Obituary of Shivkumar Sharma | Music


Shivkumar Sharma, who died at the age of 84, was one of India’s great musical innovators, a virtuoso instrumentalist and composer known for both his Bollywood film music and his classical work, and who succeeded in introduce a new instrument, the santoor, to Indian classical music.

This was no easy task, as it is an ancient folk instrument, popular in Jammu and Kashmir, where Sharma grew up, which many musicians initially considered unsuitable for classical styles.

Traditionally used to accompany Islamic Sufi mystical chants, it is a trapezoidal box-shaped hammered dulcimer that has 100 strings and is struck with small mallets rather than plucked – making it very different from a sitar, a sarod or other instruments previously used to play classical. ragas, which require rapid-fire slides between notes. But Sharma persevered, became a celebrity in India performing the santoor, then took his music to concert halls and festivals in Europe, Britain and the United States.

“My story is different from that of other classical musicians,” he explains in his memoir Journey With a Hundred Strings (written with Ina Puri, 2002). “While they have to prove their courage, their talent, their caliber, I had to prove the value of my instrument.”

Born in Jammu, in a region famous for the beauty of its lakes and mountains, but bitterly disputed between India and Pakistan, he grew up listening to folk songs and the santoor playing of his father, Uma Datt Sharma , singer and multi-instrumentalist who had tried to introduce the instrument into classical music – and wanted his son to continue his campaign.

Shivkumar Sharma performing in Mumbai in 2007. Photography: Prodip Guha/Getty Images

He taught Shivkumar to sing and play tabla drums, and when the boy was 13 he began to teach him santoor. By the age of 17 he was playing both tabla and santoor on the local radio station and gave his first concert – controversial with santoor – in what was then Bombay. After a degree in economics at the University of Jammu and Kashmir, he moved to the city to work as a professional musician.

It was not easy. “I remember going around looking for work,” he said. “and there were days when I had nothing to eat. I was playing tabla and accompanying other people, but gigs were hard to find due to the negative reviews of santor.

But he refused to switch to another instrument and said: “I’m stubborn to a certain extent. Once I decide to do something, I do it.”

In order to earn money, he started working in the film industry, saying, “Composing music for films is not as easy as some classical musicians think. You have to think about the situation and the atmosphere, whereas in concert we generally play what we want to play.

He played the santoor in the 1955 Hindi dance film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje – the first time the instrument featured in Indian cinema – in which it was heard alongside songs by famous playback singer Lata Mangeshkar . He last played tabla on a Bollywood film on Guide (1965), after being persuaded to do so by the “King of Bollywood Music”, RD Burman.

Sharma was determined to focus on the santoor and made modifications to the instrument to extend its range to three octaves and “create a softer glissando to allow the player to sustain and glide between notes in perfect emulation of the voice. human”.

In 1967 he teamed up with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and slide guitarist Brij Bhusan Kabra to record Call of the Valley, an instrumental piece that uses ragas to tell the story of a day in the life of a Kashmiri shepherd. . It was a ‘light classical’ mood piece that appealed to both Indian and young Western audiences, at a time when The Beatles had become fascinated with India and Ravi Shankar had played at the festival. pop from Monterey, California.

A close up of Shivkumar Sharma playing the santoor.  It is an ancient folk instrument with 100 strings and is struck with small mallets rather than plucked.
A close up of Shivkumar Sharma playing the santoor. It is an ancient folk instrument with 100 strings and is struck with small mallets rather than plucked. Photography: Dinodia Pictures/Alamy

The album became a bestseller with a cult following – it even featured in the 2005 UK book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. By their early thirties, Sharma and his colleagues had become celebrities, and the santoor was increasingly recognized as a classical instrument.

He continued to straddle classical and Bollywood styles and continued his association with Chaurasia. The duo became known as Shiv-Hari, and their work included the music for a series of films for famed Bollywood director Yash Chopra. Chopra was considered to have taken a gamble by signing classical musicians, but it paid off, with the success of Silsilia (1981), Faasle (1985), Lamhe (1991) and the psychological thriller Darr (1993). Sharma then decided to leave the cinema, complaining that directors now wanted “Western beats and more noise than melody”. But he and Chaurasia continued to play live shows together.

In 1966 he had married Manorama, in what he said was “an arranged marriage – we had only seen each other once”. The couple had two sons, the youngest of whom, Rahul, born in 1972, also became a skilled santour player, taught by his father, whom he often accompanied on stage.

In 1997, they undertook a long tour of the United States together and the following year, they participated in the Womad festival, which was then held in Reading. While in Britain they recorded an album for Real World Records, Sampradya (1999), which consisted of a long new composition, Raga Janasammohini, and was produced by John Leckie, then best known for his work with Fall and Radiohead. Leckie said: ‘He was a gentleman. There was no question of ‘Who are you? You’re a rock ‘n’ roll producer.'”

As for his playing, and his ability to create micro-tones on a santoor, “he pulled the little hammers on the strings and created a sort of harmonic between the two notes he was playing”.

Sharma returned to Brtiain to perform at the Darbar festival in London in 2010, in 2015 (when he also toured the UK), the following year in a tribute concert to Ravi Shankar, whom he had accompanied on the tabla at the start of his career, with Chaurasia, and in 2019.

He recorded dozens of albums and continued to perform, even though he was receiving dialysis treatment for kidney problems. Looking back on his career, he said his troubles bringing santoor to the classical scene were nothing compared to the meditative trance the music gave him.

He is survived by Manorama and his sons, Rahul and Rohit.

Shivkumar Sharma, musician and composer, born January 13, 1938; died on May 10, 2022

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