Raga On

The virtuosic range of Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain extends from graceful, sophisticated ragas to lightning-fast improvised interplay.

Sharma is one of the great visionaries in Hindustani (North Indian) classical music. Born in 1938, he first studied voice and tabla — a percussion instrument. Upon turning 13, his father, vocalist Uma Dutt Sharma, turned his son’s talents to the Kashmiri santoor, which then was principally used as an accompanying instrument in folk music. Despite his initial hesitation, Sharma dedicated himself to mastering the 100-string dulcimer-like instrument. Its counterpart, the santur, had associations with Persian and Iranian classical music, so elevating the Indian instrument to the classical concert stage was first looked upon dubiously. However, Sharma continued to study and experiment, eventually reconfiguring and restringing his instrument to create a matchless voice.

The young Sharma continued to work as an in-demand tabla player, even accompanying the late sitarist/composer Ravi Shankar in concert. His keen understanding of Indian music’s rhythmic complexity enabled him to develop an inimitable approach on the santoor. Sharma is bestowed with the designation “Pandit,” an honor conferred on an expert of a subject or field.

Also a child prodigy, Hussain is the son of Alla Rakha, the legendary tabla player who often accompanied Shankar. His exciting performances have established him as a national treasure in India, and earned him global acclaim. His playing is marked by uncanny intuition and masterful improvisational dexterity. The favorite accompanist for many of India’s greatest musicians and dancers, he’s also performed and/or created several world music and jazz fusion projects.

Sharma spoke by phone with Folio Weekly last month from his home in India.


Folio Weekly: What are some of the changes you made to the original santoor?

Shivkumar Sharma: I totally changed the tuning on the instrument. Before, there were four strings tuned to each note. There aren’t any sympathetic strings on a santoor, unlike a sitar. In spite of having so many strings, it wasn’t possible to play all the classical ragas on the instrument. For example, it wasn’t possible to tune chromatic scales [all 12 notes in an octave] on the original instrument. By reconfiguring the santoor to three strings per note, I was able to change the system of tuning so I can play all the ragas. Doing so also increased the range of the instrument. Although there are 100 strings, on the original santoor we couldn’t get three octaves that normally are used in our kind of music. I also changed the timbre of the instrument by playing it on my lap. And most importantly, I developed the technique of playing the legato [long] notes by sliding my mallets on the strings versus just striking them.


F.W.: You’ve established the santoor firmly in Indian classical music and have experimented with various fusion projects. In what other genres do you see the santoor making a place for itself?

S.S.: My son, Rahul Sharma, has been exploring that. He’s released an album with Kenny G as well as a brand new album with the European group Deep Forest, and others. I also have students from America, Germany, England and Japan study santoor with me. And I have another student who’s learning how to play Indian classical music on the dulcimer, using my santoor technique, so he’s playing ragas on that instrument. There are musicians who have learned from me and who are now forging their own paths on the santoor.


F.W.: Many of the soundtracks you composed have gone gold and platinum. How do you approach the santoor when composing on it versus playing it in concert?

S.S.: Sometimes what happens during a concert, I’ll play a pattern, phrase or motif that I’ve not practiced before. During the performance, some idea comes to my mind when improvising. And later on I think, “Oh my God, this is also possible,” which I never tried out earlier. And then I start working on it. After some time, it begins to take shape, and it becomes part of the repertoire of my music, perhaps for a film score or a composition for an album.


F.W.: Of all your distinguished awards and accolades, what is the most meaningful and why?

S.S.: I’m extraordinarily grateful to the Almighty and to my guru, and that people have accepted this instrument over the course of time. I think the most meaningful thing for me is the santoor has now become part and parcel of Indian classical music, in the span of 60 years. So, the fact there are listeners around the world who’ve accepted this instrument, that’s my biggest reward. And secondly, I have come across those who don’t listen to my music just for entertainment. They have been using my santoor music for meditation. Some doctors I’ve met have been using my music for music therapy. I’ve also met surgeons across the world who’ve said they use my music when they operate on their patients. This kind of response from different types of audiences is also the most gratifying reward for me.