Indian classical music has contributed some great musicians to the world music scene no doubt but it wasn’t just the music that these musicians brought but also entirely new sounds thanks to some unique musical instruments. Perhaps the most unique of such musician-instrument combinations has to be Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and the santoor. Pandit Sharma passed away earlier this week and it is only apt to feature a eulogy by someone who designed and gave the world a whole new instrument – Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the Grammy winner and the inventor of the Mohan Veena.
“At a time, long, long ago, when the sitar, sarod and violin dominated the Hindustani classical soundscape, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma’s great contribution, after a long struggle, was to establish the 100-string instrument — which came from Kashmir and was used as an accompanying instrument in Sufiana Kalam folk and Sufi traditions — as a classical instrument. This was some 60-70 years ago, when the santoor was a new thing, but Sharmaji was determined.
As it happens with every new thing — something that I, too, had to stand witness to — the audience was sceptical about the new instrument and apprehensive about how it will sound. How far can it go? Can it excel? They said that the santoor sound lacked the very essence of Indian classical music — meend (gliding of notes, the sound from one note to another without a break in it) and gamak (derived from Dhrupad). But it is to his credit that Panditji established the instrument, its sound – and in a way himself – in the classical pantheon with such aplomb that the audience forgot about the instrument’s deficiencies. He would slide his mallet on the stringed instrument with his right-hand thumb from the note ga to pa in such a way that it exuded the expression of gamak. The word most suited to the santoor is layakari. It is the display of intricacies in patterns. For instance, if he was playing Rupak Taal, a cycle of seven beats, Panditji displayed a range of layakari by playing a number of beats in that seven-beat cycle: The Jhaptaal (10 beats), Ek Taal (12 beats), Teen Taal (16 beats), you name it. His layakari evoked meend and by making his layakari prominent, Panditji beautifully camouflaged any shortcomings of the instrument. Gradually, the audience understood what was going on in his mind.”

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