The amazing maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma

In a few months from now, this century will become a teenager. The next year will also be, for example, a hundred years since a fired-up young man, DG Phalke showed a feature film, Raja Harishchandra, to usher in Indian cinema, now leading the world in output per year. Some of us will also celebrate the platinum jubilee birthday of the great santoor maestro Padma Vibhushan Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma. Yes, though he looks quite young, Shivji will be 75 years old on the 13th of January.

His is an extraordinary story, in the Jeffrey Archer mould. Okay it doesn’t have espionage and crime, but it’s an unputdownable story of a young man’s laser-like mission. Let’s see what he has done with his santoor.

Consider that some fifty years ago, the santoor was just an instrument accompanying folk singers in the Kashmir valley. Forget about Bombay and Delhi, very few people even in Jammu, just a few hundred kilometers south had heard or seen it. Introduced by his father and inspired by its sounds, the young man started to learn to play the santoor by the rules, and over the decades, to play by the heart. His biggest challenge for decades was in convincing critics that the instrument had the capability to offer everything that classical instruments offer, features like meend (glissando), thehrao (sustain), etc. Many well-wishers recognized the man’s talents, but they felt he was wasting his time on the wrong instrument. It’s this sort of opinion that Shivji set out to silence. That is why when many lucrative offers came to him, he politely refused. These would be the music direction for the great V. Shantaram, a hero’s role in a Hemant Kumar film, or a hero’s role in a Shakti Samanta film. All these offers happened in the wake of the successes achieved by Shivji’s involvement in the music in these producers’ films. And every time his answer would be, “Thank you Sir, but I have a mission. My father’s wishes, now my dream”.

In the course of his extraordinary career, Shivji has earned his way into millions of hearts in India and abroad. When he sits on the stage, he first grips you with his awesome personality: towering height, flawless peach complexion, blue-grey eyes, salt-and-pepper, zero-gravity hair. And when he plays the santoor, you are transported to a Buddha bar.

Recall his playing the instrument in hundreds of film melodies now. Among his early playing, was in the wonderful Jahaan mein aisa kaun hai ke jisko gham mila nahin (Hum Dono, 1961), where Asha rendered Sahir’s sensitive poetry to go on Sadhna telling her distraught friend Dev Anand to please think of her as his alter ego. Jaidev’s music, played minimally, featured Shivji’s santoor. Again, in Mere mehboob tujhe meri muhabbat ki qasam, Naushad exposed just Shivji’s santoor to go with a tabla to spell class in the Shakeel nazm rendered by Rafi in Mere Mehboob (1963). Many songs like that featured the maestro’s wonderful santoor. Here are some more: Sapne suhaane ladakpan ke (Lata/Shakeel/Hemant/Bees Saal Baad, 1962), Ye chaand sa roshan chehra (Rafi/SH Bihari/OP Nayyar/Kashmir Ki Kali, 1964), Dekha ek khwaab to ye silsile hue (Kishore, Lata/Javed Akhtar/based on Dogri folk, his own tune, composed with Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia in Silsila, 1981), and more.

As a composer for many Yash Chopra films, the Shiv-Hari team offered pleasant melodies in an era when the music scene can be said to be truly awful, apart from a few bright spots. Do recall Ye kahaan aa gaye hum (Silsila), Mere haathon mein nau-nau chudiyaan hain (Chandni), Jaadu teri nazar and Tu mere saamne (Darr), and many euphonic tunes.

After doing super work in films, but unable to balance their off-cinema work, the duo quit films after Darr, summarily refusing Yash Chopra’s Dil To Paagal Hai, but that’s another story.

Shivji used to stay in a cheap hotel in his early days in Bombay. He travelled in buses and trains economy class. Now both he and his santoor travel business class. The struggle is over, but the mission remains—his santoor needs to speak, and silence its critics.


Originally published: October 7, 2012