The santoor, from Kashmiri Sufi music to the classical concert stage
The santoor is an ancient folk instrument thought to have originated in Iran, (Persia) from where, according to the Iranians, it made its way to India. But ancient Indian texts also refer to a very similar instrument as a shatatantri (100-stringed) veena, (at a time when the word veena did not refer to a specific instrument but was a generic terms for all string instruments) and classified as a zither.
The santoor became a vital part of the folk music of the Kashmir region where it is the favourite melodic accompaniment for Sufi (Islamic mystic) vocal music and it is possible that it was introduced here either by early Persian Sufis or traders.
A hammered dulcimer shaped like a trapezium and usually made out of maple or walnut wood, its strings are played by being struck with two lightweight wooden mallets held between the index and middle fingers.
The Persian variety has fewer strings (72) compared to its Indian counterpart which usually has 90 or more. Each pair of strings passes over two bridges, one on each side of the instrument. The santoor we hear in Indian classical music today – notably that of the maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and his son Rahul Sharma – has 31 bridges and over 90 strings, with a range of three octaves.
Earlier in the 20th century, outside of the Kashmir valley, most Indians had not heard the santoor until the early 1950s when Uma Dutt Sharma, (father of present-day santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma), a vocalist and also an able musician of numerous other instruments, attempted to introduce the instrument to Indian classical music. It was not an easy task and because the santoor is struck with mallets rather than plucked, the overall sound tends to be percussive as opposed to the more fluid tones of other Indian string instruments where notes can be held and slides between notes performed with astounding rapidity. For this reason, it has taken the best part of half a century to convince diehard purists that if handled correctly, the instrument is as worthy of executing a classical raag as any other Indian string instrument.
With Pandit Shivkumar Sharma continuing his father’s work, and making many further modifications to the instrument resulting in an improved tonal quality as well as an altered playing technique – the santoor is now balanced on the lap instead of being placed on a wooden block in front of the musician as it was for Kashmiri folk music – the much-revered santoor now holds an important place in Indian classical music.
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