I used to get tremendously attracted to the sound of a string instrument in the 60s but blissfully ignorant and thought it was Sitar! Hindi films used this instrument widely. Every situation, scene and sequences are depicted well by the back ground music in Hindi cinema and this instrument was very prominent whenever there was a romantic scene. In contrast, Sarangi, another string instrument, with suitable tunes to enhance the sadness of a situation, was used in the back ground. Sarangi, well known for its hue of sadness, today is sadly on the verge of extinction simply because there are no master players of this instrument today.
I came to know of the fact that the instrument which attracted me so much was not Sitar but actually quite a different kind of instrument and was called Santoor, rather lately in the 70s when the golden period of Hindi cinema music was in full bloom.
Santoor today, over a period of half a century has become synonymous with the maestro, Pundit Shivkumar Sharma. An ancient instrument of the folk music called the Sufiyana Mousiqui of Kashmir valley, Shivji, as the maestro is fondly called, picked this folk instrument, which was in a crude form, developed it, mastered it and made the Hindustani Classical world richer by recognising it at par with other age old, well established instruments of the genre.
Shivji came into classical Hindustani music at a tender age of five. Born to a Kashmiri pundit in Jammu, his father was a well known vocalist with national recognition. Young Shivkumar, though was interested in Tabla, was initiated into vocals by Pundit Umadutt Sharma, his father. And when the boy was growing, the father suggested him to pick the ancient Shatatantari from folklore, which the boy accepted. Thus the long journey of the instrument into recognition in the world of music started. During the transformation the instrument got its new name - Santoor.
The journey was not easy. In his own words in a recent Interview at Bangalore, Shivji says "When I started playing in a national concert in 1955, it was after a long journey during which I had brought in a lot of character to the instrument and had incorporated a lot of modifications in the playing technique". Not only playing technique,young Shivkumar had struggled a lot with restructuring the instrument too, to enable it to suit the demands of classical form of music; he has even added a few extra strings to produce the required musical notes. The smooth vibrations of the strings produced by striking with a special kind of twig, are highly pleasing to the ears. And the instrument gels easily in the depiction of romantic emotion in human mind, hence the preference in Hindi cinema...perhaps.
Before taking Santoor seriously as a career, the musician was in a dilemma, since by then, he had already mastered tabla and had given public performances. In the same interview he says, "I was learning both vocals and tabla but tabla really fascinated me. In the 50s I played tabla with a lot of artists like Pundit Ravishankar (that legendary sitar player) and Begum Akhtar (known as the Ghazal Queen of her time). At one point of time, I played with both tabla and santoor. But later I had to choose one of them and, I took to santoor"
Santoor is not the only instrument that was promoted to Hindustani Classical grade from folk music. Shehanai is another instrument which has come to that higher level from folklore. Just like Pundit Shivkumar Sharma is synonymous with santoor, late Ustad Bismillah Khan is with shehanai. He too, belonging to a temple musicians' family of Varanasi (Banares), who rendered music at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, developed the crude form of the trumpet to suit Hindustani Classical.
The pity is, there are no santoor or shehanai player to match these two maestros, at least to my knowledge, making them everlasting synonyms! It is more pitiable that an instrument like sarangi, a most preferred accompaniment by vocalists at one time is on the verge of extinction! Sarangi too, once dominated Hindi cinema music. Maybe because the very sound of the string of sarangi evokes sad notes from the depth of the mind, the instrument itself is pushed for a sad death!
Whereas, santoor evokes romantic mood, the maestro still looks young with his captivating smile! Curly white hair with slight grey hue in full freedom...ah, if you see him, you find it hard to believe that he rendered santoor melody during 50s on national platform and to Hindi cinema during 60s! Long live the magic of santoor and the maestro!!