Santoor player Rahul Sharma, son of the Indian musician Pandit Shivkumar Sharma
Santoor player Rahul Sharma, son of the Indian musician Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Image Credit: Supplied

Ask any Indian about the santoor, and chances are they’d identify it with the late Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, the musician credited with bringing the trapezoid-shaped string instrument to the mainstream and popularising it around the world. This weekend, his son Rahul Sharma — an experienced musician and santoor player himself — is set to regale audiences in Dubai with a performance.

The santoor has its roots in Kashmir. Hailing from the mountainous state, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma — considered among the pantheons of Indian classical music — came down to Mumbai six decades ago and popularised it in Bollywood movies and concerts around the world. His impact on Indian music was no less than that of the greats like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan or Hariprasad Chaurasia.

When Pandit Shivkumar Sharma died last year, condolences poured in — from India’s Prime Minister to music aficionados around the world. He received a state funeral, in recognition of his contributions to Indian culture.

Rahul Sharma is well aware of his father’s legacy. In an interview with Gulf News, he says that his father’s influence in him taking up the instrument was “100 per cent and absolute”. “He was the one who created a language for the santoor and others are trying to read, decipher and understand it,” Sharma said over email.

And the son — who’s a regular to Dubai for over 20 years for performances — has carved out a future for himself in an inimitable way. While his father was behind ‘Call of the Valley’, often ranked among Indian classical music’s largest selling albums, and was also the recipient of honours that can fill up a mantelpiece, Rahul Sharma has collaborated with global musicians, including the saxophonist Kenny G, for an album that reached #2 on the Billboard world charts and #4 on the Board Smooth jazz charts. Other musicians that Sharma has performed together with include the Indian tabla legend Zakir Hussain, the world-renowned pianist Richard Clayderman and John McLaughlin. He has also performed at the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival in the UK, as well as the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

File photo of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma interacting with students at GEMS Heritage Indian School in Dubai. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

The father and son duo have had equally successful stints in Bollywood. While the father, along with the flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, composed music for the Hindi movies like ‘Silsila’, ‘Faasle’, ‘Chandini’ and ‘Darr’, Rahul Sharma composed for the 2002 hit ‘Mujhse Dosti Karoge’.

This concert is special, he says, as the concert is a tribute to his late father and guru.

In an interview, Rahul Sharma talks about topics ranging from his initiation to music, his transformation as a musician and what it takes to be successful at the highest level of the art. The responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

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Santoor player Rahul Sharma, son of the Indian musician Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Image Credit: Supplied

Please tell us about your initiation to music and your early life.

Well, as you know my father was my guru (teacher), too, so there was an atmosphere of music constantly at home. The initiation began when I was 8 or 9 when I began learning under my father. By then, I was already fond of composing.

How much of an influence was your father in music?

My father’s influence in me playing the santoor is 100% and absolute. My father was instrumental in giving the santoor stature in classical music. Today it has made its presence felt in all genres — be it symphony, electronic, fusion or other collaborations.

Recently the santoor premiered in symphony with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, where I composed the symphony. The santoor was the lead instrument to a 50-chamber orchestra. The santoor has journeyed through folk form to classical and then fusion. The next generation, like my 8-year-old son Abhinav, who is also learning it, may take it to a new direction in the future.

Who have been your role models in music?

I don’t have any strict role models that I try and emulate. Music is diverse and all my influences, whether it was the Beatles, Sting, (the Pakistani singer-songwriter and composer) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, (the flautist) Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia or my father, I had my own imagination as a composer which led me to create and collaborate in more than 60 albums around the world.

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Santoor player Rahul Sharma, son of the Indian musician Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Image Credit: Supplied

In your opinion, what is unique about the santoor compared to the other musical instruments from India?

The santoor was originally called the ‘Shatatantri Veena’ in Sanskrit, or the 100-stringed instrument, and is very ancient. Different versions of the santoor are found in Romania, where it’s called the cymbalon; Hackbreth in Germany and dulcimer in US. A theory suggests it travelled with the ancient gypsies from Kashmir to various corners of the world. It was predominantly used in Kashmiri folk music only as an accompaniment until my father created a path for it in classical music.

Tell us more about your earlier performances on stage? How would you describe your transformation as a musician?

It’s not for me talk about my transformation but the audiences. Well since I’ve always been a composer, I have produced all my albums — be it ‘Namaste India’ with the Grammy winning American saxophonist KennyG, which topped the Billboard jazz charts; my Electronika album with Grammy winner Deep Forest; or my classical albums with (the famed tabla player) Ustad Zakir Hussain helped to take the santoor to parts of the world where it hadn’t been before.

You have composed music for Bollywood movies, performed pure classical music and fusion with other leading musicians. What, do you believe, has given you more fulfillment?

Bollywood music is situational and one has to cater to the demands of the director. I was fortunate to have Lata Mangeshkar sing 2-3 of my songs for Yash Chopra’s ‘Mujhse Dosti Karoge’ with Hrithik Roshan and Rani Mukerji. More recently, my song ‘Jai Hanuman’ was sung by Amitabh Bachchan for the series ‘Ramyug’. Composing is satisfying but performing to a live audience is even better.

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Santoor player Rahul Sharma, son of the Indian musician Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Image Credit: Supplied

What, in your opinion, is important to succeed as a musician?

It takes hard work and practice of an entire lifetime, which then must be coupled with the right factors. Yet, one must keep on learning and has to grow.

How frequently have you been performing in Dubai?

I’ve been coming to Dubai for more than 20 years and have performed quite a few times. This time, it’s special as the concert is a tribute to my late father and guru.

A favourite collaboration of yours?

I think my collaboration with the French pianist Richard Clayderman is among my favourites.

What kind of music do you listen to unwind? Who are your favorite composers/performers?

RD Burman, Sting, Enigma, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Swaralaya — Symphony On Strings’ will feature Rahul Sharma on the santoor, with percussion by the tabla exponent Mukundraj Deo, Avinash Chandrachud on the keyboard and Barkha Rahul on the tampura.

The concert will be held at the Emirates Theatre in Jumeirah, Dubai, on Sunday, May 7, in memory of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Gates open at 7pm, while the concert starts 30 minutes later.

Tickets for the event are available online on, under various categories and start at Dh50. Silver tickets are available at Dh100, gold tickets at Dh150 and platinum tickets at Dh200.

Did You Know?

This is the second time Rahul Sharma is performing in Dubai under the concert series ‘Swaralaya — Symphony On Strings’, the last time being 2013.