Pandit Shivkumar Sharma

Category Instrumental | Tags Santoor

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma is one of very few instrumentalists who has near-single-handedly put their instrument on the classical map. Born in the Himalayan state of Jammu to a Dogri family, his father Uma Dutt Sharma was an esteemed singer who inducted him into vocal music and tabla from a young age. But his path deviated at age 13, as his father recommended that he took up the santoor - a 100-stringed hammered dulcimer traditionally used in Sufi folk music.

They set about studying the instrument together, working out how it could be adapted to Hindustani classical settings. Conservative members of the music establishment viewed the endeavor as hopeless folly - the santoor’s rigid strings each have a fixed pitch and cannot be bent, seemingly ruling out the distinctive ornaments of Indian music.

But they restrung, retuned, and reconfigured the instrument, changing the weight of the small mallets used to strike it and developing new techniques that allowed the young Shivkumar to glide and bounce his way through a melody, capturing the essence of Hindustani music’s gayaki ang (singing style).

From the critics came first silence, and eventually applause - although Shivkumar estimates that it took almost two decades from his controversial 1955 debut to win over "the die-hard connoisseurs…and purists." He attributes his santoor style to blending the melodic turns of vocal music with his two-handed percussive training on tabla (he maintained his tabla study for decades, becoming proficient enough to accompany Pandit Ravi Shankar at one stage).

His long career since has seen him rise to the forefront of Indian classical music. He played on 1967’s Call of the Valley, the first Hindustani album to find a global audience, and teamed up with bansuri master and close friend Hariprasad Chaurasia for several acclaimed film soundtracks. International collaborators have included electronic producers as well as a successful stint with 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.

"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."

• Darbar Player: If short clips aren't Shivkumar’s full-length versions of Raag Puriya Kalyan and Raag Jog on the Darbar Player. We’re a small not-for-profit, and filming, editing, and hosting cost money - so subscribing costs $5/month, which we hope is an excellent price for such a wealth of unique music.

—Also see Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music, our new series exploring how music with ancient roots continues to innovate in a fast-paced, interconnected modern world. Expand your appreciation!

Darbar Arts & Heritage believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. To find out more, get the Darbar newsletter, explore our YouTube channel, or sign up to the Darbar Player to watch extended festival performances in pristine HD quality.

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Founded in 2006, Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust (Darbar) believes in the power of Indian classical arts to stir, thrill and inspire. Through digital connectivity, shared experiences and enrichment we ensure that one of the finest art forms reaches the widest possible audience.

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