Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, an Indian musician and composer who was the main exponent of the santoor, a 100-string instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer, died Tuesday at his home in Mumbai. He was 84.
According to Indian news reports, the cause was a cardiac arrest.
Over a career spanning nearly seven decades, Mr. Sharma was the first musician to propel the santoor onto the world stage, in concerts and recitals in India and elsewhere.
Before mr. Sharma the santoor started playing, it was little known outside of Kashmir. Even there, it was only used to play Sufiana Mausiqi, a genre of classical Kashmiri music with Persian, Central Asian, and Indian roots.
The santoor, a trapezoidal wooden instrument whose strings extend over 25 wooden bridges, is played with slender wooden mallets. On the santoor, unlike the sitar, sarod, or sarangi, the stringed instruments traditionally used in Hindustani classical music, it is difficult to sustain notes and perform the meends, or from one note to another sliding, essential to the Hindustani music tradition.
That could be one of the reasons why it took so long for Mr. Sharma to be recognized for his artistry.
Early in his career, purists and critics mocked the staccato sound of the santoor, and many urged Sharma to switch to another instrument. Instead, he spent years redesigning the santoor to allow it to play more notes per octave, making it more suitable for the complex ragas, the melodic framework of Hindustani music.
“My story is different from that of other classical musicians,” Sharma told The Times of India in 2002. “While they had to prove their bravery, their talent and their caliber, I had to prove the value of my instrument. I had to fight for it.”
He released several albums, starting with “Call of the Valley” (1967), a collaboration with acclaimed flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra.
Mr. Chaurasia and Mr. Sharma were good friends and worked together regularly. Together they composed music for several successful Bollywood films in the 1980s and 1990s, including ‘Silsila’ (1981), ‘Chandni’ (1989), ‘Lamhe’ (1991) and ‘Darr’ (1993). Mr. Sharma was one of the few Indian musicians to tread the worlds of classical and popular music.
In 1974, Mr. Sharma performed across North America with sitar virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar as part of former Beatle George Harrison’s 45-show ‘Dark Horse’ concert tour, bringing Indian classical music to audiences outside South Asia, alongside some of the best classical musicians from India – Alla Rakha on tabla, Sultan Khan on sarangi, L. Subramaniam on violin, TV Gopalakrishnan on mridangam and vocals, Mr. Chaurasia on flute, Gopal Krishan on vichitra veena and Lakshmi Shankar on vocals.
Sharma has received some of India’s highest awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1986, the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2001.
Shiv Kumar (sometimes rendered as Shivkumar) Sharma was born on January 13, 1938 in Jammu, India, the son of Pandit Uma Devi Sharma, a classical musician who belonged to the family of royal priests of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, and Kesar Devi . He started singing and taking tabla lessons with his father at the age of 5, which was very promising. In “Journey With a Hundred Strings” (2002), a biography of Mr. Sharma, Ina Puri wrote that he would be immersed in music for hours and practice various instruments.
“Even then, there was an obsessive element in my attitude to music,” she quoted him as saying. “It was the air I breathed, the reason I lived.”
By age 12 he was an accomplished tabla player, performing regularly on Radio Jammu and accompanying prominent musicians who frequented the city. When he was 14, his father returned from Srinagar, where he had worked, with a present: a santoor.
Mr. Sharma was not happy about learning a new, unfamiliar instrument. But his father was adamant. “Mark my words, son,” he remembered his father saying. “Shiv Kumar Sharma and the santoor will become synonymous in the coming years. Have the courage to start something from scratch. You are recognized as a pioneer.”
In 1955, Mr. Sharma gave his first major public performance at the Santoor, at the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan festival in Bombay (now Mumbai). As the youngest contestant of 17, he persuaded the organizers to let him play both the santoor and the tabla. He was reluctantly given 30 minutes to play the instrument of his choice, but on the day of the recital he played a full hour on the santoor – to lavish applause. The organizers called him back the next day for another recital.
He soon got offers to star in Hindi films and act, but after one film, the 1955 hit ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje’, he was determined to focus on classical music. He performed across the country in an effort to establish the santoor as a classical instrument.
He moved to Bombay at the age of 22; to make ends meet, he played the santoor in sessions for dozens of popular Hindi movie songs while continuing to build his classic reputation.
He is survived by his wife, Manorama; his sons, Rahul, a noted santoor player and composer, and Rohit; and two grandchildren.
After Mr Sharma’s death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among those who paid tribute. “Our cultural world is poorer with the demise of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma Ji,” he wrote on Twitter† “He popularized the santoor on a global level. His music will continue to captivate generations to come.”