Santoor is a Persian word , and it means a hundred strains. It is the oldest known string instrument of India. In Sanskrit it is called the shata tantri veena or "a hundred-stringed lute". The word 'veena' was used to describe all stringed instruments where the sound is created by maneuvering the taut string of a bow or pinaki. In the Rig Veda there is mention of the pinaki veena, which also happens to be the instrument of Lord Shiv.
Presumably, the itinerant musicians and gypsies carried this instrument in their wanderings across the continents of Asia and Europe, giving rise to a variety of instruments that are similar in nature. In the music encyclopedias the santoor is found under the category of hammered dulcimer. Popular by the similar name Santour in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, it is a 72 stringed instrument. In China, it is the Yang-Qin with 45 strings, and the German version Hackbrett has 135 strings. The Santoori in Greece, the Kentele in Finland and the Cimbalon or Zymbalon of Hungary and Romania are similar instruments. The Cimbalom looks like a piano, but instead of a keyboard, large strikers are used on the strings. The Santoor as used by Shivkumar Sharma, is played with a pair of curved mallets made of walnut wood and the resultant melodies are similar to the music of the harp, harpsichord or piano. The sound chamber is also made of walnut wood and the bridges are made of local wood and painted dark like ebony. The strings are made of steel from Germany and England. The instruments used to be made by one family, known as Rehemanju Saz, and the instrument that Shivkumar Sharma plays was made by the grandfather of the present maker when he was 95 years old.
Although the santoor was a part of the classical music repertoire in Persia and Arabia, in India it was only heard in the hills and valleys of Kashmir. It was a 100 stringed instrument played in a style of music known as the Sufiana Mausiqi. The Sufi mystics used it as an accompaniment to their hymns. Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, Shivkumar Sharma's father, was the first to realize the potential of the santoor as a viable classical instrument. He did considerable research on it. As he started learning the instrument, Shivkumar Sharma took it upon himself to fulfil his father's wishes and bring the instrument to the classical arena. To achieve this goal, he made innovations in the form and technique of santoor.
In the vedic period the strings were made of dried grass, later replaced by gut strings and the metal chords we see today. The instrument that Shivkumar Sharma started with had 25 bridges, with 4 strings each. He increased the number of bridges to 29 and reduced the number of strings to 3 per bridge, a total of 87. This brought greater clarity and took less time to tune. The melodic range is now 3 full octaves.
For an instrument to be accepted as classical it has to be able to emulate the human voice, the ultimate classical instrument. This requires the effect of meend (glissando), which is the ability to pass, unbroken, from one note to another, as opposed to staccato. Two techniques could be used to create this effect on a stringed instrument. One is by pulling the string, as in the sitar, and the other is by gliding the fingers as in the sarangi or sarod. Shivkumar Sharma sustains the resonance of the notes and maintains their continuity by gliding his kalam, or strikers along the strings very delicately , creating very little vibration. This gliding technique allows him to play alap, the slow improvised invocation of a raga.
The santoor was first presented on the classical stage by Shivkumar Sharma at Bombay in 1955, at the age of 17 , and he has brought it a long way to its current status as one of the most beloved classical Indian instruments.
Anatomy of Santoor
Santoor is basically made out of wood. The framework is generally made out of either Walnut or Maple wood. The top and bottom boards sometimes can be either plywood or vineer. On the top board, also known as soundboard, wooden bridges are placed, in order to seat stretched strings across. The strings are tide on nails or pins on the left side of the instrument and are stretched over the soundboard on top of the bridges to the right side.
On the right side there are steel tuning pegs or tuning pins as they are commonly known, that allows tuning each individual string to a desired musical note or a frequency or a pitch. Santoor is a unique Indian string instrument that is not plucked or bowed but is played with a pair of light wooden mallets or hammers. Santoor is played while sitting in a "Padmasana" or "Ardha-padmasana" position and placing it on top of the lap.
Santoor is a flat shaped instrument in the form of a trapezoid that means it is wider at one end and short at the other end. It is a wooden box that is broader in size for base notes or low pitch notes and is tapered at the other side for the high pitched notes. While playing, the broad side is closer to the waist of the musician and the shorter side is away from the musician. Both left and right hands are used to lightly strike the strikers on the strings. One can also choose to skillfully glide the strikers on the strings.
In any case, Santoor is a very delicate instrument and is very sensitive to such light strokes and glides. The strokes are played always on the strings either closer to the bridges or a little away from bridges. Both styles result in different tones. Sometimes strokes by one hand can be muffled by the other hand by using the face of the palm just to create a variety.
Santoor can have either 29 or 31 or 33 Bridges. Most common Santoor have 29 bridges. Each
bridge is tuned to a single note. Each bridge rests 3 strings on it. All of the 3 strings of a bridge
are tuned to the same note or frequency. Although there can be some bridges where one can
have upto 4 strings and they all can be tuned to different notes. Such a bridge is known as
"Chikari" and the notes on these strings are set to the prominent notes of the raga or the
composition that is being played.