Call of the Valley: Strains of The Santoor

(Desi News April 2016)

For older Hindi filmgoers, few musical instruments evoke Kashmir more than does the Santoor, which has its roots in the lush valleys of the Indian Himalayas.

Think of the introductory music to the song “Paradesiyo se naakhiyanmilana” as the shikara glides along a serene lake in the film Jab JabPhoolKhile, or the jaunty (and catchy) melody “Pookartachalahunmai” in the film Mere Sanam, as the hero woos the heroine on a winding biking trail.

Call of the valley

The percussive notes of the 100-stringed instrument have a “bright” and folksy sound that lends itself to the cliché that used to be Kashmir in old Hindi films– a land that was all bright sunshine, lakes, mountains and beautiful village girls, where the hero and heroine cavorted to spectacular mountainous backdrops.

Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, who hails from Kashmir, has single-handedly taken this quintessentially folk instrument, and molded it (both in the design of the instrument, as well as the style of its playing) into a lead instrument of Indian classical music, and a mainstay at all major music festivals in India and abroad.

Raag-Mala Toronto has hosted numerous concerts by the Santoor Maestro, and now the baton (or more accurately the kalam, the wooden mallet that is used to strike the strings) is being passed on to a younger generation of accomplished players, one of whom is Toronto’s ShreyasAmbikar.

Shreyas developed a deep interest in the Santoor after attending a concert by Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Says Shreyas,”I started studying under Pandit DhananjayDaithankar, a senior disciple of Shivji at the age of 17; now I feel doubly blessed to be accepted by Pandit Shivkumar Sharma as his disciple”.

While Shreyas came to the Santoor in his late teens, his taalim in music began when he was much younger. Having a mother who was a vocalist and a father who played the Tabla, he learnt from them and started performing Marathi natyasangeet from the age of five, first in Pune and then in Kuwait, where he lived for many years before coming to Canada.

Over the years, Shreyas also trained in vocal music from Pandit HarishchangraGawahire and SrimatiAlkaDeoMarulkar. To prove that he is no slouch, Shreyas is equally accomplished at the Harmonium, having studied under the late Pandit AppasahebJalgaokar, a giant among Harmonium players.

Zahid Khan, Vice President of Raag-Mala Toronto says, “The Greater Toronto Area is fortunate to have accomplished musicians in many genres (see February 2016 issue of Desi News), however, until now, we did not have an accomplished Santoor player.”

The May concert also features a vocal recital by the prodigiously talented vocalist from Kolkata Arshad Ali Khan, grandson of the late Ustad Shakoor Khan and nephew of Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan, who previously performed  on the Raag-Mala stage in Toronto.

Arshad entered the Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata as a student at the age of 6, and is now a Guru at this highly renowned music school. He has performed at most music festivals in India and abroad – he was only nine in 1993 when he was invited to perform at the SawaiGandharvaSamellan in Pune during the 75th birthday celebration of the Festival’s founder, Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

“Toronto audiences have appreciated the combination of instrumental and vocal music at our recent concerts”, says Raag-Mala’s Zahid Khan. “We are thrilled to be presenting Shreyas and Arshad, both dynamic musicians, at our May concert.”


Mohamed Khaki