recognised internationally. The santoor is considered to be part of the dulcimer family. Other similar instruments including the hammered dulcimer (as known in the UK, US and Canada), hackbrett (played in mainland Europe) and cimbalom (played in eastern Europe and Russia). Japan, South Korea and China have their own types of dulcimers.
How the santoor is played: In any concert, the musician sits with the instrument on his lap. The broader side is placed close to the musician, and he strikes the strings with a pair of mallets or hammers.
Different strings produce different sounds and a typical santoor has two sets of bridges, with a three-octave range. Tuning is done through pegs located on the musician’s right.
The santoor is primarily played by a solo artiste, with accompaniment from the tabla and from the stringed drone instrument tanpura. At times, it is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments, mainly the bansuri. The jugalbandis between Sharma and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia are legendary.
A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.
After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with tabla accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the santoor player demonstrates his skill here, the tabla player also gets certain portions to play brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.
Once this first raga is over, the santoor player may play another raga, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted. Most santoor players are known to play a light piece in raga Pahadi towards the end of the concert, besides Bhairavi.
Major players: For his part, Sharma has groomed many talented santoor players like R. Visweswaran, Satish Vyas, Nandkishore Muley, Dhananjay Daithankar and his son Rahul Sharma.
The other well-known santoor players include the senior Kashmir artiste Bhajan Sopori, the late Ulhas Bapat, the innovative Tarun Bhattacharya, who has studied under sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Snehal Muzoomdar, who is known for his jugalbandis with veena player Narayan Mani. Among the youngsters, Sopori’s son Abhay has made a mark, even accompanying classical conductor Zubin Mehta on a piece of his famous Srinagar concert in 2013.
Use in other music: Besides classical concerts, Sharma also teamed up with Chaurasia to produce film music under the name Shiv-Hari. He has thus used the santoor in films like ‘Silsila’, ‘Chandni’, ‘Lamhe’ and ‘Darr’, besides playing the instrument in many older film songs.
By and large, Sharma has stayed away from fusion. The only known experiment in this genre was the piece ‘Shringar’ with the group Remember Shakti at a live concert in Mumbai. It was in raga Kirwani, with him and guitarist John McLaughlin having an impromptu musical dialogue. But his concept album The Call of the Valley, with Chaurasia and late guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra, has been a best-seller in Hindustani classical music.
Rahul Sharma has been taking the santoor to newer areas, especially through his collaborations with international artistes like pianist Richard Clayderman (on the albums ‘The Confluence’ and ‘The Confluence II’), saxophonist Kenny G (on ‘Namaste India’), world music group Deep Forest (on ‘Deep India’) and Egyptian oud player Georges Kazazian (on ‘A Meeting By The Nile’). At the Paddy Fields festival in Mumbai next month, he will do a duet with Kashmiri folk singer Gulzar Ganie.
Rahul has also released experimental albums like ‘Time Traveller’, which has a new age element, and ‘The Rebel’, which blends classical music with rock and was promoted as santoor-rock.
These albums have found a willing audience among younger listeners. They would act as a perfect initiation for those who haven’t heard much of the instrument. But to gain a deeper understanding of the santoor, it is essential to begin with any Shivkumar Sharma classical recording, ideally with Ustad Zakir Hussain on the tabla.
Some youngsters have taken up the instrument. Talents include Rohan Krishnan Ratan and Younis Majid Rather. Others are still to earn a name yet. That’s something that needs some attention and promotion from organisers. But yes, the santoor simply enchants you with its sheer melody.
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