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A legend of hundred strings: Padma Vibhushan Pt. Shivkumar Sharma

Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2016

When you think of the Santoor, what comes readily to mind is a charming Zankar, the lilting, soothing sound, perhaps images of water trickling down the mountains, streams…..and of course, Shivji, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma. Shivji’s lifelong dedication to Santoor was such that it has made the two of them almost inseparable. It is difficult to imagine Santoor without Shivji. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine a Saptak Festival without Shivji performing. Unfortunately, fate has snatched him away and it is a sad moment for all of us to realize that he is no more with us. His association with Saptak started with his first performance as far back as 1989 and since then, he has been performing at Saptak almost every year. He was like a member of the Saptak Family. On his part, he was appreciative of the activities of Saptak and the audiences of Ahmedabad & used to say, "यह तो हमारा फेस्टिवल है".. 

Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2014

After Pt. Nandan Mehta’s demise, when Panditji came to perform at the Saptak Annual Festival 2011, he addressed the audience saying that, “सप्तक संगीत समारोह, भारतीय शास्त्रीय संगीत का एक ऐसा समारोह है, जिसके तरह का दूसरा कोई संगीत समारोह नहीं है भारत में…….. Now, it has become an internationally known festival… और हमारे नंदन भैया, मैं स्वर्गीय नहीं कहूँगा क्योंकि, कलाकार हमेंशा जीवित रहता है… a musician leaves his body but his music remains forever through modern technology,  recordings, through his students, disciples and in the heart of listeners…और नंदन भैया ने जो काम किया है… सारा जीवन उन्होंने इसमें लगा दीया… पिछले साल वो इस हालत में थें कि, बात  भी नहीं कर पाते थें…और मंजूबहन सोच रहीं थीं की हम ये कार्यक्रम postpone कर दें इस साल…. तो उन्होंने लिखकरके बताया कि, मेरा कुछ भी हो यह कार्यक्रम चलता रहेना चाहिये…..और इसकी शुरुआत उन्होंने की थी, हम साथ में जुड़े थें, और यह हमारा अभी दायित्व है ..… This is our responsibility to make this happen forever”   

Shri Prafull Anubhai, Pt Nandan Mehta, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma & Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri  in discussion at the backstage, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2005 (L-R)

Saptak is proud to dedicate this year’s Festival to his memory as a tribute to him. 

Interviews with Shivji give a very good idea of his unassuming nature through events, facts and stories associated with his musical journey, which have been unique in more ways than one. He started learning vocal and Tabla from his father at the tender age of five. His father gave him  Santoor when he was about thirteen. It was his father’s idea to use the instrument for playing classical music. Though his father never played Santoor in public, he gave full तालीम  to young Shiv Kumar who eventually started playing Santoor. His training in voice and rhythm was of great help in making him a well-rounded musician. In spite of this, his first public concert at the age of seventeen was criticized for lack of classical elements like मींड़. Due to its inherent limitations, some critics did not consider Santoor good enough for playing classical music. He had earlier discussed such aspects with his father while learning but his father had advised him to keep trying until he found a way out. And so, he worked on modifying some details of the instrument, tuning and the playing technique to silence his critics. He experimented with techniques like pressing the strings to create a मींड़ , but felt that it was not right to imitate other instruments and he had to evolve a suitable technique. Santoor is played with delicate wooden sticks to strike the strings tuned to different notes and produces staccato sound. But he evolved his own technique to produce sustained sound with a मींड़ like continuity between notes. He played the instrument slightly differently but kept the lyrical quality of the sound alive while trying to introduce classicism in presenting music on it. What is most remarkable about Shivji’s music is the fact that he tried to shape the sound of Santoor to give it another avatar and captured the classicism of North Indian Classical Music. 

Pt. Shivkumar Sharma & Pt. Kishan Maharaj, Saptak Annual Music Festival 1989

With his technique, the character of his आलाप  and जोड़ came closer to the traditional mode of presentation. The sense of flow of Santoor sound was expanded and enhanced. Other instruments use one hand to strike the string and the other to manipulate the sound. In Santoor, both hands are used to strike the strings. With this facility, he explored the use of कण स्वर, overlapping sound and rapid sequences of notes brilliantly. His तान  were often short, taking off and arriving at the सम  in a most unexpected and imaginative manner. His deep knowledge of Tabla and mastery over लय & ताल  added a special color to his rendition of गत and झाला. It was as if he conjured up tabla on santoor. All of this created a unique soundscape. 

Pt. Shivkumar Sharma was recipient of many awards which includes the ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Award’ in 1986, the ‘Padma Shri’ in 1991, and the ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 2001 and an honorary citizenship of the city of Baltimore, USA, in 1985.

Being a very humble person, he did not like to take credit for his own achievements. He would say that playing classical music on Santoor was originally his father’s idea, not his. He did not feel that he did all things that he is given credit for. Rather, he felt that he was ‘made to do things’, implying that some divine force made it possible for him to do so. We may interpret this modesty as a profound inspiration that drove him, but all the passionate involvement, experimentation, commitment and sadhana were entirely his own doing. Though his contribution to the genres of semi-classical music, light music and film music is also outstanding, his pioneering effort to put santoor on the classical stage is perhaps of the greatest significance. Very few people can dream of such things, even fewer can realize such dreams during their lifetime

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Pt. Shivkumar Sharma & Ustad Zakir Hussain, Saptak Annual Music Festival 2004

(Photo courtesy: Saptak Archives)                                                               – Shri Sohan Nilkanth

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