The Indian Santoor
Updated: Apr 10, 2018
Lately I’ve become increasingly interested in other instruments in the worldwide dulcimer family so when Dipu Deshmukh (an accomplished Esraj player and father to my son’s fiancee) indicated he knew a Santoor player who might be willing to be interviewed, I jumped at the chance. I was not disappointed. Nitin Pandit and his family graciously put up with an evening of questions, provided an impromptu concert with Nitin on Santoor and Dipu on Esraj, fed me wonderful Indian food and treated me to a demonstration of his children’s prowess on the Tablas (Indian drums). The following is the interview. Below that is additional information on the Santoor gathered through searches on the web and help from Ajit Damle, another Santoor player and instrument aficionado. I highly recommend you follow some of the links, as that material will give you a much better understanding of Indian classical music, the Santoor and its tuning and the differences and similarities to Western music.
Interview on Dec 28, 2011 with Nitin Pandit, Santoor player, with Dipu Deshmukh on Esraj, in Burlington, MA.
JJ: What I’d love to hear from you is how you were first introduced to the instrument and how you became attracted to playing the Santoor as opposed to any of the other Indian instruments.
NP: The way it happened was we were attending a wedding in India. At the wedding there was a gentleman who had a huge library of music that he had brought with him. He also had this live recording of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma on the Santoor. I heard the sound and it just pulled me in.
Note: Pt Shivkumar Sharma pioneered the ascent of the Santoor on the Hindustani Classical Stage. A supremely gifted musician, he has been bestowed multiple national honors in India. You can read more about Pt Shivkumar Sharma at Wikipedia.org or visit his website. His website starts with the History of the Santoor.
JJ: What age was this?
NP: I think I was probably 12 or 13. At that time the instrument was not widely available. Pandit Shivkumar Sharma was the only one playing. He had just come out with probably the most popular LP of Indian classical music: Call of the Valley. It has since sold more copies than any other Indian classical recording. So I heard the Santoor and was drawn to it. I had not seen what it looked like or seen it being played but the interest stayed on. About a year later I attended one of his concerts and got to see a live performance for the first time. I eventually travelled to Mumbai and contacted Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, to see if he would teach me. I didn’t have any background in Indian classical music; nothing at all. Zero. The only thing I did in music at the time was play the harmonica – which wasn’t much of a connection. There wasn’t much that I could use to sell him on my interest. He was of course skeptical; understandably. He probably got calls like that every day from people; so he was not easily sold and it took many months before I finally got an audience with him. At the first meeting, he asked me a lot of questions to make sure I was really interested and it wasn’t a passing fancy. I must have passed the test because he asked me to procure a Santoor!
At that time, you had to go to Kashmir to get a Santoor. Of course, you couldn’t just buy one off the shelf. We had to place an order. They made it and had it air shipped to me. By the time I got it, it was time for me to start my college. So I had the instrument and was too far from Mumbai. I listened a lot to four recordings of Pt Shivkumar Sharma’s and started to teach myself. Luckily there was a lot of music at the college I was attending and there were other students who could play the tabla. So we had jam sessions and I eventually played in a hall before a large audience. I was a teenager at the time and I was accompanied by a tabla player who was a teenager just like me. We gave a program of about 30 minutes. That was the start. I later participated in All India Radio’s competition for non-professional musicians and won the first prize in the state for instrumental Hindustani classical music. It was fun and rewarding. About a year later, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma visited my college and gave a concert and I was re-introduced to him, When I finished college, I went back to Mumbai and he took me under his wing.
JJ: Did you have to unlearn some things?
NP: Yes there were quite a lot of things. The balance between left hand and right hand usage is different in his style. The right hand dominates. You might notice it when you watch him play. The style I had developed on my own was very different, in that it was almost equal usage of left hand/right hand. My guru’s ( “Teacher” and/or “Guide” in Sanskrit) style gives flexibility to play notes that are not necessarily played in pairs of two. So also if you are playing a raga that requires you to play patterns that are a little different. Yes, so I had to unlearn my style. But it was a choice I made.
JJ: How long had you been playing up to that point?
NP: I had spent six years.
JJ: Since you were able to compare the two, was the right hand lead more logical? Could you have stuck with the left hand lead?
NP: That probably wouldn’t have mattered as much as I could have started playing on the other side of the instrument and used the left hand to be the lead. I could have done that. The problem wasn’t the right hand leading vs left hand leading, it was the amount you use each hand. In my guru’s style you use one hand more than the other hand. That was the big difference.
JJ: When you are playing the same string alternating strokes using both hands. American hammered dulcimers have more sustain so you don’t use the roll as much to keep the tone alive.
NP: This Santoor that I am now playing tends to get a little loud but I don’t know if the tone lasts for long. We do glide the hammer over multiple courses on the Santoor. This produces a very different type of sound – our way of trying to get the meand on the Santoor.
JJ: Unlike the dulcimer where they do play on both sides of the bridge. Only on the treble bridge which is the left most bridge. That is fifth on either side and then you just have notes to the left of the bass bridges.
NP: On the Santoor we generally don’t play on the outside of the bridges closest to the sides of the instrument. Some performers do, because we have a 2 1/2 octave range but to complete that in some instances I’ve seen them move individual bridges and play on either side of those bridges to get an additional two notes.
JJ: You have chessman-style moveable bridges so you can have individual control over each course; so it is possible. Is this the original instrument when you purchased your first?
NP: No, but that instrument is showing its age. One thing that has happened is that the tuning pins are slipping which makes tuning difficult. The instrument I have in front of me right now is approximately 9 years old. It seems to hold it’s tune better but even so it does change.
The current generation of Santoors generally has 3 strings per course. Some of the courses have two wound bass strings and there is one course which is played like a chord and so it has four strings. This course is similar to the chikari on the Sarod and Sitar.
JJ: That is one of the reasons why most American dulcimers have two strings per course. The only one that I make that doesn’t is the Tsimbl which is the Eastern European version of the hammered dulcimer.
NP: How do you get the volume with only two strings per course?
JJ: The instruments are played very differently than the Santoor. The hammers are heavier and you are swinging them more. You are not doing the same kind of subtle things that you do at least most players don’t. You are striking it harder so that overcomes a lot and makes the instrument louder. Two strings per course sounds different. When you have three, there is bound to be just slight inaccuracies in pitch and that contributes to a distinctive sound. I recently got someone interested in a Greek Santoori. That has four and five strings per course. You can imagine trying to keep that thing in tune. Of course when you have that many strings, you have to build them so solidly that they are kind of clunky. You don’t have the same kind of sensitive response as you are getting.
NP: The Santoor traditionally had 4 strings per course but somewhere along the way one string was dropped. I’m guessing it was for practical reasons. Now, the instruments we use are all 3’s.
JJ: Is your instrument in fairly typical tuning?
NP: Yes, for classical instruments. Santoors used for light music have to be able to play any tune on any scale. They are tuned chromatically going up left–right-left-right. People who play classical music will generally tune it the way that I’ve got it tuned (see link). All the notes that you are going to use for a raga are typically on the right hand side. Some ragas will use both variations of a note in which case, the additional note will come on the left side. So some of the courses, particularly those on the left hand side do not get used as much as those on the right hand side. On this instrument, I have 31 courses. Note that the original Santoor had 25 courses.
JJ: More akin to the Persian Santur probably.
NP: I think so. It was 4 times the 25 courses which gave you a hundred on the original Santoor. So it used to be called the Shata Tantri Veena meaning the 100 stringed-lute. But that configuration limited the range so my guru expanded it. We have probably now reached the limit here because if you add more courses at the top, it will be difficult to reach them. Keep in mind that we generally don’t use a stand when we play.
JJ: I noticed that and you find that is comfortable?
NP: It is OK. It took me a while to get used to it because at first the instrument would tip over. To make it work, you have to position the instrument very close to your body. Luckily, with Hindustani classical music, we rarely play fast-moving pieces in the lower scale and so it works. That said, some performers do use a stand.
JJ: The American dulcimer has gone through a similar evolution to the point where most players have it self supported by a stand so they can stand and play it. They are separated from the instrument. Again it is the swinging. It is more aggressive playing. Originally the dulcimers being built in the 60s were supported by a single tripod leg and your knees and it would be very close to you; but people felt cramped when they were playing.
NP: When I started playing my style, the movement was from the elbows. Playing the way my guru has taught me, it really comes from the wrists and the fingers with very little movement from the forearms or elbows. Very different. I remember, the first time I attended my guru’s concert, he was playing some very fast-moving pieces and all you could see moving were his fingers; his face and the rest of the body were absolutely still; and every note being played was clear. He was in absolute control. The other incident I remember is from the first time I went to learn from him. He had me doing the basic exercises and at one point, he asked me to play at my fastest and I did my best. Then he took my strikers, which he had never used, and my instrument and he played that piece just like that at my fastest speed. Then, with absolutely no extra effort he played the same piece twice as fast. I can still see him playing with absolutely no effort on his face.
JJ: Tremendous skill with the hammers. That obviously is a huge part of playing the Santoor is the control of the hammers.
The actual tuning of a Santoor is variable depending on the region, the particular raga and the individual player. The tuning chart below is what Pt Shivkumar Sharma and Nitin start with. The diagram has been generated using Western designations for notes.
Here is a link to the Tuning used by Pt Shivkumar Sharma as described in Indian terms.
Here is yet another Tuning Kashmiri Style
Here are some additional resources for learning about Indian classical music in general and how it is applied to the Santoor.
Catherine Schmidt-Jones has written an excellent description of the basics for Connexions titled Indian Classical Music: Tuning and Ragas
Sadhana also has a webpage dedicated to helping Westerners understand the fundamentals.
I’ve built an 16/15 Indian Santoor. I have photos of historical Santoors here with photos and resources for Building a 16/15 Indian Santoor here. Check out my blog post on the subject.