‘Sopore runs in my blood, echoes in my music and strings’

For him, music is something that sans boundaries, that heals wounds and that arouses feeling of oneness, Music maestro and renowned Santoor player, Pandit Bhajan Sopori’ a performer and composer par excellence, in an interview to Nazir Ganaie, shares his love for the strings, cultural up-bringing and his musical journey from Sopore. Excerpts


What is Santoor for you?

Pandit Bhajan Sopori: Basically I am an eighth generation Santoor player in my family. We follow the Sufiyana Gharana. My great-grandfather, Pandit Shankar Pandit has contributed a lot to this kind of instrument (Santoor) music not only in Kashmir but elsewhere also. My father was a superb Sitar player and he gave me a classical knowhow of the instruments. I started playing Sitaar initially but later I fell in love with Santoor. In 1953, I gave my first public performance and it was on Santoor. I was just five years old and it is historic record. Shastri sangeetwas first played on Santoor by me during my public performance.

How would you recall your first public performance?

Sopori: That will always be there in my life and that keeps guiding me in growing as an artist. Actually that was a time when Kashmir witnessed the ‘Cultural Renaissance’. It was a time when programmes were held everywhere. Holding musical concerts were order of the day. An artist would have no time to spend with his family because they would always be busy with rehearsals and performances. During Ghulam Muhammad Bakhshi’s government (former Prime Minister) Kashmir witnessed a cultural boom. He would personally come to attend the functions and he would encourage artists. He was a great art lover, a cultrally rich person. Nishat and Shalimaar gardens would always be booked for musical concerts.

Santoor was initially used in Sufiyana

Sopori: The multi-stringed Santoor was simply a folk instrument played in Kashmir only. And yes it was only used in Sufiyana style of music here. Now the instrument has been an accepted part of the Indian classical repertoire of instruments. Now this instrument has witnessed lot of modifications by now and the Santoor, which had many limitations, has grown beyond borders. Afterwards I stated playing this instrument;

I created a distinct character for it, and a playing technique . . . and the whole style of music on Santoor.

You have added some more strings and done modifications to Santoor, What are these?

Sopori: Santoor as an instrument has really evolved now. Initially I couldn’t do much because, we used to play it in complete folk style and in our Sufi Gharana style. I added more bridges to the Santoor and also added strings. Strings, say 100, one could do lot of experiments with the ragas and the musical genres. Adding more strings has made it a complete classical instrument and now you could play all the ragas. Besides that tuning and range of the instrument has also been modified. From improving tonal quality to the technicalities of Santoor, I did a lot of work. If you listen to the music of Santoor now it is altogether different to the sound which we had in the pre-50s. Santoor has musical relatives throughout the world and was mentioned in Vedic scripture where there is reference in Sanskrit to “the 100-string lute”.In Kashmir it is used as an accompaniment to Sufi ceremonies.

What is Sufiyana Gharana?

Sopori: In Hindustani music, a gharānā is a system of social binding or a culture linking musicians or dancers by lineage or apprenticeship, and by adherence to a particular musical style. A gharana also indicates a comprehensive musicological ideology. This ideology sometimes changes substantially from one gharana to another. It directly affects the thinking, teaching, performance and appreciation of music. Gharana comes from the Urdu word ‘ghar’, which means ‘family’ or ‘house’. It typically refers to the place where the musical ideology originated; for example, some of the gharanas well known for singing khyals are: Agra, Gwalior, Indore, Jaipur, Kirana, and Pattiala, Sufiyana. In Sufiyana Gharana or Sufiyana style, we have our own style of playing and singing. There are different ang (parts). When you talk about Hindustani music, ragas are played in three octaves (sabtak) their technicalities, rendering changes.

Your Santoor is considered as ‘Singing Santoor, why?

Sopori: Singing is considered to be (utaam) prime in our country. So when a singer sings, an instrumentalist should be able to follow the melody of the composition. Whatever expansion I did to Santoor has been done under a proper system. Whatever you play should carry some impact to the listener. The impact comes from glides, maenad. So doing experimentation with all such things with my instrument has becomes my life.

You have composed more than 5000 songs

Sopori: I work, think as composer. I have composed more than 5000 songs. I am the only classical musician to have composed music for over 5000 songs in almost all the languages of the country like Hindi, Kashmiri, Dogri, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Himachali, Rajasthani, Telegu, Tamil, etc. and also foreign languages like Persian, Arabic. My work includes compositions for various musical genres like Ghazal, Geet, Bhajan, Choirs, Devotional (Hindu, Sikh and Muslim), Children songs, etc. I have also composed the works of almost all the eminent Urdu and Persian Ghazal writers of India and Pakistan like Hali, Jammi, Ghalib, Daag, Momin, Bhadur Shah Zaffar, Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Firakh Gaurakhpuri, and others, to name a few. There isn’t any writer in Kashmiri, who I haven’t composed and yes I must tell you our Sufi poets are stunningly brilliant. I also composed works of Kabir, Rai Das, Sur Das, Meera Bai, Bhramanand, Guru Nanak, etc. I have carried out immense research on Naad (sound) and Naad Yoga (sound therapy). A pharmaceutical company released one of my albums on sound therapy – ‘Doctor to Patient -Naad Yoga on the Santoor’.

You’ve given us some of the most memorable folk scores.

Sopori: We are the best. We are culturally rich and we have understanding of our folklores. But over the years these things have shown a sharp decline. I know most of the senior and junior artiste here are so hardworking despite the fact that they couldn’t get the conducive environment here. We were able to bring out the best compositions, which are still popular among Kashmiris. Whatever compositions I did from 1980, I never had an idea that the music would catch on the way it did. I am happy.

You are born in Sopore, share some memories and tell us about your musical journey from the apple town?

Sopori: I represent the fabled 300 year old Sufiana Gharana of Kashmir. I was born into a family of musicians of ‘Sufiana Gharana’ (the exclusive traditional Santoor family). My forefathers were mystic masters and the bearers of a rich musical legacy and I am trying to carry it forward. My great-grandfather Pandit Shankar Pandit, the great master who developed the style popularly known as the ‘Sufi Baaj’ (style), based on Sufiana Qulam music and Indian classical music has a lot of contribution into music. I was introduced into Santoor playing by my grandfather Pandit S. C. Sopori and later by my father Pandit Shamboo Nath Sopori. I did my bit to bring Santoor on national and international platforms as a complete solo instrument. I used Santoor and my compositions to highlight the concept of oneness and foster unity enshrining, humanism and peace. ‘Sopore runs in my blood, it echoes in my music and strings. It dominates my compositions.

Some of the noted musicians have termed you as ‘Saint of the Santoor’ and the ‘King of Strings’.

Sopori: Laughs…, it’s only their love that keeps me alive in music, as musician. I am just and artists, whos still has a long way to go, learn and make people fall for the music of Kashmir.

How would you create a musical wave in Kashmir?

Sopori: There is a dire need of the revival of Sufism and Sufi culture to spread the message of humanism amongst the masses especially the y outh. W e a ll h ave S ufi P arampara (tradition) so we all would have to bring back the wave. Everything is there, it just needs a spark. By way my Sufi Gharana and my spiritual leanings, I started performing for Sufi saints in Kashmir at the tender age. Nothing is gone, until you think and believe that it was gone. I have composed the works of most of the legendary Sufi saints of the country like Lalleshwari, Sheikh-ul-Aalam, Amir Khusrau, Kabir, Hafiz Sherazi, Bulle Shah, Ghani Kashmiri, Baba Farid, etc. And I have really enjoyed working on their work. They have been teaching me though their superb works.

Have you contributed any new of RAGAS to the world of Music?

Sopori: I have composed series of Naats (Islamic devotional songs), Vedic and Sanskrit Chants. Many of the Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit phrases have been set to melody and rhythm for the first time by me. I also composed and introduced three new Ragas: Raga Laleshwari, Raga Patwanti, and Raga Nirmalranjani. I also established a system for solo performance, voice culture, composition, arrangement, orchestration, conducting, designing of choral music, etc. I also widened the scope of devotional and religious music.

You believe ‘Music sans Frontiers’?

Sopori: In order to expand my quest of promoting music as a medium of peace and harmony, I travelled widely and performing extensively at all the prestigious festivals and conferences in the country and abroad, propagating Indian Classical Music and culture all over the world and going to the remotest of places. I performed at various art museums, painting exhibitions and art centers in the country and abroad with the sole purpose of creating awareness and a sense of appreciation for all forms of arts amongst the masses as well as reinforce the importance of Sahitya, Shastra and the tradition in the field of music. In this pursuit, he has hundreds of disciples in the country and abroad in the field of Santoor, Sitar, Tabla, Guitar, Sarangi, vocal music, music direction, Rabab, Clarinet, Violin, etc. both in classical and light music. It has been his constant endeavour to patronize the upcoming artists and help them establish themselves in the music stream.

Tell us about SaMaPa awards?

Sopori: The SaMaPa awards have been announced for the contribution to the field of music. The awards are instituted by the Sopori Academy of Music And Performing Arts (SaMa- Pa). We have been honouring artists during our annual SaMaPa Sangeet Sammelan as a tribute to Indian and particularly Kashmiri culture.

You have been conferred many prestigious awards

Sopori: …….Holds his ears in respect! My work has been recognised at many levels; I have been awarded and rewarded several times for my enormous contributions to the world of music. I have received numerous awards including the one of the prestigious and highest civilian awards of India, Padma Shri, highest performing award of India, Sangeet Natak Academy Award, J&K State Award, National Flag Honour of the Arab Republic of Egypt, National Shiromani Award, Delhi Ratan Award, Delhi Telugu Academy Award, Beenkar Samman (Title honour), Best Citizens of India Award, Baba Allauddin Khan Award, Rajiv Gandhi Pratishta Samman, Sangeet Bhushan Award, Pracheen Kala Kendra – Koser Award, 19th Blockbuster Sur Aradhana Sangeet Ratan Award, National Award by Govt. of MP (Ustad Latif Khan Samman) Maa Shardey Samman (lifetime achievement award), Sangeet Kala Ratna Samman, Sangeet Vibhuti Award (lifetime achievement award), Raag Sagar (lifetime achievement award), RaagRanjani Sangeet Bhushan Samman (lifetime achievement award), Sangeet Ratna Award (lifetime achievement award), Shree Bhatt Kirti Award (lifetime achievement award), Gama Maharaj Aaward (lifetime achievement award), Sharda Samman(lifetime achievement award), M. N. Mathur Smiriti Kumbh Award, R.S. Agarwal Award, Ustad Chand Khan Award,National Dogri Award, KECSS Award, RAWA Samman, Akashwani Annual Awards, Punjab Sakha Award, Kala Yogi Award, Abhinav Kala Samman, Shree Bhatt Kirti Samman, Munnu Guru Sangeet Award, Shama Award, Sumadhur Hansdhwani Award, Distinguished Leadership Award, Radio Kashmir Srinagar Golden Jubilee Celebrations Award, Kashmir Overseas Association Award – USA.