Shiv Kumar Sharma: The maestro who straddled classical and popular music

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Indian classical music legend Shiv Kumar Sharma has died at the age of 84.

Sharma was an exponent of santoor, a dulcimer-like instrument. He suffered a heart attack at his residence in Mumbai on Tuesday morning.

Sharma is credited with converting the santoor, which was mainly played in Kashmir, into a major instrument of Indian classical music.

Sharma was also part of a duo – along with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia – who worked on classical and film music.

Shiv-Hari, as they were called, composed music for at least eight Bollywood films, including Silsila, Chandni, Darr and Lamhe.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the tributes to Sharma.

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Sharma was born and raised in Jammu in a house by a river where, in his words, “from dawn till dusk, someone or the other was singing or playing an instrument”.

His father, Uma Dutt Sharma, came from a family of priests, and was himself a classical vocalist and played the tabla, the traditional Indian drum.

In the early 1950s, when he was handling music programmes for a state-run radio station, Uma Dutt began researching the santoor, a traditional instrument of Kashmir used in local Sufi music.

He bought home a 100-string santoor and encouraged his young son to try playing it.

Years later, Sharma recounted that he had initially resisted playing the instrument.

“My father told me, ‘You have no idea what is going to happen with your name and the santoor. They are going to become synonymous. So you have to play this’, Sharma told interviewer Ina Puri.

Flute Maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Santoor Legend Pandit Shivkumar Sharma during the 11th Bansuri Utsav at Ravindra Natya Mandir, Prabhadevi on October 14, 2018 in Mumbai, India.

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By 17, Sharma was playing both the santoor and the tabla for the local radio station. He flowered into a versatile musician, later playing the tabla for maestros such as Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod).

Singer Vijay Kichlu once said Sharma made the santoor a major component of Indian classical music.

“Unlike the santoor, the sarod, the shehnai and the violin were considered major instruments, with the sarangi being used as an accompanying instrument to vocalists,” Kichlu said.

Also, playing the santoor was not easy: the instrument is not played with the fingers. Instead, its strings have to be struck with a mallet held in each hand.

Sharma once said he had modified the instrument to “suit the requirements of Indian classical music – specifically to enhance its tonal quality”. Interestingly, he was also the first musician to play the instrument, weighing eight kilograms, on his lap for hours at a time – traditionally the santoor was kept on a wooden stand when played.

Some critics were “harsh”, saying the santoor would never be accepted as a classical instrument, and told his father that his son had chosen the “wrong instrument”, Sharma recounted in his autobiography, Journey with a Hundred Strings.

But Sharma persevered.

In 1955, when he was 17, he had turned down an offer from V Shantaram, a Bollywood director, to compose a song in his film – saying his calling lay elsewhere.

But five years later, he arrived in Mumbai looking for music-based jobs in the film industry – by then, he had also acquired a master’s degree in economics.

“His work, for much of the sixties and some of the seventies, kept running like a train on two tracks – his work in cinema, and his opus on the [classical] concert stage,” said Manek Premchand, a historian of film music.

Shiv Kumar Sharma

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Over the years, he played to packed audiences at classical shows, where he would never play his popular music. Ravi Shankar once called Sharma a “superstar” who would be always “mentioned as a pioneer in elevating santoor to the height of classical refinement”.

A rare musician who effortlessly straddled both classical and popular music, Sharma played the santoor for least 40 popular Hindi film songs sung by greats such as Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh.

In the eighties, his collaboration with Chaurasia spawned many hits, beginning with Silsila, starring superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Bachchan once remembered a New Year’s eve during the shooting of Silsila when the duo played well past midnight at the hotel they were staying in Delhi.

“When it was all over, we could see not just a physical exhaustion on the part of Sharma but as though his very soul had got exhausted,” Bachchan recalled.

In 1998, Kumar and Chaurasia became the first Indian musicians to play at a Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo alongside Alanis Morissette, Elton John and Phil Collins. The duo also performed in the central hall of India’s parliament.

Sharma received some of India’s greatest honours: the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1986, the Padma Shri in 1991, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2001.

He is survived by his wife and two sons. One of his sons, Rahul, is also a santoor player of repute who has recorded with Richard Clayderman and Kenny G.

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