Very few artists in their lifetime can master the art of colonizing a musical instrument. Few people are still able to elevate something obscure or little known to the public sphere, making it permanent in the process. When Pandit Sivakumar Sharma performed in Mumbai in the 50s to attract audiences, the string instrument from Jammu and Kashmir – in Iranian heritage – was a rare sight for Indian classical music audiences. Over the years Sharma has become synonymous with the tool, helping to write a new story with nothing. The artist, who died in Mumbai today, had an experiment in classical music, which many remember for its brutal commitment and devotion. But for most people outside the circle of Indian classical music, Kumar’s greatest memory will be the unforgettable songs in Chandni and Dar, of course, the great Opus-Silsila of pouring your soul into the sound.
In his autobiography Journey with a Hundred Strings, Sharma wrote that when Bollywood called, not everyone in the industry was willing to work with him because they thought he was unfamiliar. His collaboration with flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia had mixed results, but their debut was one of the best soundtracks of modern Bollywood era. Ironically, an artist is not as tired of Sharma films as you might think. “Let me reiterate that my occasional entry into the world of cinema was only to help me with food and rent; I still spend the rest of my time doing rias,” he writes in the book. To outsiders, the acquisition of privilege is, for some artists, just a ploy to seek out the undefined and obscure. Maybe that’s music – follow strangers.
I was born in a house where I could not help but listen to the songs of Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi despite my artistic inclination. Although he was regimental and captivating in almost everything he did, in the moments when my father was released, he would sing “Dekha Ek Qab” in Silsila. It’s probably natural to inherit behaviors and tastes from your family, because even though I started watching movies in the 90s, Silsila – film and its music – often seemed like a compressed version of the poetic side of the movie that I wanted. Silsila’s music, Akhtar’s poetry, and Santoor’s use of its foggy soundtrack play into the deceptive natural beauty of Kashmir before being beset by clashes. It was like watching and listening to a movie, and was almost fascinated by his own sense of art and depth. A kind of indie art film that bargains with mainstream burdens amidst so much romance.
There are a few things in Indian cinema that can weaken themselves, as poetry imposes itself on the unwanted. But in the music system inspired by Chaurasia and Sharma, even the poems of Javed Akhtar, who preceded some of the songs, seemed to be the inspiration. They still are, perhaps.
Main aur mary tanhai aksar ye bathen karte hain
Tum hoti to kaisa hota, tum ye kehti, tum wo kehti
Tum is baat pe hiran hoti, tum us baat pe kitni hansti
Tum hoti to aisa hota, tum hoti to visa hota
These are the lines that my father often used to make fun of his mother. For middle class India, poetry comes across as strange as the first economic risk they take in life. It is as if the Indian middle class is leading the untested, the untested, the untested into the channel. Silsila’s music, poetry, and classical music became so entrenched that it was confusing to think that those born into musically gifted families could only hear the explosive melodies of the ’70s. The decency of a writer (played by Amitabh Bachchan as a playwright), the beautiful beauty torn by love, can only be embraced by those with an artistic inclination. For many in India, the inspired intervention of Sharma and Chaurasia gave them a language to express. Even those who could not show commitment to the misty valleys or to the moments of resting in the shade of the trees in the meadow, the poem quickly became everyone’s own. Bachchan writes his letters.
It is strange to think that Sharma, who has openly stated that his work with films is fleeting, has touched many lives through it. From Chandni’s ‘Mere Hawthorne May’ to Dar’s ‘Jodu Theri Nasser’, the Shiva-Hari duo worked in the film industry from time to time, almost reluctantly, but left a mark on all the formulas they broke and what they could still do. Understandably, the heady and almost ugly 90s marked the end of the Shiva-Hari phase of cinema. Maybe it’s the market, maybe it’s the audience, or both realize that real art is somewhere else, not in the hands of popularity and recognition, but in the depths of holiness and honesty. That is why Sivakumar Sharma worked in his life till his death.