Monsoon is the giver of ragas and rasa to the Indic classical vocal and instrumental music heritage. This year, barely a month before the monsoon broke into Kerala, two learned maestros known for and synonymous with a musical instrument from Kashmir, the seat of Ma Sharda, breathed their last.
Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Bhajan Sopori are no more but they will be remembered for giving santoor its deserved space and place in the Hindustani music tradition. Moreover, one realises that it was their work that made the santoor the musical instrument closest to the language, diction, music, mood and art of rains, showers, droplets and drizzles.
The monsoon rains and clouds have three sounds. One given by nature itself, another the other that lives musically immortalised in Hindustani music and the third, the santoor, its structure, its playing, in the seamless body of renditions, work, technique, intellect and musical thought of Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Bhajan Sopori.
The santoor, believed to have originated from the Shatatantri veena, modified and evolved by Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Bhajan Sopori, embraced the rainy season in its sound and music repertoire. This should be said particularly in the context of Raag Megh and the diverse family of the Malhars, as performed by Shiv ji.
When Megh and Malhars met Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, his mallets would transform to two brushes, one for thick strokes, the other, for filling, thinning of strokes in writing, drawing and painting the landscape with soundscape and swara.
In Shiv ji's Megh the several words in the bandish (vocal composition) 'Barse ghata ghan' spoke through the strings, as if the mallets were singing these words. Technique, hand, wrist, fingers, mind, control, sadhana, immense-amassed knowledge of music, observation of Nature, behind his art.
The two maestros, along with their learned gurus, who themselves were Pandits of music and santoor hailing from Jammu and Kashmir, in separate journeys, evolved the instrument. They gave it the pinnacle spot in Hindustani classical tradition of instrumental music, making changes to it, modifying it, studying the musical and scientific approach to its sound, resonation, vibration, and drawing it closer to the principles of rasa, bhava, raag-shastra. Their playing of santoor made the santoor the natural bearer of rasa, fluidity, water and changing pattern of droplets.
Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma's performance of Megh and Megh Malhar and Miyan Malhar was the whetstone for every colour, drop, shred of monsoon ragas, in rasa and grammar (backed by technique). It was in his Megh that the secret of this raga can be unlocked - all in his use of four swaras, his technique with the mallets, and his childlike natural comfort in the lap of laya.
The first time this author paid attention to these aspects in 'watching' and not 'hearing', closely, was in 2002, while playing the tanpura for Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma at an iconic auditorium of the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun.
That evening, on dias next to him, I realised that building the structure of the raga using the surface of the string, the surface of the mallet, a bit of their conversation and their making sound together required meditative fluidity and mindful stillness from Shiv ji. I noticed while playing the tanpura at the dias, with my eyes fixed on his mallets and wrist, that the raga built itself without wanting to burst to please the audience.
Pandit Bhajan Sopori's art meanwhile was a maze of intense brain- and throat-driven multi-dimensions, where he used the drone in the Sopori baaj (style specific to the Sopori gharana) to play the meend (approximate translation being ‘glide’ between notes), alongside the stroke of the mallet, in the same moment, for the same set of swaras.
He played with the sound and volume output controlled just by his mallets in such a way that one would be left to wonder if he were a river or rain or musician. These aspects would be incomprehensible to many uninitiated in the santoor, santoor-playing and the structure of the santoor in general and Pandit Bhajan Soporis's santoor in particular. It was way, way beyond the musical, mathematical, and technical realm.
What's even more astoundingly beautiful or strikingly fascinating is that he used his technical prowess to present ragas outside of Malhar to invoke the element of fluidity, water, rain, and the retrospection left by sheets and sheets of rain.
The best example of this is Pandit Sopori's performance of Nirmalkauns - a kauns reflective of its gentleness not just in name, but in form and his playing.
The great penetration of science in Indic music explored by the Pandits lies in the sound interaction that the swarmandal has with the santoor. This very interaction brings alive the lesser discussed classification of 'tat vadyas' as it lives in the texts, in real, musical terms.
Pandit Bhajan Sopori's greatness in his performance of Patdeep and Nirmalkauns cannot be defined or deconstructed. It can only be understood or absorbed in how he invokes the aspect of rain retrospection in the two ragas.
Pandit Bhajan Sopori extended this writer's notion of ragas and rains when he, in 2010, tuned the tanpura for the performance of a non-Malhar just when the monsoon was lasting longer beyond expectation. Pandit Sopori made an exquisite choice -- Patdeep.
This writer was playing the tanpura and witnessed how the partly-uninitiated audience soaked Patdeep over their listening in the rains, just as they would have absorbed the Malhars. So immersive was his rendition over the rains of Raag Patdeep, that to this day, Patdeep has settled in this writer's music-conscience as a 'rain raga'.
Something similar happens with Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma's rendition of Raag Desh in the alaap, gat and jhala. It evolves as Des to a raga for the rains.
For this writer, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Bhajan Sopori were the moon and sun of santoor and santoor-playing that covered a wide, wide range of ragas.
Shiv ji was the moon, bringing the ocean tides in the status of santoor in the classical realm with his experiments in the body of work. His sadhana in santoor left a strong ring of moonshine in the way of his gentle, brilliant, and softly glowing, interaction in alaap, gat, jod, jhala, dhun.
Pandit Bhajan Sopori was the sun. His unsurpassable energies in the rising, vibrant, warm, life-giving, stature of the Sopori baaj narrated his focussed, academic, piercing approach to raag-shastra.
If rain has grammar, santoor, as defined, developed, evolved, practised and played by these two maestros, is its musical language and literature.
The building, brooding, rounding, airing of the clouds, the bursting open of the clouds, playfulness of the nascent rain drops, continuing and continuous showers, the sweeping of the showers by the strong winds, the blending of thunder with rain, the twisting as turning of the different shower patterns, you will find them naturally embraced in the santoor and its playing by the two maestros.
The soul of the instrument remained Kashmiri, but the journey was dedicated to Hindustani classical music, carved by two pairs of mallets held by them.
Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma's treatment of Megh and the Malhars itself resembled a monsoon cloud over the hills, as I see them. It bore in itself centuries of timelessness of art and music thought, born and emerging from Kashmir for Bharat. His approach to the 'gat' in Malhars and Megh came woven in a scholarly, mastered, comprehensive and thoroughgoing expression of laya and taala.
This aspect gave a unique quality to his depiction of the Malhar, as the short improvisations in the 'gat' resembled the quick and steady changes, transpositions, and turns in the patterns of rains and the soundscape of the rains. The composition would appear like a photographic abstraction of Shravan.
There is one more realm Shiv ji's playing of the santoor corresponds to. It is the stillness of water. Stillness sheet thin, and stillness heavy, stillness brimming. It can be felt in his playing of Raag Desh.
There would be no alaap in santoor-playing or santoor-playing in classical music without this technique. His special way of placing the mallet on the string, trying to draw the swara by simply making the mallets soak vibrations of the string after a soft strike, sent a series of a constant shower on the string. It's perhaps how a blade of grass would dance to unseen vapour from the warm earth. Or, imagine water cascading as a transparent sheet against a water current-smoothed surface in a fall or fountain.
At the green room at the Indian Military Academy, this author witnessed for the first time, the long and arduous process in which Shiv ji tuned the santoor. While he was tuning the santoor, he would wipe off sweat beads sitting on his brow quickly with his handkerchief. Not letting them fall on the santoor had valid reasons.
There was no chance he would allow the fan to be switched on either. "Taar utar jayenge" is an explanation that involves the understanding of science, music and practice in string-tuning, its importance to swara and its intricacies.
It so happened that someone initiated into music (and santoor-playing) entered the green room. So moved by the maestro sweating before a concert, this person switched on the fan as soon as he walked, much to the surprise of Shiv ji.
The damage to the maestro's tuning exercise was done. This elongated the process of tuning the santoor once again. So, I watched Shiv ji's tuning process in the solitude of the maestro and his santoor, twice over. It was in his tuning the santoor that the fluidity and structured shapelessness, the ability to fill the raga-vessel sprawled.
One of the techniques that Pandit Shiv ji and Sopori ji revolutionised, is where a single note has to be played in moving stillness with the mallet -- sort of a meditative stance of the mallet on the string. At times, this special technique is used on a combination of strings (to arrive at a combination of swaras) in a raag-centric specific order. Shiv ji builds taans using it. In his playing of Megh and Malhars, this technique defines character and intensity.
It is also used to build the meend. The meend (a rounded arrival of one swara from another via a single or a set of swaras) is prevalent in Hindustani vocal and instrumental music. It's an aspect of musical grammar that is achieved by the bending of the string by the fingers of the left hand on the frets/fretless surface of the veenas, the sitar, sarod, etc. Pandit Bhajan Sopori's use of the special string for meend, his use of the meend, gave the santoor the voice of dhrupadiyas and the greatest khayalias.
The sound output in the exercise is distinctly identifiable for the two maestros -- one can tell one from another. One - owing to a major difference in the two santoors. Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma's santoor has no tumbi, and it is placed on the lap. On the other hand, Pandit Bhajan Sopori's santoor has a tumbi, making a world of a difference in the sound output, owing to the presence of the hollow at one end. The presence of the tumbi ensured that he would not be keeping the santoor completely on the lap - unlike Shiv ji - the weight of whose santoor fell entirely on his lap.
The interplay of vibration and resonance, hence played out differently in the two versions. And that, just as expected, would set the distinct and different paths for the two in what they played, how they played it, and how what they played emerged from their own instruments.
Pandit Bhajan Sopori was at the other side of the string-sound explorations, where he brought together gamaka, krintan, zamzama, tantrakaari, meend, layakari, chhand displaying an instrument within an instrument to establish the roleplay of raag-specific important swaras.
Their mallets do what the mizrab (the plucker used in the sitar, sarod, the veenas) of the greatest maestros does not. There is no question of cannot, but does not.
In the year of their passing away, there are two regrets that Bharat's cultural impresarios, the different governments at states (three) and Centre could be living with: one, of the lack of collective celebration of the two maestros as learned musicians from Jammu and Kashmir; two, of the collective celebration of santoor as the sound of the rains and monsoon.
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