Music of the Himalayas

Rahul Sharma, 2002

Let's pretend it's still September 2000. A 27-year-old santoor player called Rahul Sharma is touring as principal soloist with a trio of Hindustani (Northern Indian) classical musicians. They are providing 'the music from Jammu and Kashmir' element that complements a second 15-some ensemble of musicians and dancers from Nepal. Billed as 'Music from the Himalayas', the tour has already taken them through France and Switzerland. By the time Rahul Sharma, the tabla maestro Ustad Shafat Ahmed Khan and the pakhawaj player and 'sound effects' percussion maestro Pandit Bhawani Shankar take the stage of Turin's Festival Settembre Musica on 13 September their musical chemistry is zinging. They play without the tiniest traccio (sign) of nerves but then they are unaware that Rai-Radio 3 is recording their set.

"We had done something like five concerts before Turin," recalls Rahul. "It was one of our last concerts, just before Florence. You tend to forget that there's an audience in front of you. It's a very heady, intoxicating kind of effect, like you might experience when you get into deeper meditation. Once the rhythm is added it creates a kind of cycle that you sway to. We all felt happy after the concert that it had gone so very well. We were so engrossed in playing we didn't notice the fact that it was being recorded. I had no idea that someday an album would come out."

The Santoor and a Family Tradition

Fifty years ago, it would have been considered foolishness to suggest the santoor or sant_r ever gracing a classical stage in India, let alone Europe. Santoor had neither place nor standing within Hindustani classical circles. One family changed all that. Rahul's father, Shivkumar Sharma (b 1938) coaxed an unheard voice out of the instrument or, more felicitously expressed, coaxed one out that had never existed previously. The santoor had been a lowly Kashmiri folk instrument related to the much-travelled hammer dulcimer family of instruments. As the voice of Kashmir, santoor had been fine for folk music and sufyana musiqi -- a music somewhat tainted by raised-brow associations with Kashmir's hafiza (tawaif or courtesan) entertainments. For classical music purposes, santoor stood no chance. Its voice was coarsely staccato and unable to hit the notes that raga required. Its action was too jerky to delver meend, that graceful, uninterrupted glide between notes that plays such a key role in Hindustani melody. (Meend's nearest occidental counterpart is portamento in bowed instruments.)

Rahul's grandfather Uma Dutt Sharma (1900-1973) was unfazed, however. He set his son Shivkumar Sharma the task of revitalising the santoor's voice so it could take its place on the concert podium. Although santoor mythology points to it once having had 100 strings, the Kashmiri 'folk santoor' is an altogether simpler creation. In his quest for 'meendability' he trialed new configurations of strings, substituted strings made of non-traditional metals and tried alternative striker (qalam) designs. In 1955 he unveiled his new santoor in public. The family's quest for excellence never ceased -- Rahul's santoor boasts 89 strings. In realising his father's vision, Shivkumar Sharma developed into one of Hindustani music's foremost raga interpreters. It would be hard to overestimate his achievement. He became a role model for anyone aspiring to musical excellence and innovation in the Hindustani realm. Musical excellence and innovation are qualities he imparted to his two sons and many students.

Rahul Sharma

Rahul Sharma, his second son, was born on 25 September 1972 in Bombay. Even though he was not formally introduced to the santoor until 1985, Rahul Sharma had already demonstrated his potential musicality by playing and composing on a cheap keyboard that his dad had brought back from Japan and the inevitable harmonium. In his apprentice years as a musician, Shivkumar Sharma had accompanied on tabla, something that lends a heightened awareness of taal (rhythm cycle) to his playing. He made sure that Rahul similarly had a grounding in tabla and taal. By 1996 Rahul was performing 'proper concerts'. Since then he has recorded solo and in jugalbandi (duet) concerts with his father. Did Uma Dutt Sharma ever suspect that he was founding a musical dynasty?

Reviews

  • Rahul Sharma : Music Of The Himalayas - CD £7.99 The santoor, the Indian hammered dulcimer is one of the most beautiful instruments in the world. Its fragile distinctiveness in the hands of a master musician can create music of great beauty. One such musician is the son of the legendary santoor master Shiv Kumar Sharma, Rahul Sharma. These four pieces recorded by Real World are also meditations on the troubles of Kashmir, the Sharma families homeland. Piccadilly Records (UK)
  • ...a disc that ought to appeal to fans of Asian musics but also hammered dulcimer afficionados of all stripes. Dirty Linen (USA)
  • ... Sharma...plays with a technique that is as fluid and spellbinding... ... as that of the best raga masters. His music is serene, beautifully played...' Global Rhythm (USA)
  • Sharma's music...is trance-like and placid... ...with the bright pings of his santoor tip-toeing delightfully through the pitter-patter percussion.' Daytona Beach News-journal (USA)
  • '...sounds that sing, soar and soothe...creating music as vibrant as a Himalayan hillside and equally exotic... Rahul Sharma, take me away.' Pulse (USA)
  • Carrying his father's legacy forward, Rahul performs with nerve-tingling dexterity and focus Napra Review (USA)
  • 'Indian listeners will instantly be reminded of traveling on Indian Airlines - the airline used to play Shiv Kumar Sharma's soothing santoor before take-off.' India Abroad (USA)
  • '...a beautifully airy album.' New Internationalist (USA)
  • Kashmiri Instrumentals 'Rahul is a skilled practitioner, steeped in the traditions of Kashmiri music, and the overall effect is somewhat hypnotic.' Wanderlust (UK)
  • ...as timeless as it is peaceful... Music of the Himalayas is a beautifully airy album... The album's centrepiece is a 36-minute Kashmiri melody that twists and turns, leads you up mountain paths and down again. And at each pass, the views are nothing less than awesome. New Internationalist (UK)
  • It's very soothing music... ...and there are just four pieces, developed and extended at a relaxed and meditative pace. A valuable first step into the world of traditional Kashmiri Sufi music, and a blessed relief from the freneticism of much Western music. Birmingham Post (UK)
  • '...Rahul Sharma was good before. On Music of the Himalayas he reveals himself as being his father's son in every sense. Nobody of the next generation has impressed me to this degree. Like no other musician of his generation, a master in the making.' Ken Hunt Jazzwise (UK)
  • Piccadilly Records - Record of the week - 5.8.02 Rahul Sharma : Music Of The Himalayas - Real World : CDRW105 - The santoor, the Indian hammered dulcimer is one of the most beautiful instruments in the world. Its fragile distinctiveness in the hands of a master musician can create music of great beauty. One such musician is the son of the legendary santoor master Shiv Kumar Sharma, Rahul Sharma. These four pieces recorded by Real World are also meditations on the troubles of Kashmir, the Sharma families homeland. (UK)
  • ...if you are looking to leave behind the stresses of the modern world, this presents the perfect escape route.' 'The second generation of Lennons, Marleys and Dylans is a relatively recent phenomenon in Western pop. Yet in Indian music the tradition of passing on the baton of virtuosity is centuries old. Rahul Sharma is the son of Shivkumar Sharma, the world's greatest player of the santoor, or Asian dulcimer. Don't call his instrumental album a chill-out record, though, because its ancient melodies long predate the breakneck pace of life that created the need for such a notion. Yet if you are looking to leave behind the stresses of the modern world, this presents the perfect escape route.' The Times (UK)