It’s about how a composer perceives the genre of music and what his skills are: Santoor maestro, Rahul Sharma

Rahul Sharma, son of renowned santoor player Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, has been touring all over the world and collaborating with varied international artistes. With over 60 music albums to his name, the ace santoor player finds little time to compose for anything in the Bollywood space. Many might not remember, but he was the man behind the soulful music of the 2002 Hrithik Roshan-starrer Mujhse Dosti Karoge!.

And now, amidst the pandemic, Rahul returned to the world of cinema music with Kunal Kohli’s Ramyug. In a brief tête-à-tête, Sharma opens up about why he took off from Bollywood, his collaborations with international artistes, how he manages to jam the santoor with global music, and more. Excerpts:

Your father, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, and Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia gave some of the best music in the 1980s-90s. Did you not feel the Bollywood pull?

I assisted dad for a long time. So, the knack for compositions was always there. I was a fan of Bollywood music because of RD Burman. But around that time, I had the responsibility of carrying the tradition of the santoor forward. The love that I had for composing, I focused that on the instrument. I travelled and film composition took a backseat.

I did over 60 albums in the past 20 years, and all my tunes are a part of those albums. All of them have a mukhda, an antara and they all can be made into Bollywood songs.

But you did compose music for Mujhse Dosti Karoge in 2002, and then took a backseat from that space...Why?

After Mujhse Dosti Karoge, I received a few more offers from the same makers. But, somehow, the projects got stuck. Being a concert performer, I was travelling a lot. Then to adjust and do such sessions and come back and meet the producers and directors when they have time was becoming a challenge. At that time, I was trying to establish myself as a performing musician all over the world. It was a choice between performing in international events and collaborating with international artistes, and composing for movies. And, I was really enjoying performing.

A film has involvement of too many people and can take years to reach the completion stage. That’s why I opted out from some of the films. Now, with the pandemic I hardly got a chance to travel and had a lot of time on hand. It was perfect timing, and that’s how Ramyug happened.

A lot of composition happens today on the laptop. Do you feel that’s killing the art of music with actual artistes performing?

Definitely, the kind of scores that were being made in the 1990s and early 2000s was with a live orchestra in a studio. There used to be around 60 musicians working together. It was their livelihood. With the keyboard taking over, it’s a horrible thing to happen to the live music industry. There are still some people who are using it today in some way maybe, but not the same musicians. It’s like a catch-22 situation — the pros and cons of advancement and digitalisation. It is sad.

What’s your take on the remix culture?

I personally think about 90% of the time, remixes don’t work. There are some people who manage to do that well. In fact, for Ramyug, Kunal (Kohli) wanted to recreate an old version of Ram Siya Ram song... I think it was composed by Ravindra Jain ji, but I was not too keen on doing that. I wanted to create something new. I am not too keen on remixing old songs.

You are rather prolific with your collaboration with international musicians. How challenging is to infuse the Indian classical with the Western?

I grew up on a lot of different types of music and not just Indian classical or Bollywood. I used to listen to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and others. And, while listening to them, I always thought why can’t santoor be a part of that. So, I started composing keeping in mind that style. Also, the artistes who I was collaborating with, I was a fan of their work — like Richard Clayderman, Kenny G, or Deep Forest. It was, therefore, easier for me to adapt and make santoor a part of their music.

When I collaborated with Kenny G, who is a saxophone player in jazz music, people were wary about how would a santoor fit in that. But I had the upper hand in the sense that I knew the structure of the melody. And, the artistes were kind enough to play on and enhance that. Namaste India with Kenny G reached Billboard Charts No.1 in the Jazz section and it was the first time that santoor got featured in the genre. It’s about how a composer perceives the genre of music and what his composition skills are. It’s about imagination, and that’s how it happens.

The Hanuman Chalisa from Ramyug received rave reviews... what was the thought behind giving it different feel?

All the Hanuman Chalisas that we have heard have a low tempo. I wanted something that was energetic. So, apart from the traditional lyrics, there are specially written lyrics for it. The response has been good especially due to the unique combination of Amitabh Bachchan’s singing and Zakir Hussain’s tabla. Therefore, it became quite a unique collaboration.

As an artiste, we rarely get a chance to do something like this, and I am happy that such an opportunity came my way.

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

I am looking forward to releasing a few independent songs with some amazing singers. Also, at the beginning of 2020, I recorded my first symphony project with the Cape Town symphony orchestra, where the santoor led around 50 musicians on stage.

The Cape Town Philharmonic Symphony is one of the oldest symphonies in the world. I’m looking forward to releasing that as an audio and video soon.

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