Even as the music world was struggling to come to terms with the demise of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, the news of the demise of another Santoor legend Pandit Bhajan Sopori (1948-2022) on Thursday came as a rude shock.
After a long battle, Pt. Sopori succumbed to cancer at a Gurugram Hospital. He is survived by his wife and two sons. His legacy will be carried forward by his younger son Abhay, who has already made significant strides in making santoor sing the raga of humanism.
Hailing from a musician’s family that nurtured the Shaivite, Sufi, and Hindustani Classical traditions in Kashmir for generations, Pt. Sopori led the revival of Sufi and folk music in the State to spread the message of humanism. He remained positive even when the insurgency engulfed his home district of Sopore, and kept organising events at the grassroots.
While the world called him the Saint of Santoor, the Padma Shri often described himself as a cultural bridge between Kashmir and the rest of the country and called santoor a living symbol of national integration.
‘Tarana-e-Watan’, a common prayer in Valley
Using music as a balm to heal the wounds and bring the youth in the Kashmir Valley to the mainstream, Pt. Sopori composed a collection of prayers and ‘Tarana-e-Watan’ (patriotic songs), sung by large public choirs as a common prayer in the Valley.
His vast repertoire has compositions derived from Naats (Islamic devotional songs) and Vedic chants. He drew his inspiration from the fountain of saints like Lalleshwari and Gani Kashmiri.
Born in Srinagar, Pt. Sopori inherited the Sufiana tradition of santoor from his great grandfather Shankar Pandit and grandfather Samsar Chand Sopori, who are credited with reviving the music scene in the Valley. His father Shambhu Nath Sopori, who was called the father of music in Jammu & Kashmir, was a master of Sufi Baaj of santoor and introduced Pt. Sopori to the family instrument at a very young age.
In 1953, when he was just five, Pt. Sopori took the stage for the first time. A year later, he played classical santoor on Radio Kashmir. Gradually, he developed a unique style, known as the Sopori Baaj. It not only fulfilled all the essential requirements of Hindustani classical ragas but also made it an equal partner to the string instruments sitar and sarod.
Known for combining technical virtuosity with deft improvisations, over the years, Sopori explored various dimensions of the traditional Kashmiri santoor and made innovative changes, making it suitable for handling the complex nature of not only Hindustani but also Carnatic classical ragas. He increased the range of the santoor from the conventional one-and-a-half to more than five octaves, balanced the strikers, and enhanced the tonal quality by adding tarab and tumba.
Equally gifted with practice and theory, Pt. Sopori had a double master's degree in Indian classical music, specialising both in santoor and sitar, besides a postgraduate degree in English literature. He also studied western classical music at Washington University in St. Louis, US.
Pt. Sopori used to follow the reviews of his performances closely and always appreciated the ones where the critic captured the abstract or spiritual side of music.
Putting his profound knowledge of music to practical use, he did extensive research on Naad Yoga (sound therapy) and even came out with an album.
With a motto to spread music to the masses, Pt. Sopori founded the Sopori Academy of Music and Performing Arts (SaMaPa). Sopori envisioned it as a cultural bridge between the music of the Valley and the rest of the country. It not only celebrated the legends but also worked towards supporting fresh talent.