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Shivkumar Sharma, who has died aged 84, was one of the great innovators of Indian music, a virtuoso instrumentalist and composer who was known both for his Bollywood film music and for his classical work, and who succeeded in introducing a new instrument, the santoor, to Indian classical music.
It was no easy task, for this is an ancient folk instrument, popular in Jammu and Kashmir, where Sharma grew up, which many musicians initially regarded as being unsuitable for playing classical styles.
Traditionally used to accompany Sufi Islamic mystic songs, it is a hammered dulcimer shaped like a trapezoid box that has 100 strings and is struck with small mallets rather than plucked – making it very different to a sitar, sarod or other instruments previously used to play classical ragas, which require rapid-fire slides between notes. But Sharma persevered, became a celebrity in India by performing the santoor, and then brought his music to concert halls and festivals in Europe, Britain and the US.
“My story is different from that of other classical musicians,” he explained in his memoir Journey With a Hundred Strings (written with Ina Puri, 2002). “While they have to prove their mettle, their talent, their calibre, I had to prove the worth of my instrument.”
Born in Jammu, to Kesari Devi, in a region famed for the beauty of its lakes and mountains, but bitterly contested between India and Pakistan, he grew up listening to folk songs and the santoor-playing of his father, Uma Datt Sharma, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who had attempted to introduce the instrument to classical music – and wanted his son to continue his campaign.
He taught Shivkumar to sing and play tabla drums, and when the boy was 13, began to teach him santoor. By the time he was 17 he was playing both tabla and santoor on the local radio station, and gave his first concert – controversially with the santoor – in what was then Bombay. Following a degree in economics at Jammu and Kashmir University, he moved to the city to work as a professional musician.
It was not easy. “I remember going round looking for work,” he said. “and there were days when I had nothing to eat. I would play tabla and accompany other people, but concerts were hard to come by because of negative criticism of the santoor.”
But he refused to switch to a different instrument and said: “I am stubborn to a certain extent. Once I make up my mind to do something I just do it.”
In order to make money he started working in the film industry, arguing, “Composing music for films is not as easy as some classical musicians think. One has to think of the situation and the mood, while at a concert you generally play what you want to play.”
He played santoor on the 1955 Hindi-language dance film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje – the first time the instrument had featured in Indian cinema – in which it was heard alongside songs by the famous playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. He played tabla on a Bollywood film for the last time on Guide (1965), after being persuaded to do so by the “King of Bollywood Music”, RD Burman.
Sharma was determined to concentrate on the santoor, and made modifications to the instrument to extend its range to three octaves and “create a smoother glissando to allow the player to sustain and slide between notes in perfect emulation of the human voice”.
In 1967 he teamed up with the flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and slide guitarist Brij Bhusan Kabra to record Call of the Valley, an instrumental piece that used ragas to tell the story of a day in the life of a Kashmiri shepherd. This was a “light-classical” mood piece that appealed to both Indian and young western audiences, at a time when the Beatles had become fascinated by India and Ravi Shankar had played at the Monterey pop festival in California.
The album became a bestseller with a cult following – it even featured in the 2005 UK book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. By now in their early 30s, Sharma and his colleagues became celebrities, and the santoor was gaining recognition as a classical instrument.
He continued to straddle classical and Bollywood styles, and continued his association with Chaurasia. The duo became known as Shiv-Hari, and their work included the music for a series of films for the celebrated Bollywood director Yash Chopra. Chopra was considered to have been taking a gamble by signing classical musicians, but it paid off, with the success of Silsilia (1981), Faasle (1985), Lamhe (1991) and the psychological thriller Darr (1993). Sharma then decided to quit film work, complaining that film directors now wanted “western beats and more noise than melody”. But he and Chaurasia continued to play live shows together.
In 1966 he had married Manorama Sharma, in what he said was “an arranged marriage – we had seen each other just once”. The couple had two sons, the youngest of whom, Rahul, born in 1972, also became a distinguished santoor player, taught by his father, whom he often accompanied on stage.
In 1997 they undertook a lengthy tour of the US together and the following year appeared at the Womad festival, then held in Reading. While in Britain they recorded an album for Real World Records, Sampradya (1999), which consisted of one lengthy new composition, Raga Janasammohini, and was produced by John Leckie, then best known for his work with the Fall and Radiohead. Leckie said: “He was a gentleman. There was no question of ‘Who are you? You’re a rock’n’roll producer.’”
And as for his playing, and his ability to create micro-tones on a santoor, “he’d draw the little hammers across the strings and create a kind of harmonic between the two notes he was playing”.
Sharma returned to Brtiain to play at the Darbar festival in London in 2010, in 2015 (when he also toured the UK), the following year at a tribute concert for Ravi Shankar, whom he had accompanied on tabla early in his career, with Chaurasia, and in 2019.
He recorded dozens of albums and continued performing, even while receiving dialysis treatment for kidney problems. Looking back at his career, he said that his problems in getting the santoor to the classical stage were nothing when compared to the meditative trance that the music offered him.
He is survived by Manorama and his sons, Rahul and Rohit.
• Shivkumar Sharma, musician and composer, born 13 January 1938; died 10 May 2022