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March 18, 1998


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Anita Bora

Rahul Sharma Shoulder-long curls, good looks… 25-year-old Rahul Sharma would look quite in place in a rock band, if only he had a guitar in hand. Replace the guitar with the santoor, and that is the instrument Rahul really plays.

The younger son of illustrious musician and instrumentalist Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Rahul recently gave his first public performance with his father in a concert organised by the Banyan Tree. Called Santoor Virasaat, it is only the first in line of many. For Rahul seems ready to share the mantle with his father.

As the son of a famous father belonging to a family steeped in the tradition of music, it seems but natural for him to take up the same profession. But, for Rahul, the decision did not come easy, though his interest in music started early in life.

"Even when I was in school, I would come home from singing classes and play the tunes on the harmonium," he reminisces. His father recognised his potential at an early stage, but realised that it was a decision that would have to be taken by Rahul alone.

"I was only five when my father started teaching me to play the santoor. I did not want to do the same thing to my son. Taking up the santoor was a decision that had to come from his heart," says Pandit Sharma.

Pandit Sharma also felt that the son of a famous father need not necessarily have the same interests, "You either have it or you don't, and Rahul, I noticed, had a strong grasp of melody. After my students left for the day, he would often practice the lessons I had taught them."

At the Santoor Virasaat concert Like any youngster, Rahul went through his stages of indecision and confusion. He knew he wanted to be associated with music but, till the age of 17, he did not actually give a serious thought to following in his father's footsteps.

"I wanted to become a music director at one stage, but realised that success in the field of commercial music is superficial, depending upon whether the film is a hit or a flop," says Rahul, who assisted his father in composing music for movies like Lamhe, Darr and Chandni.

Rahul was 13 when he seriously began learning the santoor from his father. "My father," he says, "always encouraged me to develop my interest in music, but my mother was keen that I concentrate on academics." Besides, as Panditji points out, the changing times lent specific emphasis to studies and higher education, which left one with very little time to concentrate on any other interests.

Once Rahul completed his BA in economics from Bombay's Mithibai College ("with pretty good marks too,'' he adds), he was clear about his future. "You get more time then -- by bunking lectures," he explains with a smile.

And, in 1996, an organiser in Norway invited the father-son duo to play in an Oslo festival. It was at this point that Pandit Sharma stepped in, "He was in two minds about film music and classical music, and it was then that I offered my advice. I think it is important to master an instrument and concentrate on composition, which is an intrinsic part of classical music."

A little fatherly advice and an invitation to play in an international festival was all the encouragement Rahul needed. "That year, I toured Europe with my father, and I got a lot of exposure to Enjoying his moment in the sun a musician's lifestyle and performing on stage -- an experience I greatly enjoyed," Rahul recalls of the turning point in his life.

He hasn't looked back since. Europe was followed by America and, 16 or so concerts later, he finally found his place under the sun.

In India, the father-son duo first performed together in Santoor Virasaat. "Usually when a musician plays with his guru, he only plays in a supportive mode. But I was given the opportunity to create a musical dialogue by actually playing along with him," says Rahul.

Being his father's son has its advantages. And Rahul readily admits he has not had to struggle much, mainly due to the invaluable work that his father has already done to establish the santoor in the canvas of classical music.

His father echoes this sentiment. "He was given an opportunity to play along with me only because he's my son. But I was sure that he was ready to do it. In fact, the audience was quite pleasantly surprised when it was announced that this was his first such performance on stage."

Rahul adds, partly in explanation of his late entry into the field, "A lot of artistes start when they are very young, but my father wanted me to wait till I was completely ready for stage."

Santoor today has become synonymous with Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, mainly due to his singlehanded effort in continuing his father Pandit Umadutt Sharma's attempt to popularise the instrument.

"My father had to face a lot of hardship in the early years," says Rahul, "performing all over India, waging a continuing battle to establish the santoor which was not initially accepted by classical purists."

Though Rahul's task now is easier, his challenges are no less daunting. Living up to his father's reputation and the high expectations of people -- does that faze him? Rahul seems relaxed and confident that he will be able to take it all in his stride.

Father and son in tandem, Zakir provides the background What about comparisons, how often does he encounter them? "Constantly," Rahul admits with a wry smile. He is fully aware that comparisons to his father are but inevitable, but he prefers to view it as a challenge to better himself as a performer.

Most of his performances to date have been overseas, and he has found audiences there to be very receptive. "Some foreigners are actually trained in classical music and know exactly what they are listening to. In a few countries in Europe, some members actually meditate in the beginning of the concert while the alaap is going on, and it is very satisfying to know that they understand the music."

At home, Rahul feels that audiences in Calcutta and Pune are very knowledgeable, a fact that is not surprising since they are the cultural centres of the country. Yet, despite the many up-and-coming musicians, one often hears about the decline in the popularity of Indian classical music these days, especially among the younger generation.

Rahul, however, feels differently. "Classical music has its own audience and its popularity is increasing. I think young people only need to get exposed to one good concert to realise what they have been missing all along."

He illustrates, "There was one young couple who rang me up after they had attended my concert and told me how much they appreciated the music. Until then, they had only listened to other kinds of music and this was a revelation for them."

In the midst of a morning paan (which apparently doesn't affect his prowess with the flute), Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia who has heard Rahul perform, is extremely optimistic. "The future is the hands of bright and talented musicians like Rahul. I don't think that he will face any problems."

A prediction that Rahul, who practises for about four hours every morning and teams up with his father when he is not busy touring, hopes will come true. Listening to music forms an integral part of the learning process. And for those of you who are wondering, it's not all work for him.

"I like hanging out with friends, driving around, going to the disco once in a while and partying," he smiles. When not busy practising, he also listen to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Sting and Enigma. His choice of cuisine ranges from Chinese and Mexican to Italian but Indian, he maintains will always be his favourite!

Among classical Indian musicians, he lists Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ustad Amir Khan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan among his favourites. And with his elder brother, Rohit, working for Modi Entertainment (distributor for Walt Disney in India), he also watches a lot of the previews before they hit the Indian screen.

In the immediate future, the concert schedule which starts in the US in April will keep him busy. The next stops are Europe and the Middle East, during the months of September and October. At home, the peak season starts in November and Santoor Virasaat's next stop is New Delhi in December.

The future maestro With all his travels abroad, does he think he will, like many other Indian musicians, settle overseas? Rahul is quick to stress that his roots are firmly in India at the moment, while travel basically provides him with the opportunity to learn new things and broaden his horizons. And the future? "Only time," he says, "will tell."

At present, Rahul is concentrating mainly on mastering the instrument. "An instrumentalist," he says, "is only a singer who is trying to convey his words through his instrument. And it gives him great satisfaction if he is able to touch someone through his music."

Besides there is tremendous scope for improvisation in classical music, for evolution and new challenges. "Once you master an instrument," says Rahul, "there is the opportunity to diversify and experiment in other forms of music."

The legacy he has chosen to inherit might have daunted lesser mortals. But it sits comfortably on Rahul Sharma's shoulders and he, perhaps, expresses it best when he says, "I think I have been groomed very well and am actually enjoying the responsibility."

Pandit Chaurasia agrees, "Rahul has definitely been groomed well by his father. He is a maestro in the making. His father has made sure he is ready to perform and he is one of the bright stars of our future."

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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