Among instruments that have made a more recent entry into the Hindustani pantheon of instruments, the trapezoid-shaped santoor stands out as one that encountered several challenges along the way but later created a separate identity for itself.
Originally an instrument from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the santoor’s inclusion in the Hindustani pantheon did not have a long history as compared to the rudra veena, sitar, sarod, or sarangi. This also meant that there were no established gharanas or lineages representing different styles of santoor-playing. In turn, this opened the area for experimentation, as performers did not necessarily have to conform to one or the other style to gain acceptance among music lovers.
Indeed, the style popularised by santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma has gained prominence over the past decades, but this has not stopped others from charting independent courses.
Santoor exponent Ulhas Bapat, who died on Thursday at the age of 67, after battling severe medical complications and hospitalisation for several weeks, was one of the significant santoor players to step out in a distinct direction.
Bapat had his initial musical training in tabla under the guidance of Ramakant Mhapsekar. Later, he chanced upon the santoor in 1973 at an instrument shop and immediately decided to buy it and try his hand at it. With no formal guru, he chose to tune the instrument chromatically following the example of the harmonium keyboard that allowed one to play different raags successively without retuning the instrument each time. He would retune the strings as per the shrutis or microtones desired in each raag, but for all practical purposes, the tuning was chromatic with flats and sharps arranged as they are on a keyboard.
This tuning arrangement allowed him to play jod or compound raags that he had learnt from his gurus in the melodic sphere. His training under sarod exponent Zarin Sharma and eminent vocalists Wamanrao Sadolikar and KG Ginde equipped him with information about a wide variety of raags and broadened his horizons with regard to musical forms and compositions.
Bapat also chose to make changes to the kalams or wooden mallets that strike the strings to overcome the lacuna of meends or glides between notes. He added a metal strip to the base of his kalams, either of which could be rubbed against the string while being struck by the other.
It is not always that Indian musicians record an account of their musical journey and articulate musical concepts, but Bapat was an exception. He wrote for Marathi periodicals frequently and some of his articles were compiled in a book entitled Sahaz Swarantoon Manaatlan. His ready wit and humour colour these articles through which he traces his experiences as a performer of Hindustani art music and as a much sought-after musician for film songs and background scores. He worked under the baton of many music directors and arrangers. In particular, his long association with RD Burman was an experience that he reveled in describing.
I had the opportunity of providing tabla accompaniment to many of Bapat’s live concerts and recordings. A diligent musician, he approached each professional assignment with equal seriousness, always attempting to introduce novelty through his choice of raags, forms and compositions. Even if he had created a composition that was not meant for a forthcoming concert, he would be bubbling with enthusiasm when he would sing it over the phone.
His compositions were marked by intricate rhythmic phrasing, and the sthayi and the antara sections – the first and second sections of the composition – almost always resolved with a tihai. Usually, the tihai is a phrase that is repeated thrice to coincide with the approaching sum/sam or first matra or time-unit of the time-cycle, but the tihais in Bapat’s compositions ended on the matra just before the sthayi.
Over his long career, he played forms like tappa, thumri and natya sangeet or Marathi stage music on the santoor, and also presented instrumental versions of popular Marathi songs.
We end with a live concert recording featuring a santoor recital by Ulhas Bapat accompanied by tabla virtuoso Swapan Chaudhuri. This is a detailed exposition of the raag Chandranandan, composed by sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, followed by a raagsagar, also called raagmala or raagmalika, which incorporates several raags successively. The raagsagar is composed by his guru Zarin Sharma.