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Making The Santoor Sing

Ranjani Saigal

The Kashmiri Overseas Association presented a Santoor recital by Padma Shree Pandit Bhajan Sopori and his son Abhay Rustom Sopori on Saturday, Oct 16 at Lindsay Hall in Bentley College.  “Santoor is often considered a soft instrument, used for background music. But I have modified the original instrument so that it can be used as an instrument for playing serious classical music” says Pandit Bhajan Sopori who has been the pioneer in bringing Santoor on national and international platforms at par with sitar and sarod in tantrakari and boles. “My Santoor has 43 bridges which gives it a complete three octave range. It has a wonderful full sound and I have played it even to the accompaniment of a Pakhawaj which is a very strong instrument” said Sopori. Rendition of Drupad Ang on Santoor with the accompaniment of Pakhawaj, attaching tumba(gaud), introducing meednd and glides, gamak balancing of kalam(strikers) with boles, are also a part of his innovations.

Born in a family of musicians of Sufiana gharana of Kashmir, Panditji was initiated into Santoor playing by his grandfather Pandit S.C.Sopori and later by his father Pandit S.N.Sopori the veteran musician of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. “In the Sufiana gharana, singing is primary. We learn to sing and try to reproduce the song on the Santoor. This gharana can be considered as a corrupted version of Drupad” says Panditji.

Listening to Panditji tune the complex instrument with a 100 strings is a treat. One could see the complete concentration on his face as he made sure that the instrument was tuned and ready for playing.   Why did he change the original instrument? “I gave my first performance when I was ten. People really liked my playing but several serious musicians felt that the Santoor music did not quite fit in the realm of serious classical music because of the limitations of the instrument. I understood the validity of this comment and worked hard to change the instrument so that we can present a Raag in its full form” said Panditji.

When asked about terrorism in Kashmir and its effect on music Panditji was quick to dismiss any negativity “I have established my school in Kashmir. I have so many students who are learning music in the Valley. They travel and they perform at several places. It is my goal to revive classical music among the masses and I am sure it will happen”. Pandit Bhajan Sopori has composed music for more that 4000 songs in numerous languages including Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. Would he consider composing music for films? “Why not? But before I do, I would have my conditions. It is important to have strong melodies and good lyrics. In fact I have a couple of film project to work on in the near future. . If the melody is strong we do not need to resort to vulgarity to sell the film” said Panditji.

Panditji was accompanied by his son Abhay Rustom Sopori who is also a musician of great caliber. Was he forced by his father to take on music as a career? “Not at all. In fact my father wanted me to do my MBA. A career in music for me was my mother’s dream” said Abhay Rustom who has just completed his undergraduate degree in Computer Science in India. “I decided that it was not possible to do too many things at the same time. At this time music needs my attention and later I may do my MBA” said Abhay Rustom. When I asked Panditji about his reluctance to let his pursue a career in music he said “I do want him to be a musician. By God’s grace he is a talented musician and since he has been with us in the studio since he was a small child he understands music and composition very well. But I think any good musician should have an excellent education since it gives them the ability to understand the subtleties of the world and be more creative in the field of music. I am always very impressed with South Indian musicians who often hold careers very successfully” said Panditji.

Panditji has composed three new ragas: Laleshwari, Patwanti and Nirmalranjani. Does he have a favorite Raaga? “I like any Raag that is played well. Whatever my audience wants to listen is the Raaga of choice for any presentation” said Panditji.

As Pandit Bhajan Sopori and Abhay Rustom Sopori played their instruments, they demonstrated a high level of technical virtuosity. From beautiful gamakas during Vilambit Alaaps to speedy taans, the musicians keep the audience engaged and entertained. New England’s Tabla maestro Nikhil Tikekar, provided wonderful accompaniment.

As one listened to the performers one could sense their passion for the music. They were living proof that Kashmir is not a physical boundary. Politicians may fight to gain control of the land but the music which is the very essense of a culture and its people is will always be free and beautiful.


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