Sultan of strings: Shiv Kumar Sharma

Friday, 18 August 2006 - 10:15pm IST

For when the sultan of strings speaks, his words flow as sweetly as the tunes he strums on his santoor, finds Moni Bhushan.

Where does the music come from
As you walk down memory’s trail?
Each word, each phrase, the melody,
Comes clearly without fail.
Place yourself upon the path,
You’ll know right from the start . . .
The music and the memories
Are found within your heart

Sarah Hastings must have penned the lines for someone I know.

Meeting Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma is like a rendezvous with poetry itself. For when the sultan of strings speaks, his words flow as sweetly as the tunes he strums on his santoor.

Born in 1938 into a musically-inclined Kashmiri family and initiated into the world of tunes by his father at an early age, Panditji was well on his way to mastering the santoor and, believe it or not, the tabla, by the time he turned six. At 15, he took up the job of a broadcaster with Jammu Radio.

Shiv Kumar Sharma’s first shot at fame came in 1955, when he was invited to perform in Mumbai. “I insisted on playing both the tabla and santoor,” Panditji recalls. “The organisers thought it would be a disaster — both the performance, and, as a result, my chances of being noticed as a serious musician — but I would not have it any other way.”

It was an outrageous affair, with the 17-year-old strumming and drumming for half-an-hour, but it had the crowd in raptures. And contrary to what the organisers thought, the young lad was noticed.

As the years passed, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, realising that his calling was for the santoor, chose to follow his passion, and soon moved to Mumbai.

“I came to Mumbai with only Rs500 in my pocket,” Panditji says. “That was the second biggest gamble of my life (the first was giving up playing the tabla).”

The maestro’s gambles paid off, but life was never a bed of roses, even though his first and only foray into Hindi cinema — with V. Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, where the santoor was used for the first time in films — was a success.

“It dawned on me, as I understood more about the instrument, that it had serious shortcomings. I wanted to dedicate my life to taking it up as a challenge and working towards eliminating them,” he says.

That was, perhaps, why he turned down all offers for films. Unfazed by the commercialisation that he saw all around him, Shiv Kumar Sharma continued his research on the santoor. Those were hard times, and often he would go hungry to bed. But he would write to his father, telling him that everything was fine.

But all that hard work did bear fruit. After years of perseverance and sadhana, Panditji succeeded in giving the santoor not only a new face but also its own identity. “There is one thing I realise when I look back at what I have been through,” Panditji says, rising from his chair and heading out to the backyard of his house. “The higher the risks, the greater are the successes.”

Then, looking at the overcast sky, he muses, “I am not a musician. I am only a medium Saraswati has chosen to speak through. I have experienced God’s presence in my hands when I am playing. It’s as if someone takes over and I play on, beyond time and emotions.”

Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma was conferred with the Padma Vibhushan in 2001, the Tansen Samman in 2004 and the Deenanath Mageshkar Award  in 2005.

As the master musician lapses into silence, his eyes distant and lost, his wife Manorama Sharma joins us. A gracious lady who married Panditji 40 years ago, she still looks very much in love. Panditji turns towards her.

“After my father and guru, if there’s anyone I should thank for helping me be what I am today, it will be my wife,” he says. “She has stood by me like a rock in times of turmoil. There was days when she too would become nervous, but she never backed out.”

Shivji does not have any high demands, Manorama says, “but he needs his own space; there is a lot of thinking involved, lot of silence and meditation. I have to sense that and accommodate.

He likes simple things, but all of them have to be done to perfection. His food has to be perfect; it has to be fresh and simple. These are small things, but very important in this house.”

We move to the ‘riyaz’ room. It is carpeted with beautiful durries. Its walls are adorned with pictures of Sri Satya Sai Baba.

This is where Shiv Kumar Sharma spends endless hours each day practising.

The room seems to echo the maestro’s life — untouched by commercialisation, breathing music, and in perfect harmony with all that surrounds it.

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