Sanjay Sharma tells Anjana Rajan about his latest instrument, the Suroleen, and a tradition of change

“From Rikhi Ramji to Sanjay… I want to help propagate this tradition,” says Sanjay Sharma, grandson of the legendary instrument maker Rikhi Ram, whose name at one time spelt perfection in pitch, tonal quality and craftsmanship of every kind related to instrument making.

Sharma, who spearheads an NGO called Sanjay Rikhi Ram Vadya Parampara and also retails instruments and musical aids from his shop in New Delhi’s Gole Market area, is the younger son of Bishan Dass Sharma. The family has always had a penchant for experimentation. That is how they have become associated with innovative instruments like the Mohan veena, with which Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is synonymous.

The latest instrument to come out of Sanjay’s lab is the Suroleen — which he explains has the body of a mandolin and the plate and fretless neck board of the sarod.

The instrument was formally released to the public this past week in the presence of eminent artists such as Sonal Mansingh and Subhalakshmi Khan.

“Now let’s see what the response is,” says Sharma simply. In cases like the Mohan veena or the mini tanpuras — for which the family has become known and earned the gratitude of globe trotting musicians cutting across genres — the innovations came from a need or desire expressed by musicians themselves. However, in this case, the need was more to experiment and research, stemming from Sharma’s research into the mandolin!

The late Pandit Ravi Shankar has been a big inspiration for Sharma and the entire family. Every year, it was he who inaugurated the new instruments and named them, says Sanjay sadly. “Last year we inaugurated the e-sitar, which Guruji named the Bijli Sitar!” laughs Sanjay, adding there was some discussion after this as the word for electric seemed at odds with a melodious instrument. “But now it is popularly known as the Rik E Sitar.”

The e-sitar hardly looks like the classical instrument that charms the world with its strings and whose sound and name is synonymous with Indian music. Further, it can be played standing up. If you see Sharma playing the instrument on youtube, without sound it would seem as he were playing in a rock concert. However, the sound is surprisingly genuine, and this is because Panditji was at heart a purist.

“He was a purist but he always wanted change, new things to give to people, and I think he was the one who experimented the most,” says Sharma. Towards the end of his life, Shankar even agreed to use a sitar with an inbuilt microphone, he says.

Different instrumentalists want different things from their art, he notes. These days many are playing with bands. There is a need for distortion, etc., and with his innovations, the musicians can expand the vocabulary of their playing without having to learn the technique of a whole new instrument.

He can give them an e-sitar with an inbuilt effect that allows them to use distortion.

Sharma, who joined his father’s business right from his student days, has helped with the drafting of instruments such as the Vishwa veena, Pushpa veena and others. If his grandfather was a perfectionist whose instruments even today, surviving as family heirlooms, can give modern craftsmanship a run for its money, it was his father who was interested in creating new patterns. Also, says Sharma, the idea of light packing for instruments that keeps them safe while limiting weight — the bane of air travellers — was pioneered by his family, though now it is commonplace.

Once upon a time, says one unverified legend, Tansen cut a pakhawaj into two and came up with the tabla. Today, though, with video and photo documentation, Sharma and the instruments innovated by him and his family will surely earn a name in the annals of musical history, provided musicians and makers continue to collaborate.