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.
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