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India's santoor master touches the heart



"An Evening of Indian Music with Pandit Santoor Sharma," Disney Institute, May 2, 1998

Central Florida's Asian community is one of the most rapidly growing segments of the area's population. While eager to assimilate themselves, immigrants from India saw the need to retain their cultural identity. This led to the formation of the Asian Cultural Association, a 5-year-old nonprofit organization which seeks to preserve and encourage the traditional music and art forms of India.

The association puts tremendous effort into funding art exhibits, film festivals (like the annual South Asian Film Festival held at the Enzian in February) and musical workshops and performances. In celebration of their fifth anniversary, the association invited Pandit (or maestro) Shivkumar Sharma, a preeminent Indian classical musician and pioneer of an instrument known as the santoor, to perform at the Disney Institute. He will play with his son, Shri Rahul Sharma, who also plays the santoor, and tabla player Ustad Shafaat Ahmen Khan.

Shivkumar Sharma was born in 1938 in Jammu, a city in the Indian state of Kashmir. His father, Pandit Umadutt Sharma, was a distinguished musician specializing in vocal music and percussion. While delving into the folk music of Kashmir the elder Sharma discovered the santoor. "My father got the idea that this instrument should be brought into Indian classical music forms," says Sharma. "He started research work on this instrument and the possibilities of playing classical music, and he worked on that for a few years before he started teaching me."

After starting his son on vocal training, Umadutt saw a way to fulfill his vision for the santoor's place in Indian classical music. The strings of the santoor are struck with mallets in order to create chiming, staccato tones, unlike the smooth and droning tones required by the raag, or raga. The raga is a modal form of music that uses vocals and wind or string instruments like the sitar to improvise melodies against a percussive rhythm.

The raga often tries to convey a mood and has its roots primarily in vocal music, so instruments employed in the raga attempt to recreate the nuances of a vocalist. This calls for sustain and the ability to glide easily between notes. This was not a characteristic of the santoor, and Sharma took it upon himself to adapt the instrument.

Sharma became the first recognized master of the santoor in classical music. His 1955 debut performance in Bombay made a strong impact on musical audiences, but the instrument needed modification in order to better serve his purpose. Sharma took the time to study and customize the instrument as well as adapt his playing style. "I discovered a technique where, while playing, I rub the mallet on the strings and then glide it so that it creates a sustaining of notes without breaking the continuity," he says. "I have just said it in one sentence but it took me years to discover this technique."

By the early '60s Sharma became famous as the preeminent classical santoor player and took on a heavy schedule of performance, recording and film scoring. His recording career culminated with the release of the thematic "The Call of the Valley" album in 1967. The recording became one of the most popular selling classical-music titles of all time in India and is still on the charts.

Sharma came to America for the first time in 1968 to teach for a few months at Ravi Shakar's Kinnara School of Music in California before undertaking a 40-city tour with the sitar master. He has been coming back ever since and has toured regularly each year starting in 1980. His music has been used extensively for meditative purposes, and he is particularly interested in the therapeutic benefits of raga. The idea of applying his music toward the relief of physical ailments appeals to him, as does the universal acceptance of the santoor.

"I feel I have been able to create a distinct character of sound and presentation of santoor music that appeals to everybody," he says. "My belief is that music, or any art form, doesn't need a knowledge to appreciate it. It should touch the heart."

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