The santoor: North India’s magical, many-stringed box

Don’t worry if you’re a relative newcomer to Indian classical music – in historic terms, the santoor is a newcomer too. It was adapted from Sufi folk instruments in the 1950s by Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, who used his expertise in tabla and vocal music to create a fresh musical pathway for his son Shivkumar Sharma. Though controversial at first, Shivkumar eventually gained worldwide adulation for the instrument’s hypnotic fusion of rhythm and melody.

Little more than a wooden box, it is strung with around a hundred strings, which the performer strikes with small hardwood mallets (mine has 93…due to a few broken pegs). Its unique sound comes from the combination of two textures – a quick, percussive bounce when the mallet hits the string, and a floating, ethereal resonance left by the resulting vibrations. Musicians make sophisticated use of this contrast, mixing sparse passages with rapid flurries of notes.

The santoor is sometimes described as being the least ‘vocalistic’ Hindustani lead instrument, with strings that cannot ordinarily be bent, fretted, or slid across. However, these limitations are more than balanced by its inherent rhythmic and harmonic possibilities. Like the tabla, it is hit using two hands, with the lower tones usually placed on the left side – and like the piano it allows chords to be constructed, with notes layered on top of each other. (In fact, the santoor and piano may well share a common ancestor.)

Exponents compensate for its supposed lack of vocal ability by employing a breathtaking range of gliding techniques, bouncing the mallets across the strings with a slurring sparkle. The overall sound is instantly captivating, with a strange, perpetual tension. Your mind almost braces itself a little in anticipation of each sharp mallet strike, but they arrive in a flash, always bringing a soothing, even-toned reverberation that fades patiently away into silence.

Many santoor players learn tabla in their youth as well, often making for dazzling feats of rhythmic interplay in live settings – after all, it’s easier to get in sync if you also play the instrument that is accompanying you. Each raga will move from sparse, rhythmless scatterings to ever-quicker cycles of melody, gradually building towards a dense final release. The music has plenty of meditative space, but will undoubtedly groove too.

● Read nextWhat is Sufism? Why is music so important to the Sufis? – the mystical beliefs behind the santoor’s ultimate origins (& also see my longer primer for Darbar: Seven Days of Santoor).

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