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“Every concert teaches me something different.”

Interview by Viren Mayani Email Interview by Viren Mayani
May 2013
“Every concert teaches me something different.”

Born into an environment steeped in Indian classical music, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma seems to be doing nothing more than fulfilling a preordained destiny. Indeed, the humility with which he carries himself masks his prodigious ascent as a shining star of Indian classical music in step with legends like Zakir Hussain and the late Ravi Shankar.

In an interview with Khabar, Pt. Shivkumar talks about how he was able to lend the santoor, a Kashmiri sufi and folk instrument, a larger role in Indian classical music, and in the process reinvent the instrument itself.

Like all maestros, his passion for perfection of his art and craft is incessant and never-ending. Even today after decades of mastery over his instrument, he still religiously revisits each of his performances to audit it for opportunities to improve.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

People around the world know you as being synonymous with santoor. Tell us what has gone into where you stand today—as a living legend of the instrument. How many years of penance?
My father was a vocalist of the Banaras gharana. When I was five, he started teaching me vocal music as well as the tabla. By the time I was nine or 10, I had started broadcasting from Radio Jammu as a tabla player. My father gave me the santoor when I was around 13. The instrument was then used only in Kashmiri sufi music. My father was the first musician to bring it to Indian classical music.

I had some advantage in the sense that I was already trained as a vocalist and I was playing the tabla. In 1952, I gave a radio performance on the santoor. In ’55, there was a major festival in Bombay where all the great musicians of the country of that time had gathered. The santoor was featured for the first time. Till that time I was using the same instrument that was used in Kashmiri sufi music. It had some inherent limitations to play Indian classical music. So I was criticized a lot by musicians and critics. At the same time, for the lay listener, it was a novelty. For example, some musicians told me I was a brilliant musician with very good taleem, but I had chosen the wrong instrument! They advised me to take up the sitar or sarod instead, and I would become popular very soon. Some musicians said the santoor would never be able to express the nuances of Indian classical music. From 1955 to ’67, this kept going on.

Each instrument has its own technique to express Indian classical music, whereas my instrument did not have any technique of that sort. So I started working on that. First of all, to improve the tonal quality, to totally change the technique of playing the santoor, took me 10 to 12 years. After that, the same people [who had advised me against the santoor] changed their opinion and said, now it has started happening, don’t leave this instrument now!

In 1967, our album, Call of the Valley, was released, in which my friend Hariji—Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia—and Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra joined me on the flute and guitar. We did a thematic album based on ragas. By God’s grace this album became so popular that many people around the world have told me that their first introduction to Indian classical music came from Call of the Valley. Things started changing from there onwards and in 1968 I came to America. I was invited by Pandit Ravi Shankarji to the Festival of India in America. We played almost 40 concerts in America and Canada. From 1968 I started traveling the world over. In short, from 1955 to 1967 was my period of penance.

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You talked about having to improve the tonal quality of the santoor and the technique of playing. Did you have to do anything to the instrument itself physically?
I didn’t change the structure of it much. In Kashmir, even now they place the instrument on a wooden stand and then play it. They don’t place it on their lap. That was the first thing I changed—the posture, because this is a hollow box and you play it in a staccato manner. It resonates a lot. For their kind of music, which is basically very slow, this was okay. But for classical music, it gave a lot of unwanted vibrations. So I changed [the placing] by keeping it on my lap.

I also changed the system of the strings. For example, in the Kashmiri santoor you cannot have chromatic scale—major and minor notes—because it is not required for their kind of music. I changed the tuning system. In the Kashmiri santoor there are 25 bridges on which the strings rest and then go on to the other end. And there is a set of four strings for each bridge. For example if you have to tune the instrument to sa, there are four strings that are tuned to the same note. I reduced this from four to three, because again the resonance was too much.

The third thing was the range of the instrument. Normally we use three octaves in our classical music and this was impossible in the Kashmiri santoor, although it had 100 strings. I changed that, too. As a result, we got three octaves, we got the chromatic scale and we got a better sound. Tuning and the gauge of the strings were also changed.

Most important was how to strike it. I would say the sound doesn’t come from the mallet, the sound comes from your heart—how you strike it, what emotions you create. That is something beyond technique. Technique is a means to express music, but the ultimate thing is to express human emotions. The same note can be expressed differently by how you strike it—how slow, how soft, how loud. Aayiye, baithiye can mean different things by how gently or how curtly you say the words.

Initially I was playing the style of music that is played over the sarod and sitar because I didn’t have any reference point. The Kashmiri sufi music style was of no use to me because I wasn’t playing that kind of music. So if you listen to my recordings of the early sixties and those of 10 years later, you’ll see a change in style, because I gradually realized that if I was to play this instrument it should have its own technique and style of instrumental expression. That again took many years and I still feel that every concert teaches me something different.

We see that digital music has the ability to substitute a huge range of instruments like the piano, the violin, and a lot of percussion. Do you think there will be a time when they will be able to capture the nuances of even instruments like the santoor or the sitar and add those to the digital library?
I still feel the digital sound cannot be a substitute for the acoustic sound, although there are so many advantages in electronic music. Today, unfortunately, there are almost no acoustic instruments used in our film music. It’s all electronic. One keyboard gives you the sounds of the cello, the viola, the violin, and even the Indian instruments. But to an experienced listener it is obvious that the sound is digital. But of course I’m not against technological advancement. For example, on YouTube, we can get all the great masters. That is the positive side of advancement in technology.

I use the contact mike for the santoor. {My son] Rahul started it, because the santoor is the most soft-sounding instrument. We used to have problems balancing the instruments in different auditoriums in the world. I once tried the contact mike in 1974 when I toured America with Raviji, George Harrison, Billy Preston, and Ustad Sultan Khan saab. Later on I felt it changed the tonal quality of my music. So I stopped using it. But now I’ve found one contact mike that doesn’t change the tonal quality but just gives the volume a boost. So personally speaking I’m okay with that kind of experiment. But if somebody creates a digital sound for the santoor tomorrow we’ll have to listen and see how it sounds.

Has the santoor been taken up by Western musicians to any extent?
I have students coming to me from Western countries. From America I have a student who’s a dulcimer player. He has been coming to India regularly to learn from me. The techniques of playing the santoor and the dulcimer are different. So he adopts Indian elements into the playing of his instrument. And it sounds good. For example, he plays Raga Hansadhwani on the dulcimer! I also have students from Germany, Japan, and other countries.

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With Hariji, you have created some of the finest tracks in film music. Are you still continuing to contribute to film music?
No, our last film was Darr in 1993. After that we haven’t done any, because first of all, Hariji and I were traveling a lot and it became impossible for both of us to be free at the same time together. From Silsila in 1981 until Darr, we did eight films, out of which seven were directed by Yash Chopra. He used to plan his films based on our availability rather than the availability of the hero or heroine. Yashji was one director who was so fond of our music that he gave priority to our dates first. Right from the beginning both Hariji and I were very clear that if it ever came to choosing between film music and classical we would choose classical. But it’s a good feeling to know that wherever I go people remember those film songs.

Some classical musicians think film music is very easy. It is not. And it should be commercially successful. With us it was either luck or God’s blessings that we did mainstream cinema and people liked it and it was commercially successful. And now things have changed. As you said it’s all electronic music. As a result, everything sounds the same.

And that is why film music is so short-lived, these days.
Today’s directors are choosing that type of music. I don’t feel comfortable using the word Bollywood, so I’ll just say film music is like that these days. Now, Yash Chopraji was a great lover of poetry. So he could create a song like “Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum,” with Amitabh Bachchan reciting poetry. Nobody else could have visualized that. Because he was so fond of poetry, he loved the sensitivity of music.

Now you’ve traveled all over the world. Which concert hall brings out the beauty of the santoor the most?
Halls have changed, and listeners are also changing. But no matter which hall it is, 90 percent of the listeners around the world including India don’t know the technical aspects of Indian classical music. But a musician explains what he’s going to do. Suppose there are uninitiated listeners in the audience, and I start playing the alaap, they might wonder why the tabla hasn’t started. But if I explain to them why, they will be prepared for the music. So a little bit of introduction is essential on the part of the musician before the concert starts.

And the listeners have to connect emotionally with that music, not technically. What I’m trying to do in different countries is, I explain things to my audience. And they connect to my music. I call it music beyond entertainment. The Western concept is that music entertains. The Indian concept of music has never been that, although I don’t mean Indian classical music is boring. Indian classical music is very, very entertaining, but its origin was in spirituality. I have not read it in some book, but experienced it. And I want to share that experience with my listeners. For that they don’t need to know what are the notes of Raag Yaman, what are the beats of Rupak taal. They need to connect with the sound which is described in our language as naad, the eternal sound. Once you connect with that sound, it has no language barriers, no caste or creed or religious barriers. It is the universal sound. I try to connect with my listeners with this thinking that they don’t need to know the technical things of music like raag, taal, alaap or jhod, but connect with the sound. When they do connect, they experience something different.

In terms of legacy, with the vast volume of knowledge that you have created, how will it be recorded and passed on to generations beyond? Who in your gharana will continue your legacy?
I have been teaching for more than 40 years now. History is proof that one cannot have 10 musicians of the same caliber. For example, Ustad Allah Rakha Khan saab has taught so many disciples around the world. But one Zakir Hussain is sufficient. And this has been the story of Indian classical music all through centuries. There could have been exceptions like Baba Allauddin Khan saab who gave us more than one musician. But our music has survived on this possibility that one person comes who has got the ability to understand the entire knowledge of his guru and then the ability to add something to that.

As they say there is place for only one person at the top. But others also do their work. Some students are good at teaching, some at performing. Some are average musicians, some are above average. Some are good, some are extraordinary. We keep on trying. A guru is like a flowing river. It depends on the disciple how much he can take from that river.

Of my sons Rohit and Rahul, Rohit took up a different profession but Rahul has taken up the santoor. I’m quite happy with what he has achieved so far in his 17-year career. There are other students, too, in different parts of the world. There’s Nandkishore Muley who’s based in Florida and teaches there.

For music to survive there must be artistes and performers and most important there must also be followers of that art form. Unfortunately there are some instruments in India which are endangered because there are no performers. For example the rudraveena. Even the shehnai, I would say. After Bismillah Khan saab, there is hardly anyone. I have taught lots of students and even if one of them carries on, he would’ve created more students and awareness. I’m very confident about that. You don’t have anybody playing instruments like the vichitraveena or the jaltarang today. But in 60 years the santoor has seen the number of listeners grow, and more performers because there is a market for that.

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You must be aware that your personality and sense of style have been talked about. Have you ever considered yourself a fashion trendsetter?
(Laughs). I have never thought on those lines.

You should, because you have been on the covers of a lot of glossy magazines and what you wear in traditional Indian apparel has a following.
I wear what I feel comfortable in. I don’t follow any fashion styles or make any fashion statement. If people like it, that is good. I’ve never planned anything in my life or career. Things have kept on happening and I have kept on doing my work.

Even when people were saying it’s impossible to establish the santoor it did not bother me. And even now when people call me a legend I’m still thinking where I could have done better in the last concert I finished.

Finally, I’d like to say something. I have used the word “I” so many times in this conversation, saying I did this, or did that. But that is how one speaks. In my heart of hearts I know that I was a made a medium by a divine power. My contribution is only that I did it with sincerity and I’m still doing it sincerely. But I’m just a medium through which it is happening.


Please note that Maestros Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain appeared in Atlanta in concert on Saturday, 4/13/13.

Article updated on April 28, 2013.

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