A few months from now, we will celebrate a landmark year in Indian cinema: 2013 will mark a hundred years since the screening of Raja Harishchandra, a film that ushered in the age of Indian cinema. It is also the year that santoor maestro Padmavibhushan Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma celebrates his platinum jubilee. Shivji will be 75 years old on January 13.
His is an extraordinary story of a young man’s laser-like mission. Fifty years back, the santoor was just an instrument that accompanied folk singers in the Kashmir valley. Few people knew about the instrument even in Jammu, just a few hundred kilometres south of Kashmir. In metros like Delhi and Bombay, it was unheard of.
Shivji was introduced to the instrument by his father. Inspired by its sounds, the young man started to learn to play the santoor. Once he’d mastered the rules, he began to put his heart into his music, bending the rules and introducing classical notes. The santoor wasn’t among the instruments that classical musicians played. So for decades after he started playing, Shivji’s biggest challenge was to convince critics that the instrument could offer everything that classical instruments offer: features like meend (glissando), thehrao (sustain), etc. Well-wishers recognised the man’s talents, but they felt he was wasting his time on the wrong instrument. It was this opinion that Shivji set out to silence.
He started creating music for films. In the wake of this involvement with Indian cinema, he received many a lucrative offer — to be a music director for the great V Shantaram, as the lead actor in a Hemant Kumar film, and as the lead in a Shakti Samanta film — but he politely turned them all down. His answer was always:“Thank you sir, but I have a mission. My father’s wish is now my dream.”
In the course of his extraordinary career, Shivji earned his way into millions of hearts in India and abroad. When he sits down on the stage, the first thing that strikes you is his personality: his height, flawless complexion, blue-grey eyes, and salt-and-pepper hair. And when he plays the santoor, you go into something of a trance, much like if you were in a Buddha bar.
In one of his early works in Indian cinema, he played the santoor in the track Jahaan mein aisa kaun hai ke jisko gham mila nahin from the film Hum Dono. Singer Asha Bhonsle renders lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi’s sensitive poetry in this song where actress Sadhna’s character tells her distraught friend, played by Dev Anand, to think of her as his alter ego. Music director Jaidev’s work too features Shivji's santoor. And in Mere Mehboob (1963), for the song Mere mehboob tujhe meri muhabbat ki qasam, music director Naushad paired Shivji’s santoor with just a tabla.
Many songs featured the maestro’s wonderful santoor. A few examples are Sapne suhaane ladakpan ke (Bees Saal Baad, 1962), Ye chaand sa roshan chehra (Kashmir ki Kali, 1964), and Dekha ek khwaab to ye silsile hue (his own tune inspired by Dogri folk music, with Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia in Silsila, 1981).
As a composer for many Yash Chopra films, the Shiv-Hari team offered pleasant melodies in an era when the music scene is said to be truly awful. Ye kahaan aa gaye hum (Silsila), Mere haathon mein nau-nau choodiyaan hain (Chandni), Jaadu teri nazar and Tu mere saamne (Darr) are just some of their many euphonic tunes.
The duo soon found that they couldn’t find a balance between their work in cinema and their music outside the film circuit, and they quit films after Darr, summarily refusing Yash Chopra’s Dil To Pagal Hai, but that’s another story.
In his early days, Shivji used to stay in cheap hotels in Bombay. He travelled in buses and trains. Now, both he and his santoor travel business class. The struggle may be over, but he’s still focussed on his mission: his santoor needs to speak and silence its critics.
(The writer is a music historian and has written two books, Yesterday’s Melodies Today's Memories and Musical Moments From Hindi Films. He can be reached at: email@example.com)