Santoor – origin, evolution & development

Santoor is a music instrument of India with its origins of Shaivite Parampara (tradition) of Kashmir. It belongs to the family of earliest stringed instruments called Veena. As is generally believed that one of the three forms of the Veena was either plucked or struck with a short wooden striker called Kasht, which was in vogue during the Vedic periods, popularly known as Vaana. In some of the Vedas and Samhitas, Shatatantri is also called Vaana.

In the Vedic literature we find reference of Tantri. The Tantri that had 100 strings was called Shatatantri, which implies that this is a creation of Indian thought and culture. In the history of world music we find musical concept, terms and instruments of one country being adopted by another. It can be conjectured that in its early stage the Shatatantri Veena and Katyayani Veena may have travelled westwards becoming Psanteer in Persia and Psaltray in Babylon.

The Shatatantri Veena in Kashmir was used at every Vedic ritual. It remained associated with the sacred music from the earlier times till date. As it was already associated with the Shaivites, it was naturally adopted in the Sufiana Mausiqi of Kashmir. All the Veenas including the Santoor (Shatatantri) were associated with temple music and did not ever become a part of folk music. Santoor retained its status of a Classical instrument in the musical culture of Kashmir that was termed as Classical music including the music of Sufi’s known as Sufiana Qalam in Kashmir. 

However, it is a fact that Santoor resembling instruments with different names are popular in various folk music cultures around the world like Santur in Iran, Santouri in Greece, Yangqin in China, Hammered Dulcimer in America, Cimbalom or Hackbrett in Europe, etc. But all these instruments resembling Santoor have a major difference in structure like size, shape, tone, number of strings, size & shape of the mallets (strikers), designing of the bridges, etc. and also playing posture and techniques.

In the traditional Kashmiri Santoor and now Hindustani Classical Santoor only the middle portion is used for playing and producing notes i.e. the shaft area between the left and right bridges. It is tuned as per the musical scale of a Muqam in Sufiana Mausiqi or Raga in Hindustani Classical music. A key tuner called a Hammer (Dokur in Kashmiri language), made of iron is used to tune the keys, which are also made of the same material. 

The traditional Santoor of Kashmir, as used in Sufiana Mausiqi, is a trapezium shaped box particularly made of seasoned mulberry wood with an acute angle of 75 degrees each from the left and the right. In this Santoor the parallel sides facing the performer are 20-21 inches long. The thickness of the box is around 4 to 4½ inches in height. The inside, which is hollow, serves as a resonator. The strings are laid over the shaft controlled by tuning keys on the right side of the instrument. Under a group of 4 strings 1 small bridge is inserted. The height of the bridge is kept slightly more than the height of the side planks placed on the shaft that is approx. 1 inch in height. In this process 100 strings are laid over 25 bridges (13 on one side and 12 on the other) and each group of four strings are tuned to one note and the instrument is tuned accordingly. The sound of the note is produced with the striker called Kalam, which is around 6 inches long. This Santoor has one and a half octaves. The instrument is placed on a small triangular stand called the Sehpai

The Santoor has been in the Sopori – Sufiana Gharana of Kashmir for over 9 generations over more than 300 years with its roots of Shaiv – Sufi Parampara. The musical tradition of the Sopori family has been multidimensional and the master musician adopted music both as their profession and means of worship specializing in both the instrumental and vocal styles. The great music legend Pandit Shamboo Nath Sopori, the veteran musician and musicologist hailed as the ‘Father of Classical Music’ in Jammu and Kashmir, while teaching Santoor to his disciples in the early 1940’s added a couple of bridges creating the Mandra Saptak (lower octave) in the Santoor and set the base for the systematic presentation of a Hindustani Classical Raga. This legacy of Santoor and improvisations was carried forward by Pandit Bhajan Sopori, the legendary Santoor maestro and music composer who gave his 1st public concert in early 1950s in Srinagar when people heard Hindustani Classical music being played on the Santoor in concerts for the first time. He has expanded the scope of Santoor as a complete solo instrument and establishing a formal system and style of playing the Classical Santoor in the realm of Indian Classical Music called the ‘Sopori Baaj’ (style). 

The Santoor of ‘Sopori Baaj’ is much bigger in size than the traditional Santoor with 100 strings divided and laid over 43 bridges giving the instrument a dimension of more than 5 ½ octaves (3 octaves over the bridges and 2½ octaves through Meend technique). It also has Chikari and the Tarab (sympathetic strings) like Sitar or Sarod to enhance the resonance. The ‘Sopori Baaj’ combines both the Gayaki (vocal) and the Tantrakari (instrumental) Ang (style) presenting the Raga on Santoor in its authentic and traditional system in accordance with the Raga Shastra (grammar). 

Pandit Bhajan Sopori replaced the Sehpai and added a Tumba underneath the Santoor for the clarity and balance of the higher and the lower octaves, which is placed on the left foot, and the rest of the body of the instrument lies in the lap of the performer. This asana (posture) is called as the ‘Shree Asana’, a name give by Pandit Bhajan Sopori. He also introduced various techniques on the Santoor to extend the scope of the instrument as per the requirement and essential elements of the Hindustani Classical Music like ‘Meend’, ‘Gamak’, Glides’, ‘Krintan’, ‘Zamzama’, etc. which were a major break-through in the history of Santoor. These essential elements together with other techniques like balancing the Kalam (mallets) for enhanced Bol variations and other stylistic nuances made the Kashmiri Santoor a full-fledged Hindustani Classical Solo instrument on which all the intricacies of Raga system could be displayed maintaining the purity of the Raga. The Santoor is always played on the left side and additional notes whenever required are added on the right side.

Pandit Bhajan Sopori with his ‘Sopori Baaj’ has evolved and enriched the Classical Santoor to such heights that all renditions like Dhrupad Ang with the accompaniment of Pakhawaj, Khayal Ang (Tarana, Tappa & Tap-Khayal) and Light Classical Ang (Thumri, Dadra, etc.) are possible to perform on the Santoor in their purest form. 

Maestro Abhay Rustum Sopori has giving the Santoor a new dimension with innovations like ‘Open String Concept’ and ‘Enhanced Sustain Technique’, etc. further developing the ‘Been Ang’ on Santoor with predominance of the Gayaki Ang (vocal system) riving the traditional family style of playing Santoor where the composition is sung along with its instrumental rendering. 

Pandit Bhajan Sopori says, “The Raga should aesthetically justify its texture as per the Shastra (grammar) of the Hindustani Classical system. The Taal patterns are not merely a source of counting but are correlated to the effect generated by a composition (Gat or Bandish). In ‘Sopori Baaj’, the Raga is a source of meditation, the Taals correlate to the counting of Mantra and the Layakari and the Chhandkari is the stage of ecstasy or zikr. The Kalams (mallets) are to be properly balanced to generate the required depth of the notes. The pair of Kalams are like the wings of a bird which once stretched out equally enables the bird to soar high in the sky”.