On Shivkumar Sharma

by Thomas Brett

One of my favorite musicians is North Indian santoor player Shivkumar Sharma.*  The santoor is a 72-string box zither of Persian origins.

Here is a painting of Iranian women playing the santoor’s predecessor, the santur, circa 1669:

Sharma was the first musician to use the instrument in North Indian classical music, giving his first performance in 1955.  One plays the santoor with it sitting on one’s lap, striking its strings with two wooden mallets.  Sharma (and now his son, Rahul Sharma, as well) is a master player, coaxing all manner of shadings from this modest box with strings.  One thing to remember about North Indian classical music is that it is predominantly a vocal soloist’s music, with instrumentalists emulating the infinite flexibility of the voice.  Thus, Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing or Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod playing–fingers plucking strings, sliding and bending notes–are, in a way, trying to approximate the flow of the singing voice.  With that said, the santoor player has yet another mediating object between him and his instrument: those little wooden mallets.  What I think Sharma does quite magically is use a tremolo technique that involves making what looks and sounds like one-handed buzz rolls.  It’s almost a sleight-of-hand and what the listener hears is a smooth flow of sonics, one note melting into another, tones luminously extended into specters of pitch.  In those buzzing moments, it’s almost as if Sharma is not playing a percussion instrument anymore–he’s singing.**  You most often hear Sharma tremolo-buzzing during the slow-paced introductory section of a performance known as an alap.  Here’s a clip of an alap:

In the later sections of a performance, when things are heating up so to speak–the tempo has increased, themes are being explored in ever-densifying improvisations–Sharma brings what I can best describe as a drummer’s funkiness to the proceedings.  What we need to remember here is that even though those santoor mallets can be an obstacle to expressivity (after all, it’s another thing between the musician’s skin-touch and his instrument), they are also a variety of drum sticks, and as such turn hands into drummer’s hands capable of idiomatically drummistic things.  Put more simply: playing an instrument with sticks invites and encourages certain percussive “ways of the hand” (to borrow David Sudnow’s phrase).

Here’s another clip of Sharma digging in and creating both a melody and a groove at the same time.  He is accompanied by the singular Zakir Hussain on tabla.  (Notice around 1:25 Sharma stops to re-tune a note without missing a…beat.)  I recommend you watch all 4:43 minutes of the clip.

*If you’re wondering why this post is about Sharma and not any of the many other virtuosos out there, I am a zither-playing percussionist myself, so I’m kinda biased.  (I play the Chinese yang-qin zither and studied briefly with Zhentian Zhang in Boston–an entry for another day perhaps.)

**This idea of “singing” at one’s instrument is a useful way of conceptualizing both its limitations and possibilities.  I’m having flashbacks here to my undergraduate studies in percussion, where my teacher Russell Hartenberger demonstrated timpani technique and we explored whether grand hand-arm gestures after a drum stroke in fact influence one’s perception of the sound’s duration . . .To this day, I’m not entirely sure how this all works, only that on some level it is real.