The Many Worlds of Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma

This tribute piece was originally published in Swarajya on May 14, 2022

In February 1955, a dreamy-eyed 17-year-old Shiv Kumar Sharma set out on his maiden visit to Bombay to participate in the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan. His father had taught Dr Karan Singh, whose father, Maharaja Hari Singh, was a patron of the festival. Several stalwarts of Hindustani music had gathered at the Cawasji Jahangir Hall in Bombay.

He was not new to big names. He had accompanied legends like Pt Ravi Shankar, Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar for various programmes. He was given just 30 minutes to prove his mettle. He played the tabla for half an hour, winning instant appreciation. He went on beyond the allotted time and played the santoor for another hour, leading to wide applause from everyone.

However, the purists felt the instrument was limited in its scope. Backstage, he was congratulated by the tabla maestro Ustad Alla Rakha Khan. For Shiv Kumar Sharma, still in his teens, this was a big achievement. He remained close to Ustad Alla Rakha and his son Ustad Zakir Hussain his entire life. Another lifelong friendship that saw its genesis at the Sammelan was with Pandit Jasraj.

But a bigger surprise awaited Shiv Kumar Sharma the next day. An offer came his way from the mighty Rajkamal Studios of V Shantaram, who wanted him to play the santoor for his upcoming film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955). He refused since he had to get back to Jammu and appear for his exams. But destiny beckoned him again to Bombay in a few months, and this time, Shantaram’s music director Vasant Desai listened to him play and gave him a free hand to compose a piece on the santoor for a romantic scene in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje.

It’s probably the first time that santoor was used extensively in a Hindi film. As Shiv Kumar Sharma packed his bags after his assignment, Shantaram offered him his next film as its music director. Shiv refused, for he had to focus on building his career as a classical musician.

Bigger opportunities came his way from the film industry time and again. His father wanted him to settle down with a job at All India Radio (AIR) Jammu, but he knew a 9 to 5 job was a sure shot way of letting go of his daily riyaaz.

Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, who launched Amitabh Bachchan in Saat Hindustani, was willing to launch Shiv Kumar Sharma as an actor. But he was resolute in his aim to be the master of santoor.

However, things were not easy for him. Several well wishers had advised him against picking up the santoor. “He was handling an instrument which could neither be an accompaniment nor were people willing to accept it as a full fledged concert instrument,” explains columnist and culture critic Veejay Sai. These limitations were also pointed out to him when he played at the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in 1955, where he was asked to expand the range of the instrument to play elaborate alaaps.

“He made changes to the instrument to make it a full-fledged concert instrument and took it to prestigious festivals across the world, thus placing it on par with the sitar, sarod, shehnai and sarangi,” says Sai. In fact, back in Jammu, the first person to appreciate his rendition of alaap on the santoor was the legendary dhrupad singer Ustad Rahimuddin Dagar.

He arrived again in Bombay at the age of 20, but this time, it was to build a career as a classical musician. “Back then, he was often out of work and he knew working in films would help him support himself in Bombay, even as he was trying to establish himself as a concert artiste,” says Mumbai-based musicologist Kushal Gopalka.

“In a typical set up like a film orchestra, the soft tones of a santoor need to be fit in with a lot of care, else it can get drowned in it. He was soon sought after by the likes of Roshan, Naushad and OP Nayyar for various instrumental pieces in their songs,” adds Gopalka. When financial security came his way with film assignments, he momentarily got into a comfort zone but soon reminded himself the purpose of his journey to Bombay.

“Even on stage, the santoor was not an easy instrument to handle. The setting up of sur took quite a lot of time and it also had to be adjusted often, which is why artistes like Ulhas Bapat followed the chromatic tuning,” says Gopalka.

The Great Partnership

Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma met Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia for the first time in 1956 during the Inter-University Youth Festival in Delhi, but five years later, yet another meeting at a studio in Bombay brought their destinies closer. Both were trying to find the pride of place for their respective instruments in the performance venues of classical music.

Though Pt Pannalal Ghosh had done some great work in popularising the flute, Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia took it upon himself to take the instrument to the next level. This decade also saw them teaming up along with Brij Bhushan Kabra for HMV’s Call of the Valley, which became one of their most successful classical albums. Shiv Hari was already a formidable brand and it was set to conquer new heights.

The Second Calling

Many believe that the downturn of Hindi film music began when the records of Sholay‘s dialogues began outshining its own songs at music stores. Salim Javed made dialogue the star of a Hindi film, and besides, the angry young man was seldom in the mood for a soft romantic number.

“There were fewer song situations in films by the end of the 70s,” says music director Kaushal Inamdar. By the 1980s, the Hindi film song was in a dark terrain, with memorable works being far and few between.

Around this time, Yash Chopra decided to return to his love for romance and announced his film Silsila (1981). To invoke the love and longing of his triangle love story, Yash Chopra decided to get off the beaten track and invited Shiv Hari to compose its music.

The man who refused the offer of Shantaram to be a full-time music director donned the mantle more than two decades later at the calling of Yash Chopra.

“From Ravi and Laxmikant Pyarelal to RD Burman and Khayyam, some of the greatest names had created chartbusters for Chopra’s films through the 1960s and 70s. Raag Pahadi was a favourite of Khayyam and evoked an imagery of the misty hills. In a way, Shiv Hari picked that thread in their early works with Yash Chopra,” says Kaushal.

“By the early 1980s, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice also became quite mature and she needed music directors who could recognise that change. A certain serenity and seriousness had come in, which was aptly tapped by Shiv Hari and the best example of that can be seen in Yeh Kahaan Aa Gaye Hum from Silsila. As music directors both of them did a fantastic job of keeping good music alive,” says Kaushal Inamdar, who points out that Silsila also saw Javed Akhtar in a new incarnation as a lyricist.

Ironic as it may seem that this rebirth of melody was backed by the very same pen that brought its doomsday with Zanjeer a few years back.

On wintry moonlit nights in his childhood in Jammu, Shiv Kumar Sharma would sit on his terrace, listening to songs of gipsy singers around a campfire. This could very well have inspired his Morini Baga Ma Bole from Lamhe (1991). He also listened to a lot of Dogri songs, which his mother hummed while she worked, one of which inspired the chartbuster wedding song Mere Hathon Mein Nau Nau Choodiyan Hai from Chandni (1989).

When Silsila was being made, a random Dogri folk tune came to his head when he was travelling in a train, and in a few hours, he had the tune for Sar Se Sarke, Sarke Chunariya, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar.

“There was a lot of churn in the 1980s. Many great music directors were not giving their best then and things were going from bad to worse. Alongside, access to music increased with tape recorders becoming commonplace. As long people listened to songs on the radio, there was someone else deciding what they would listen to. But with tapes becoming cheaper, people began making those choices. When such a churn happens, quality goes out of the hand of the connoisseurs and then someone needs to come and create art that is not focused on the number game. Shiv Hari kept classicism alive in such a difficult time,” says Kaushal Inamdar.

Film music was a familiar territory for both as they had been among the most sought-after musicians right from the 1960s.

“Film music and classical music are two entirely different worlds. Film music is exacting. You need to be available at the call of the filmmaker and reproduce songs on demand. One has to endure retakes and very often, also insults,” says Kushal Gopalka, who points out the fact that many greats of classical music also did films in the past.

“Pt Pannalal Ghosh gave music in close to a dozen films. Ustad Alla Rakha delivered music in close to 25 films. Then Pt Ravi Shankar, Pt Shankarrao Vyas and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan also composed for a few films,” he adds.

In the 1960s, Pandit Ravi Shankar opened up new vistas for Indian classical musicians in the west. “He was well travelled from his early years and was also a part of his brother Uday Shankar’s dance troupe. He introduced a refreshing image of India in the west. Shivji accompanied him on many of these tours and knew what Pt Ravi Shankar was doing with his sitar. He knew this is what he wanted to do with santoor on a global level,” says Veejay.

Shiv Kumar Sharma was also enterprising in finding new spaces for his music. “CP Krishnan Nair of The Leela Group loved his santoor and wanted Shivji to create something for their hotels as he felt the tone of the santoor went with the ambiance. The end result was loved by all and later, all random hotels across the country began doing something similar,” points our Veejay.

“Although many artistes took to the santoor later, Shiv Kumar Sharma remained peerless. Many people move from singing to being an instrumentalist but Panditji learnt vocal music and then the tabla and later, brought his knowledge as a percussionist to good use while playing the santoor.”

In the late 1980s, the ode to national integration Baje Sargam made Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and several other greats of classical music highly familiar to the man on the street. The visual of him playing the santoor on a shikara by the Dal lake has endured over time. It was a perfect ode to the man who came from Jammu and Kashmir to Bombay and took over the world with his music.

Today, santoor has got hyphenated with Shiv Kumar Sharma and many artistes have tried matching his artistry in classical music. Creating that space might be his lasting legacy.

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