In a recent incident in Pune, your concert with Zakir Hussain was advertised as a jugalbandi (a duet of two solo musicians). I recall the fact that even though your attention was drawn to it, you were fine ...this despite the incorrect connotation because Zakir Hussain was such a star in his own right and you understood that the organisers were trying to cash in on his image and appearance, not as an accompanist but as a co-player.
There is a lot of confusion here; we have to learn to draw the line. Some people get mixed up; they think ego is confidence, which it is not. Confidence comes from surrender. That gives you power. Ego, on the other hand, is something that relates to “I”.

So what we have to do as musicians is to accept that I’m only a medium, and I have a responsibility. Medium doesn’t mean that you are a machine and somebody will switch it on and it will start. You have to make an effort. To realise that you are no more than a medium needs a lot of sadhana (practice), meditation and thinking. You have to practice what you think.

It’s very hard, but once you understand that and you surrender, then some divine power takes over. This has happened with me throughout my career.

Sometimes people ask me that you didn’t have a reference point about the santoor when you started playing this instrument, how did you create this style? I share with them what happened during my career at different points in time.

I learned from my father, I started playing with him and he gave me the basic technique, he taught me the raga, taal and so on. But, for the rest of the things, I really didn’t have any reference point. Nobody had played the santoor in the classical style, only the Sufi musicians were playing the santoor and I wasn’t playing that kind of music.

Each instrument has got what we call in musical terms a baaj, a different style of playing. My style evolved during my practice sessions or while playing in front of an audience. When I played something instantaneously, I would realise that I had not practiced this. After the concert or session, I said to myself, okay, this is also possible. Then I started working on that.

It has now been sixty years – I started as a santoor player on the radio in 1952 – but I feel right from the start that some divine force was giving me ideas. And I also believe that ideas are stored in your mind. I have been exposed to different kinds of music, folk music from Jammu and Punjab, for instance. Hence I have not only focussed on classical music.

Tell us your memories of adolescence, of growing up by the Tawi River. How did you get this exposure to folk music?
When I was a child we used to live across the river and often, at dusk, the strains of songs sung by Dogri shepherds and villagers would waft across to us. My mother used to sing folk songs as she went about her household chores and the lilting tunes of these songs stirred a strange yearning in my heart, the romance of the distant village people gripped my imagination.

I used to listen to symphonies being broadcast on Radio Delhi regularly when I was in school and college. I was interested in different kinds of music, not just classical. Alongside, I was very happy playing the tabla and practicing as a vocalist till fate sent my father to Srinagar and he chanced upon the santoor and that changed my destiny.

The day he told you to put aside the tabla and start playing the santoor.
Yes, and as I showed my reluctance, he told me, “You have no idea what is going to happen with your name and the santoor. They are going to become synonymous. So you have to play this.” A few years later, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas offered me a role of one of the heroes in his film, Saat Hindustani. A young man could have easily been swayed but I stuck on, believing that my destiny lay in the santoor.

In 1955, V Shantaram offered you a film as a music director. You were seventeen years old and you turned it down, saying your calling lay elsewhere. Yet, later, there came a time when apart from your classical music, you were also taking assignments to play in films. Did this cause a rift between your guru and you? After all, you had left home to carve a career in classical music. Did this flirtation with glamour anger your father?
Well, honestly, he didn’t know much about what I was doing because I was broadcasting from radio as well. But he knew that I was playing for films. In all fairness, I have to admit that he was not that kind of stubborn musician who looks down upon the film industry, even though he had been asked to compose for films and act in films as well, in Lahore, which he had refused before Partition. He never told me, “No, don’t play for films.” He was confident that I was serious about my santoor and kept that faith in me.

Strangely, you had no guru besides your father who guided you in the beginning and after that you were alone...with the santoor, honing your skills and improving the tonal qualities of the instrument as you went along, with no one who could advise you.
It wasn’t me, I truly believe that I was made a medium and I am blessed. As I told you, I am guided by the principles of man, vachan and karam. Only a person who can surrender his or her ego can accept reality. Sadly, we are tempted by materialistic achievements. If the focus shifts entirely towards materialistic achievements – fame, name, money – your creativity is bound to be compromised.

But what happens about family pressures, the constant pressures from expectations? The megastars who throng the metropolis seem to relish the moment. You are, in contrast, ever restrained, at peace with yourself.
Living in the moment is a great philosophy, but we’re actually not doing that. Spiritually speaking, we never live in the moment. Either we are living in the past or we are thinking about the future. We think, this is my goal, I have to reach there. We never enjoy that particular moment. You are in the present, but you are thinking about what to do, that becomes your future. This is a different philosophy, I just digressed to that.

But what I mean to say is, that I never once thought of failure, of leaving the santoor and picking up the sitar or sarod; the idea just did not come to me. This is what I call divine guidance. I just never thought about it. I have never been scared of failure, despite the initial criticism and rejection, I have remained true to my goal.

Shiv Kumar Sharma: The Man and His Music

An excerpt with permission from Shiv Kumar Sharma: The Man and His Music, edited by Ina Puri, Neogy Books.