Pandit Shivkumar Sharma: A Legend and His Music


 Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who passed away recently, is credited with raising the stature of the santoor from being primarily a folk instrument of the Kashmir Valley to that of a solo instrument in Indian classical music, at par with sitar and sarod.

Many articles about the maestro have appeared in print media and music lovers remember him with great honour and affection.

“Shivkumar was very charismatic, and had quite a regal air about him,” recalled Alan Davis, founder and Executive Director of Small World Music. Small World sponsored several concerts in Toronto by the santoor maestro. Davis added, “His performances were always exquisite, and extremely well attended.”

Shivji received many prestigious awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1986 and the Padma Vibhushan (the second highest civilian award in India) in 2001.

Shivji started learning tabla at age five from his father Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma. However, when he was thirteen, his father handed him a santoor and predicted that one day the boy’s name would become synonymous with the instrument. 

Ashok Ray, in his somewhat hagiographic 2004 book Music Makers, Living Legends of Indian Classical Music, writes about Shivji’s first public performance in 1955 at the prestigious Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in Bombay. Shivji had wanted to play both tabla and santoor but was asked by the organizers to play only one. 

According to Ray, Shivji’s “…tabla solo received enough applause and encouragement to use up his allotted thirty minutes. Then, with the assured demeanour of a pioneer, he placed the santoor on his lap, tuned it, and without looking at the wings, began to play for the august gathering, the familiar raga Yaman on the hitherto unfamiliar instrument. When he raised his face to the audience after a full one hour’s devoted performance, there was thunderous applause as the full glare of the arc lamps lit up his face and his future.”

Notwithstanding my difficulty in imagining that a seventeen-year-old would have the chutzpah to defy organizers at his first public performance, I find the “thunderous applause” part completely believable. Shivji drew adoring crowds wherever he performed, especially when he was accompanied by the tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain. 

In 2010 and then again in 2011, the auditorium at Saptak Festival in Ahmedabad got so packed when the duo was to perform that I felt unsafe enough to leave before the start of their concert. The Shiv-Zakir duo were also a big hit in Toronto, drawing the largest non-South Asian crowds that I have seen at concerts by Indian artistes other than Ravi Shankar.

“Despite Zakir being a rock star,” said Davis of Small World, “he showed a humble aspect when performing with Shivkumar; it was clear that he revered the senior musician. I believe that Shiv brought out the best from Zakir, so that they jointly shone the light on the music they were performing rather than on themselves.”

Shivji with Dr Arvind and Renuka Khambhla in the late 1980s.

Davis said that at one particular concert, he was so moved that when he saw Zakir in the green room, he reflexively touched his feet; something that is done to show respect in Indian culture, but that Davis had never done before to any artiste. Zakir sprang back and said “What are you doing? I am just a (expletive!) tabla player!” Davis chuckles at Zakir’s use of the expletive, but still chokes up at the memory.

I find this story particularly revealing, because I learned only recently that Shivji was an excellent tabla player himself, and had played tabla for many film songs, including one of my favourites “Mo se chhal kiye jaay” in Guide (1965).  He had also accompanied senior musicians on tabla; musicians like Pandit Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod). One can see why Zakir would be so modest in front of a legendary maestro like Shivkumar Sharma.   

Raag-Mala patrons Dr. Arvind and Renuka Khambhla hosted lunches for many artistes who performed for Raag-Mala. Renukaji remembers Shivji as being somewhat reserved, until he was asked about the beautiful rings that he was wearing. He became quite chatty then, and talked openly about his spiritual guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who materialized the rings out of thin air in front of him. 

Shivji said that before he met Sai Baba, he had been quite cynical about holy men. However, once a close friend who was a devotee introduced him, his experience turned out to be transformative. Shivji became a devotee and had some miraculous experiences, which he described in an article In Tune with the Divine. “Everywhere, in India and abroad,” Shivji wrote, “we have always felt the presence of Bhagavan Baba and His Grace and Blessings pouring on us in abundance.” 

Whether or not one believes in holy men and women, Shivji’s faith in Sai Baba clearly gave him spiritual sustenance and coloured his performances.

The late Pandit Rajan Mishra used to announce before his concerts “Sangeet hamari puja hai”, and would invite the audience to join them in their prayer through music. Shivji similarly asked people not to applaud during the alaap jod jhalla, the initial part of the raag he performed without tabla accompaniment, as if in meditation. 

I saw Shivji perform Antardhwani, a raag that he had composed, at the Sawai Ghandharva Sangeet Mahotsav in December 2012. Never before, or since, have I ever seen a large crowd of thousands sit in such rapt attention. Even in later years, Shivji sat upright on stage with the santoor on his lap, as if decades of performance and practise in that posture had not affected him at all physically.       

On my Facebook post following his concert at Mumbai’s Nehru Center in January 2020, I said, “It was an absolute privilege to be able to listen to Shivji. At 82, he is still able to sit cross-legged for the entire recital, and his command over his instrument is still awesome – precise and virtuosic.”

“Shivji seemed to be in a different zone after each performance,” Raag-Mala volunteer Zahid Khan told me recently. “Unlike Zakirbhai, who seemed to draw a lot of joy and energy from meeting his fans after a concert, Shivji preferred to make a getaway as quickly as he could.” 

Zahid remembers a concert at the Hummingbird Centre at which Shivji asked that his and his son Rahul’s santoor cases be placed together in a spot which made it easy for them to leave as soon as the concert was over.  

With a sudden cardiac arrest, Shivji seems to have made a quiet and quick exit from this world, having fulfilled his father’s prophecy, and leaving behind a tremendous legacy. But also stunned and bereaved family members and music lovers.