The santoor is in mourning. Within the space of a month, the 100-stringed instrument from Kashmir has lost two of its finest practitioners. Just three weeks after Shiv Kumar Sharma passed away in Mumbai, Bhajan Sopori died in a Gurugram hospital on Thursday. Both had left the Valley to pursue their art in less cool climes. But in the cities they lived and performed in, their santoor brought alive a piece of the Valley.
Sopori was born into a family of musicians. His grandfather Pandit Samsar Chand Sopori and father, Pandit Shamboo Nath Sopori were greatly respected musicians in Jammu and Kashmir and they initiated young Sopori into the world of music. Their music represented the composite Shaivite-Sufi tradition of the Valley. The santoor, a musical instrument distinct to Kashmir, has been an essential feature of the Valley’s folk and devotional music. Bhajan Sopori reinvented it for the Hindustani concert platform, combining aspects of Sufiyana mausiqui and the classical raga system. He was helped by the fact that Sharma had prepared the ground for the santoor to be accepted as an instrument in its own right for the classical concert stage. Together, they raised the profile of the santoor, and found an inventive playing style which allowed the exploration of Hindustani ragas. Their work is comparable to the effort of Baluswamy Dikshitar, who in the 19th century adapted the violin, then seen as an exclusively western instrument, for Carnatic music, first as an accompanying instrument and then for solo concerts.
Sopori, who worked with All India Radio, was forced to shift out of Kashmir when violence engulfed the Valley in the ’90s. Kashmir became a memory that found its voice in his music. His santoor was a raga in which listeners heard the gurgle of mountain streams, experienced the quiet of mountain peaks, and sensed the deep blue of the lakes.