Exchanging a Few Words With ‘Santoor Sensation’ Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma

by March 17, 2018 0 comments

Giving his take on how the government should take appropriate measures to preserve our classical music, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma also talked about his close relationship with Pt. Ravi Shankar to Shailaja Khanna. Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma is a strict, reserves person who does not entertain fools easily and has a dry sense of humor. Although his traits seem off-putting for someone to have a good public image, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma is comfortable being himself and maintains security in this position, all thanks to his good looks and his ability to amaze people when playing the santoor.

Excerpts from a chat:

Shiv Ji, it is said you had a very close relationship with Pt Ravi Shankar, who from the beginning supported you in your career. Please elaborate.

I had first performed at the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in Bombay in February 1955, where I was the first player ever to play the santoor at a classical music festival. Pt Ravi Shankar, who also performed on the same stage, heard my concert. A few months later, Pt Ravi Shankar went to play at the Jammu All India Radio Station, where my father was the station head, and I accompanied him on the tabla. (I was an equally good tabla accompanist those days). Ravi Ji came to our house to hear me play the santoor after the recording. We developed a very good rapport over the years; I accompanied him on the tabla several times. In 1967, Ravi Ji was responsible for ensuring that my name was included amongst artists who were sent to give 40 concerts all over Canada and US. There were Pt Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and me, the only vocalist was Lakshmi Shankar. Ustad Allah Rakha accompanied me and Ravi Ji. Shankar Ghosh accompanied Ali Akbar Khan Sahib. I think my rapport with him was indeed very close; he may not have had such a good relationship with another musician.

Pt Ravi Shankar had no doubt that the santoor, which till then was only an instrument used for folk music could be used for classical music. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan too agreed with Ravi Shankar, though Ustad Vilayat Khan had severe doubts which he verbalized at the time; it was many years later that Ustad Vilayat Khan admitted he had been wrong in his assessment of the potential of the santoor. Later Ustad Vilayat Khan used to come over to my house, and I had a wonderful relationship with him.

In those days, when mobility was much more an issue, how did you hear musicians from whom you imbibed?

In the 1950s, Radio broadcasting of classical music concerts was tremendous — this included from Lahore Radio before Partition. I used to hear each one. Then there were gramophone recordings of all the greats, including Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Pt Omkarnath Thakur, Ustad Wahid Khan, Pt Dilip Chandra Bedi (who was a close friend of his father), Kesarbai, Roshanara Begum, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, Ustad Allaudin Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan — literally everybody! It’s important to first hear, absorb, compare and then slowly after many years when your musical roots are strong, you start to develop your own musical thoughts.

Pandit Ji your sense of rhythm is unique and your concerts always have a strong layakaari base. You agree?

It is a misnomer that every percussionist is a good layakaar. Many great tabla players did not emphasize the laya aspect of tabla, some like Ustad Allah Rakha Khan and Pt Kishan Maharaj, on the other hand, were great layakaars. Sur (tunefulness) and laya (rhythm) are God-given, they cannot be acquired. It’s also your personal inclination — some people are totally overpowered by laya. Neither should laya overpower the melodic aspect, not should melody or sur be exclusive of laya. Swar ka kaam (melodic content) without laya is bejaan (lifeless) music.

My father was a vocalist, a disciple of Pt Bade Ramdas ji of Banaras, but I learnt how to sing and play the tabla when I was young. In the past I accompanied so many greats on the tabla — I have even accompanied Begum Akhtar on tabla!

I have never emphasised laya and tayaari (virtuosity) at the cost of melody. I must say though, that I have experienced that there is some Divine power that has guided me; sometimes certain laya ideas have occurred to me while practicing at home, sometimes even on stage, that had no precedent with anything I had ever heard.

My father had learnt rhythm from Ustad Harnam Singh, Court musician, who belonged to the Kudau Singh gharana of pakhawaj, and I learnt from him. If you analyse my laya, you will see that indeed it does not follow any layakaar of the past.

Your compositions for films is remembered till today. Your comments on this?

I first introduced the santoor in Jhanak jhanak payal baaje in 1957, at the age of 17. V Shantaram called me and asked what my plans were. I said I had just finished my BA exams, and I hoped to pass! He offered me his next film then and there, even though I was so young. But I realised my aim in life was not to compose for films, and I returned to Jammu. In 1960, I returned to Bombay, against the wishes of my father, as I did not want to take up a job. I played the santoor in several films, met Yash Chopra, and Hariji (Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia) and I started composing music for films, which carried on for 12 years. We both were very clear we would stop composing for films if it interfered with our concert careers; when it did, I stopped. Offers still come in.

You have several students whom you are teaching the santoor to. Do you still accept new students?

I have now become choosy — in the past, I accepted all students, then realised many come to me to use my name, or are not serious about learning music, or want to use my contacts….I now send students to my senior students first, I have never tied the “ganda” (a thread tying ceremony, emphasising the unbreakable bond between guru and shishya) on anyone.

Today, after years of being in the field of music, what should be done to keep our classical music tradition alive?

Firstly, the introduction of music at the elementary school level. How we can create more listeners of our music is by introducing music at the elementary levels. This will hone their concentration, soothe them and later on in life they will grow up to appreciating music and their duty towards it.

In Western countries, the classical music tradition is much respected, it is regarded as a legacy, and it is definitely not considered to be music for the masses. It has been preserved by funding from the government and corporate world. In India, for a variety of reasons, that perception is not there. It is high time that we understand our unique heritage and the government preserves it. Our music remained because of support from the Rajas; now the government should do its bit.

Musicians need to be cherished, their bread and butter need to be taken care of so that they can preserve and pass on their music tradition. The government must take this duty seriously.

National awards are given but what financial gains do these carry. Ustad Bismillah Khan, unique in himself, had no money to pay for his illness! Bureaucrats cannot decide what problems artists face and how their lives can be made better. Artists should be involved in the decision-making process. Padma awards don’t help us achieve anything. Indian music is respected all over the world, students from all over come to learn from us, yet our own government is unable to take care of us.

On that sobering note, we parted ways.

Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma is playing at Humayun’s Tomb on March 17, in the Classical Heritage Series presented by Spic Macay and the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India

Writer: Shailaja Khanna

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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