Santoor Instrument

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An Indian Santoor

Photo by adil113 / CC BY

The Indian santoor is a complex stringed instrument that is very popular. A variation on the standard hammered dulcimer family of related stringed instruments, and thought to have developed from the Iranian santur or a Persian instrument (the Persian santur), the santoor is a large wooden instrument. It is tapered towards the top, with metal strings attached to tuning pegs on either side and stretched over the soundboard. It’s played with two wooden mallets or small hammers, and produces an instantly identifiable sound.

Origins & History

The santoor is an ancient instrument.hough there is some debate over exactly when and where it originated – as well as how it came to India – it’s generally accepted that dates back many centuries. In ancient texts, it was known as the Shatha Tantri Veena, or Veena of a Hundred Strings (the Veena is a different wooden stringed instrument from a whole different family of instruments). It is thought that the Indian santoor developed over time from the Iranian santur, or the Persian santur, and had other influences from Iraq as well. The santur is a related instrument still played in Iran today.

What is known, though, is that the santoor has always played a key role in Sufi folk and classical performances throughout the years.The Indian santoor, we now know, was likely adapted from another instrument in the same family of instruments, took shape in Kashmir, India.

Alterations in Jammu and Kashmir

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma Santoor at Bhopal

Photo by Suyash Dwivedi / CC BY

In fact, in more recent years, the santoor went through more changes thanks to a Jammu/Kashmir-born musician Shiv Kumar Sharma. Introduced to the instrument when he was young, he found a knack for playing it and became a musician. As he played concerts though, he encountered critics that felt that the santoor was ill-suited to the Hindustani music for which he was using it.

He went on to address these issues, making modifications to the instrument and to his own playing technique. He worked to expand the amount of notes and pitches that the santoor could produce, as well as updating the tuning of the strings. The santoor eventually became much more accepted in Hindustani music, all thanks to the work carried out by Shiv Kumar Sharma.

He went on to address these issues, making modifications to the instrument and to his own playing technique. He worked to expand the amount of notes and pitches that the santoor could produce, as well as updating the tuning of the strings. The santoor eventually became much more accepted in Hindustani music, all thanks to the work carried out by Shiv Kumar Sharma.

Construction & Playing

The Indian santoor is built from wood, and the soundboard is typically made from maple or walnut. The metal strings are stretched over the top of the soundboard, and attached via tuning pegs to either side. This instrument is surprisingly similar to the harpsichord, but played with two wooden mallets. Hitting a string or a group of strings produces a sound.

A santoor player holding the mallets used to strike the strings

Photo By gurmatsangeetorg / CC BY

The Indian santoor can have a different number of strings and bridges, but the more modern version (credited to Shiv Kumar Sharma) typically has 91 strings The strings are stretched across 31 bridges. Other versions of a santoor might have twenty-five bridges, or a hundred strings. The strings are typically grouped into three, four, or groups of five.

Each bridge typically supports one group, although really this can be up to the musician. The musician has a lot of control over how their santoor is set up, deciding the answers to questions like how they want the instrument tuned, how many strings will be used, how many bridges will be used, how those strings will be grouped together and ultimately how the instrument will be played.

There are various ways to play the instrument. As it’s a relatively new addition to the Hindustani music scene, there are no established standards (in the way that there are for things like sitar or tabla in Indian music). There are a few very popular techniques, though – the most popular being the “meend”, which refers to a technique that players use to flow between notes, achieved by gliding the either one of or both of the two mallets across groups of strings.

It’s also popular to muffle and mute strings, similar to how strings can be muted on other stringed instruments – pianos can be muffled with cloth on the hammers, and guitars can be palm-muted. The Indian santoor can be muted with the palm of one hand, while the strings are still struck with the wooden mallets to allow for a different kind of sound.

The timbre, dynamics and overall tone of the santoor may depend on a variety of things: construction materials, the position of the bridges, how hard the strings are struck with the mallets, the way that the santoor is tuned, and which side of the strings (either side of a bridge) a musician strikes. There’s a full range of factors that come to form a great and identifiable noise.

Use in Hindustani & Sufi Music

The santoor as an instrument was initially not associated with Hindustani classical performances, as it was too percussive and couldn’t produce the bending, sliding tones that are traditional to this style of music. However, after Shiv Kumar Sharma made modifications to the instrument and developed his playing style, it found a home there.

However, the santoor (and the Iranian and Persian santur before it) have always had use in religious or devotional performances. The santoor is particularly heard in Sikh kirtan and in Sufi music.

Other Musical Appearances

Thanks to the adaptations made by Shiv Kumar Sharma, the santoor took on a much more versatile role in performances of all kinds. The retooled tuning that he came up with allowed for more solo performances of the instrument. Since then the santoor has gone on to feature in a lot of film soundtracks (both big and small) and has been used in a lot of different popular songs.

Notable Players

Notable Santoor players pose at the Brand Next QR Code Music Card Launch

Photo By Biswarup Ganguly / CC BY

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma

Photo By Suyash Dwivedi / CC BY

Shiv Kumar Sharma

Mentioned a few times already, Shivkumar Sharma is arguably the most important figure for the santoor in recent history. Responsible for renewing and innovating the santoor, he took it to new heights and gained acceptance. It would have no place in classical Hindustani musical performances if it wasn’t for the work and efforts of Shiv Kumar Sharma.

Rahul Sharma

The son of Shiv Kumar Sharma, Rahul Sharma is a varied and intelligent player in his own right. Releasing an album described as “New Age” in 2006 (Time Traveller), he’s done a lot to push the santoor into not only the World Music scene, but also into various other genres. Having found success with Kenny G in producing a jazz record with a pairing of the santoor and the saxophone, he’s also worked alongside electronic groups and produced a rock record.

Rahul Sharma Santoor

Photo By Suyash Dwivedi / CC BY

Bhajan Sopori playing Santoor

Photo By Os Rúpias / CC BY

Bhajan Sopori

Another santoor musician coming out of Kashmir, Bhajan Sopori is an award-winning santoor player who has been performing since he was just five years old. He is a respected Hindustani classical music player. His performances have been broadcast around the world.

Tarun Bhattacharya

Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya is another musician responsible for the evolution of the santoor. He invented “mankas”, which are precise fine tuning pegs that help with quickly getting the santoor in tune. He has also made adjustments to string arrangements and grouping, and has given the santoor a new, more classically suited sound. He was mentored by Pt. Ravi Shankar.

Tarun Bhattacharya Headshot

Photo By Os Rúpias / CC BY

Riyaaz Qawwali