Zarin Sharma passed away on December 20, at the age of 68. Expectedly, her death was underreported in the media. But it was heartening to see two pieces on Scroll.in dedicated to her: an article and an audio interview of santoor player Ulhas Bapat (a disciple of Sharma) conducted by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. Sharma was an outstanding sarod player. Apart from her skill as a classical musician, her life merits commemoration for two other reasons: she was one of the few women exponents of the sarod and she was a phenomenon in the recording studios of Mumbai. Both were rare achievements; had she belonged to the present ilk of PR-firm-hiring musicians, we would have probably heard a lot more about her boldness as a woman musician. She was, however, a rather low-key persona; in interviews, she always addressed the issue of gender in relation to her musical choices, but never played it up as the defining feature of her musical identity.
After listening to the interview with Bapat, I strayed into YouTube and heard Sharma’s rendition of Raga Chandranandan. I was struck by her control over the weight of her strokes and the uncanny accuracy with which she hit the notes. The former is a function of her right hand, the latter of her left. Few sarod players display equal facility with both hands. The need to attain the ‘right-left balance’ is drilled into every sarod student, but it eludes most. On this (somewhat technical) count alone, Sharma deserves a place amongst the greatest.
The weight of her right-hand strokes is particularly significant because that quality (or the lack of it) is often cited as a reason for women not taking up, or not succeeding on, the sarod. Perhaps on account of its provenance from the Afghan rabab, which is often referred to as a war instrument, the sarod is perceived as the most robust in the classical instrumental category. Before the introduction of the gayaki style on the sarod — pioneered by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan — its playing style was dominated by patterns that required powerful right-hand proficiency. The need for ‘powerful’ strokes is an exaggerated virtue and the implication that masculine strength is an imperative towards this end is misconceived. It is unfortunate that most women sarod players still have to battle this perception. Sharan Rani (1929–2008), the best-known woman sarod player, was as great an exponent of the instrument as her male contemporaries. Listening to her, or to Sharma, it would be churlish to dwell on the supposed ‘lightness’ of a woman’s strokes on the sarod.
Earlier, I described Sharma’s accuracy as ‘uncanny’. I chose the word with care. The sarod is a fretless instrument. Years of practice are often not enough for an artiste to hit the notes consistently with perfect accuracy. There are imperfections even in published recordings of the greatest maestros. But it is hard to spot one in Sharma’s recordings. She probably owes this to her extended stint as a sessions musician in Mumbai. She played on the tracks of several songs and was one of the few women instrumentalists working in the recording industry. An Indian classical musician usually operates in solitude — most performances are solos — but in a studio, she/he is forced to play with other musicians.
In an orchestral setup, minor imperfections are magnified. And, of course, they come with the embarrassment of being corrected by the director/conductor in front of other musicians at every recording session. Many classical musicians admit, in private, that they don’t play on tracks because they can’t handle the pressures of the studio. Sharma was one of the few musicians who was equally proficient in the studio and on stage. Significantly, she never allowed the content of one sphere to influence another. Her classical renditions bear no whiff of her ‘lighter’ studio style. She only borrowed her studio skills. And for that, she emerged as one of the most perfect sarod exponents of her time.
Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based music writer and lawyer. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org