I hesitate to pick up a memoir or an autobiography. I really don’t know what to expect. Will it be a series of incidents plainly stated in chronological order? Will it be like sitting with that person and having an informal chat and sharing his or her life over a cup of coffee? Since I don’t know what to expect, I stay away from this genre. But, I picked up Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma’s memoir for two reasons. One, it was small, so even if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on that. Second, and the stronger reason, was the connection it has with Indian classical music. I told myself that I will learn a thing or two about Hindustani music and santoor.
The book limits itself to Panditji’s life in music and incidents connected to it. The author was clear when he started with this book. Everything about music and nothing else. This decision is clearly visible when the author just fleetingly mentions his first son Rohit (who is not into music) whereas discusses his other son, Rahul (a renowned santoor player himself) at length.
The book starts with Shivji’s birth and childhood but does not really list the incidents chronologically. The language is simple and the attitude unassuming. There is no hint of pretension, no stating of incident just for the sake of stating. Panditji’s struggle in establishing the santoor as an independent and complete musical instrument in the Hindustani music world is commendable. While reading those pages, one feels the author’s pain and symapthizes with him.
Some critics were very harsh, saying the santoor would never be accepted as a classical instrument. Others, mostly senior musicians who knew my father, were sympathetic, and framed their comments in a different way: ‘Beta, you have chosen the wrong instrument. There is still time: give up this instrument, take up the sitar or sarod and you will be very successful’.
This book made me realize Panditji’s contribution to Hindi film music. I knew he was the Shiv in Shiv-Hari, who have composed music for films like Silsila and Chandni. What I did not know was that Shivji played the tabla for the song Piya tose naina lage re from the movie Guide on Panchamda’s request. Neither did I know that Shivji was in close association with artists like S D Burman, R D Burman, Amitabh Bachchan, Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. It is surprising to see that an artist who was so strongly present in the Hindi film music circle managed to stay away from the media glare.
There is a lot to learn from this great man. His simplicity, dedication, virtues are qualities that are rarely seen these days. His respect for other musicians is clearly visible. In this world of hollow musicians who play for money, fame and awards, gems like Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma are hardly noticed.
The author discusses various things like India-Pakistan partition, the present disturbance in J&K, the technicalities of santoor, his interactions with other artists, his concerts etc. In the whole book, what touched me the most is Panditji’s take on music.
To me the most important process in music is to go inward. Playing the santoor is not just entertainment for me; it takes me inward. This is the spiritual quality of music.
There is an entire chapter dedicated to this, aptly titled ‘Music and spirituality’, and according to me, it is the best part of the book.
After reading this book, I feel I have known Panditji closely from years. I feel I have lived his life, along with him, as a passive audience. Is this what a memoir should do to the reader? I still don’t know what to expect from an autobiography, but this has to be the best I have read and will ever read.