Seven Days of Santoor: A primer on Hindustani music’s hundred-stringed box

  • Author: George Howlett

The santoor's icy sparkle is a comparative newcomer to Indian classical music. Here's a seven-part primer on this uniquely captivating instrument.

—Part of Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music

1 - Basics & historical origins

The santoor is a trapezoid box. Carved from walnut or maple, it is strung with metal wires which the musician strikes with small wooden mallets. The Indian variant has around a hundred strings, held together in groups of three by 31 or so chessmen-like bridges.

Its origins are contested - most scholars consider it to have been adapted from Persian folk instruments via the Himalayan Kashmir region, but ancient Indian works describe a similar creation called shata tantri veena ('hundred-stringed instrument'). What is certain is that it has long been played by Sufi musicians - a mystic strain of Islam which uses trance-like devotional music to directly connect with god.

Islamic variants, known as santur, are often used to accompany the chanting which is central to Sufi spiritual practice, and tend to have fewer strings ('only' about 70). Other branches of the family tree include the Greek santooui, the Hungarian cimbalom, and the Chinese yangqin.

But few outside the Kashmir valley had ever heard the Indian santoor until the early 1950s. Several years earlier, the esteemed Hindustani classical singer Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma had recommended to his 13-year-old son Shivkumar that they should augment their study of tabla and vocal music with santoor training too. The elder man saw its potential to be elevated to the classical stage, and they set about reimagining the instrument for this new context. They would eventually achieve their goal, but only after years of tireless work.

• Pandit Shivkumar Sharma sets the record straight on his instrument's Sufi roots:

2 - Establishment: Pandit Shivkumar Sharma

Born in the Himalayan state of Jammu to a Dogri family, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma was inducted into tabla and vocal music from a young age by his father, showing great promise at both. He won state competitions, turning the heads of his elders and enjoying a burgeoning reputation.

But his shift to the santoor would provoke a harsher range of reactions. Conservative members of the music establishment viewed the idea as hopeless folly - the instrument’s rigid strings each have a fixed pitch and cannot be bent, seemingly ruling out the distinctively fluid ornaments of Indian music.

Undeterred, they restrung, retuned, and reconfigured the humble box, changing the weight of the mezrab (mallets) and developing an extraordinary new set of striking techniques. The young Shivkumar learned to glide and bounce his way through a melody, capturing the essence of Hindustani music’s characteristic gayaki ang (singing style).

But recognition took time: “I remember going around looking for work. There were days when I had only an anna [1/16th of a rupee] in my pocket and nothing to eat. I’d play the tabla to accompany others. Concerts were hard to come by because of the negative criticism of the santoor. The odd film assignments helped sustain me”.

Over time the disparaging voices ;faded to near-silence, and were replaced by applause and adulation - although Shivkumar estimates that it took almost two decades from his controversial 1955 debut to win over "the die-hard connoisseurs…and purists." He attributed his blossoming santoor style to blending the melodic turns of vocal music with his two-handed percussive training on tabla.

His long career since has seen him rise to the forefront of Indian classical music. He played on 1967’s Call of the Valley, one of the first Hindustani albums to find a global audience, and teamed up with bansuri master and close friend Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia for several acclaimed film soundtracks as Shiv-Hari. Over the years he has developed a famous rapport with Ustad Zakir Hussain's tabla, which now reaches near-telepathic heights. International collaborators have included electronic producers and a successful stint with John McLaughlin's Indo-jazz heavyweights Remember Shakti.

Today he takes a keen interest in therapeutic music, and teaches dedicated students for free at his ashram during breaks from touring with his santoor-playing son Rahul, who carries his lineage forward. The pair perform at Darbar Festival 2019 in a double bill with sitar maestro Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee (Sun 13 Oct, Barbican Centre - book early for the best seats!).

• Shivkumar plays Raag Jog with Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, live from Darbar Festival 2010:

3 - Hindustani auto-tune? Santoor technique

In Shivkumar’s words, "before I started playing santoor, I was trained as a vocalist and a tabla player, and I feel that has helped me a lot to express my music - through a singing santoor. I tried to balance melody with rhythm."

He maintained his tabla study for decades, becoming proficient enough to accompany Pandit Ravi Shankar for a sitar performance at one stage (he still sometimes plays tabla for his son Rahul’s riyaz sessions). The drums’ two-handed technique shaped his approach to the santoor, a style replete with percussive flurries and wide dynamic contrast.

Like North India’s tabla masters, he tends to play slow passages quietly but hit dense clusters harder, with melodies often incorporating combinations of the Ti-Re-Ki-Te tabla bol. He is renowned for his imaginative layakari (rhythmic interplay), which has in turn inspired others - bansuri maestro Pandit Rupak Kulkarni told me in an interview that “I interpret the work of Shivkumar Sharma. Shiv-ji’s layakari is so unique - it looks simple but it is very difficult”.

But rhythmic articulation was never the instrument’s main problem. The santoor’s fixed strings do not allow for the ‘spaces between the notes’ - the microtonal pitch landscape which Indian musicians use to slide and glide, blurring the boundaries of a melody. Instead, it can only play the exact notes it is tuned to - typically, the notes of the raga. It is almost like Hindustani music has been auto-tuned.

Although - as a santoor player myself - I say this with affection. The fixed pitches of my instrument bring a characteristic spaciousness to the sound, and to push against their constraints is to explore fascinating musical, physical, and theoretical puzzles. And there are fewer more tactile joys in music than the sensation of precisely bouncing a mallet across a santoor’s strings.

The instrument’s particularities led Shivkumar to explore areas of music inaccessible to a singer or sarodiya. Sitarist-scholar Deepak Raja hails his innovations: “With the adoption of kaleidoscopic patterns on the santoor, Sharma has substantially accelerated the process commenced by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – that of freeing instrumental music from the traditional reference point in vocal music".

Shivkumar has certainly developed several decidedly non-vocalistic techniques, such as plucking the strings with his fingers, and using the palms of his hands to mute their resonance. And for aspiring santoor players curious about his tuning, he says “On the left side there are all minor notes. And right side of the santoor, where mostly we play, I tune according to the raag”.

• Various techniques are on display in the ominous Raag Vachaspati, a duet with his son:

4 - Spiritual dimensions

But music is not fundamentally about technique or theory. For the Pandit, the santoor is a devotional endeavour. Like the Sufi mystics before him, he uses his instrument to channel the divine, accessing spaces of pure intuition and flow. The concert platform has pushed him to greater heights here, often leaving his practicing self to catch up: “Sometimes I’d play something and surprise myself and the audiences. Then I’d go back home and toil for hours trying to find out what I’d done”.

He elaborates on his musical philosophy: "Spiritual bliss is the essence of this art form. It was my dream to play such a kind of music which will make listeners forget to clap, which will make them silent. My dream came true once - I played one raga while the listeners immersed deep into meditation and I experienced a state of thoughtlessness. This silence was so nourishing, so fulfilling, there was no need to play anything else".

He believes in music’s divine power: “If we go according to mythology, in olden times musicians were not only musicians, they were also very spiritual people, or had the blessings of some saints and Sufi gurus. Because of that, they acquired certain powers to create miracles through their music. In today's lifestyle, people don't have that much patience, devotion and spiritual inclination to achieve these supernatural powers”.

Above all, he seeks deep self-knowledge: “This body is perishable, but the self is not. So self is immortal. That never dies. I’m wearing this kurta. I can change to another outfit...but this body remains the same. Same way, the self, which is ‘wearing’ this body can change this body number of times but remain the same. And this is the first question - who am I?...‘Shivkumar Sharma’ is this body, not the self. And I’m trying to go further, and know from where this self comes”.

• The Pandit plays the auspicious Raag Malkauns - read a full article on the raga here:

5 - Further innovations: Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya

The Indian santoor is intimately bound up with Shivkumar Sharma in the public mind. But his genius should not lead us to undervalue the extraordinary achievements of others. Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya has developed his own santoor style, borrowing from the melodic inclinations of many other instruments.

In his youth he learned guitar, piano, organ, sitar, and tabla with Rabi, his father, and also studied with Dulal Roy, master of the jaltarang (tuned water bowls - perhaps Hindustani music’s only other struck melodic instrument). Despite obvious talent he did not take to music instantly, but his perspective changed after first performing as a child: “The audience appreciated my performance and as a token of appreciation, I was rewarded with chocolates. I liked the gesture of gratitude...From that day onwards, I started training sincerely”.

He only devoted himself to his art fully after completing a degree in Commerce and briefly entering the world of professional work, and was aided by a chance meeting with Pandit Ravi Shankar in a studio. He describes the encounter:

“I requested to play my santoor specially for him, to which he readily agreed. We decided on a specific date and time. Unfortunately...I was late by 20 minutes for the meeting. My tardiness infuriated him and he expressed his unwillingness to listen to my santoor anymore. However, after some pleading and persuasion, I finally managed to convince him...After the session concluded, Pandit Ravi Shankar was very impressed and accepted me into his fold”.

They commenced a long association, working hard to adapt the intricacies of Shankar’s Maihar gharana sitar style to the santoor’s more rigid framework: “Pandit-ji taught me the intricacies of the raga, how to make mathematical calculations with rhythmic cycles and so on. He would teach with the sitar and I would try it out”.

Tarun altered his instrument too, deepening the tone, modifying a special low string to enable wide bending, and adding mankas - fine tuners which allow for quicker switching between different ragas. He also studied with Shivkumar - a time which has largely gone tantalisingly undescribed by both virtuosi. Today he tours the world as well as teaching students for free at his Santoor Ashram in Kolkata.

He is renowned for focusing on broader ethical issues too, including inequality and polio prevention. He says, "I cannot shut eyes and remain unaware of the social issues, however painful. This pain hampers creativity; yet this is also true that this pain pushes me to think hard and create as well".

• Tarun showcases his fresh santoor style

6 - More artists, more styles

The santoor has established a firm popularity among modern Hindustani students. Sharma himself has taught it to thousands, often for free, and others have taken up the instrument in their own ways too.

• Kiranpal Singh and Harjinderpal Singh Matharu are among Europe’s leading exponents. Born in Kenya and India respectively, they both grew up singing and playing tabla for Sikh ceremonies in their families’ adopted home of West London.

But after their gurdwara (temple) performances both made an impression on Sri Satguru Jagjit Singh Ji Maharaj, the spiritual leader of the Namdhari Sikhs, it was arranged for them both to study the santoor under Shivkumar in Mumbai.

They learned from him in the traditional guru-shishya (master-disciple) system for over a decade, and now play Hindustani and Sufi music around the UK as well as further afield. They also teach - Harjinderpal’s student Kaviraj Singh is emerging as an artist of great promise.

• Bhajan Sopori upholds the Kashmir gharana (‘Sufiyana’) style - a lineage which has remained closely tied to the origins of the instrument. He strikes his expanded set of 123 strings hard with heavy kalam, using novel bounce and glide techniques which some have likened to the sounds of fluttering moths.

Bhajan is proud of his Sopori baaz lineage: “I am an eighth-generation santoor player in my family...My great-grandfather, Pandit Shankar Pandit, has contributed a lot to this kind of instrument and music not only in Kashmir but elsewhere also. My father was a superb sitar player and he gave me a classical knowhow of the instruments. I started playing sitar initially but later I fell in love with santoor".

His son Abhay Rustum Sopori is now also a superb santoor artist, having been dissuaded from pursuing a career as a professional hockey player.

• Dr. Varsha Agrawal also plays the Sufiyana gharana, having studied it under Bhajan. Her style builds on that of her guru, and she has taken her many strings around the world as an associated artist of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. She may be described the ‘first lady of the santoor’, but her music requires no such gendered qualifiers.

• Pandit Satish Vyas’s father, like Shivkumar’s, was a singer - CR Vyas. The family home often hosted legendary classical musicians, and Satish studied raga music from his early days. But he originally planned on a career in business, gaining degrees in both Science and Management before eventually being pulled to full-time santoor performance, developing a formidable style under Shivkumar’s tutelage.

• R Visweswaran is the nephew of legendary South India singer GN Balasubramaniam, and studied many instruments in his youth, including veena, bass, glockenspiel, and guitar (he spent much of his college years reverse-engineering the techniques of flamenco guitar from imported records). Alongside his Carnatic classical performance he took up the santoor and became a disciple of Shivkumar, working to adapt South Indian ragas into the instrument's young repertoire.

• The late Pandit Ulhas Bapat, like many santoor players, also learned tabla in his youth. But it was on the hundred strings that he made his name, studying it with sarod pioneer Vidushi Zarin Daruwala Sharma and vocalists KG Ginde and Wamanrao Sadolikar. He formulated a fluid classical style, also working with RD Burman in film on multiple occasions. His technique has a greater balance between the two hands than Shivkumar’s right-hand dominant style, opening up new melodic turns and phrases:

7 - Antardhwani: the voice within

New ragas have been created for the santoor, aiming to enhance the instrument’s meditative qualities. Shivkumar’s Antardhwani (‘the voice within’) is one of them. He explained his process in an excellent interview by Michael Robinson:

“Many of my listeners around the world were asking me to make a special recording for meditation...Until then I didn’t know that many people were using my music for meditation. Many meditation centers, yoga centers, even people were using my music for healing...A couple of doctors also told me they have used my music, alap [rhythmless introduction] part, and it has given very good results.”

“Till then I had never decided to create a new raag. In fact, I believe that there are so many raags already existing, and in one’s lifetime, a musician can have the technical knowledge of those raags, but cannot master all of them...What happened, one day I was just practicing at home, and you know, while playing one raag we change to another raag, we change certain tuning of the notes.”

"So in the process of going from one raag to the other, I just hit on this scale, and I got this scale accidentally. So when I played it, it sounded good! So I liked it, and I thought, OK, let me try to find out what are the possibilities in this scale...And then the aroha and avroh [ascending and descending form] was decided...there are particular phrases, certain swaras, certain notes, which creates that raag....whenever I used to play it, it used to give me a lot of peace.”

The Indian santoor, a 20th-century addition to Hindustani classical music, continues to thrive in the 21st. Artists expand on a constantly growing range of influences, and the senior disciples of musicians like Shivkumar and Bhajan Sopori now in turn have promising students of their own.

Others around the world (including myself) now learn what we can remotely, poring over YouTube videos of the masters to unlock their secrets and attending concerts to witness them live whenever we can.

• Raag Antardhwani ('the voice within') - Shiv-ji's meditative new creation:

George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. Parts of this article draw from Jameela Siddiqi's excellent historical writings for Darbar on the santoor - history and instrument basics. Have a read!

Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talk and documentaries in pristine HD and UHD quality.

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