Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Master of Santoor, Dies at 84

Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, an Indian musician and composer who was the leading exponent of the santoor, a 100-string instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer, died Tuesday at his home in Mumbai. He was 84 years old.

Indian news reports said the cause was cardiac arrest.

During a career that spanned nearly seven decades, Mr. Sharma became the first musician to propel the santoor onto the world stage, in concerts and recitals in India and elsewhere.

Before Sharma started playing the santoor, he was little known outside of Kashmir. Even there he was used only to play Sufiana Mausiqi, a genre of Kashmiri classical music with Persian, Central Asian and Indian roots.

The santoor, a trapezoidal wooden instrument whose strings stretch over 25 wooden bridges, is played with thin wooden mallets. In the santoor, unlike the sitar, sarod or sarangi, the string instruments traditionally used in Hindustani classical music, it is difficult to hold the notes and play the notes, or slips from one note to another, essential in the Hindustani musical tradition .

That could be one of the reasons it took Sharma so many years to be recognized for his art.

Early in his career, purists and critics derided the breathy sound of the santoor, with many urging Sharma to switch instruments. Instead, he spent years redesigning the santoor to allow it to play more notes per octave, making it more suitable for the complex ragas, the melodic framework of Hindustani music.

“My story is different from other classical musicians,” Mr. Sharma told The Times of India in 2002. “While they had to prove their worth, their talent, their caliber, I had to prove the value of my instrument. I had to fight for it.”

He released several albums, beginning with “Call of the Valley” (1967), a collaboration with acclaimed flutist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra.

Mr. Chaurasia and Mr. Sharma were close friends and frequent collaborators. Together they composed music for several successful Bollywood films in the 1980s and 1990s, including “Silsila” (1981), “Chandni” (1989), “Lamhe” (1991), and “Darr” (1993). Mr. Sharma was one of the few Indian musicians to traverse the worlds of classical and popular music.

In 1974, Mr. Sharma performed in North America with sitar virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar as part of former Beatle George Harrison’s 45-show “Dark Horse” concert tour, bringing Indian classical music to audiences beyond the South Asia along with some of the best classical musicians. Indian musicians: Alla Rakha on tabla, Sultan Khan on sarangi, L. Subramaniam on violin, TV Gopalakrishnan on mridangam and vocals, Mr. Chaurasia on flute, Gopal Krishan on vichitra veena and Lakshmi Shankar on vocals.

Mr. Sharma received some of India’s highest honors, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1986, the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2001.

Shiv Kumar (sometimes translated as Shivkumar) Sharma was born on January 13, 1938 in Jammu, India, the son of Pandit Uma Devi Sharma, a classical musician who belonged to the royal priestly family of the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, and Kesar Devi . He began taking singing and tabla lessons with his father at the age of 5, showing great promise. In “Journey With a Hundred Strings” (2002), a biography of Mr. Sharma, Ina Puri wrote that he would spend hours immersed in music, practicing various instruments.

“There was an obsessive element in my attitude towards music even then,” he was quoted as saying. “It was the air I breathed, the reason I lived.”

By the age of 12 he was an accomplished tabla player, performing regularly on Radio Jammu and accompanying prominent musicians visiting the city. When he was 14 years old, his father returned from Srinagar, where he had been working, with a gift: a santoor.

Mr. Sharma was not happy to learn a new and unknown instrument. But his father stood firm. “Remember my words, son,” he recalled his father telling him. “Shiv Kumar Sharma and the santoor will become synonymous in the years to come. Have the courage to start something from scratch. You will be recognized as a pioneer.”

In 1955, Mr. Sharma gave his first major public performance in the santoor, at the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan festival in Bombay (now Mumbai). The youngest participant at 17, persuaded the organizers to allow him to play both the santoor and the tabla. Reluctantly, he was given 30 minutes to play the instrument of his choice, but on the day of the recital he played the santoor for a full hour, to enthusiastic applause. The organizers called him for another recital the next day.

He soon received offers to play and act in Hindi films, but after one film, the 1955 hit “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje”, he was determined to focus on classical music. He performed throughout the country in an effort to establish the santoor as a classical instrument.

He moved to Bombay at 22; to make ends meet, she played the santoor in sessions for dozens of popular Hindi movie songs while continuing to build his classic reputation.

He is survived by his wife, Manorama; his sons, Rahul, a well-known santoor musician and composer, and Rohit; and two grandchildren.

After Mr. Sharma’s death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among those who paid tribute. “Our cultural world is poorer with the disappearance of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma Ji”, wrote on Twitter. “He popularized the santoor worldwide. His music will continue to captivate generations to come.”

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