‘That Parsi girl’, sarodist Zarin Sharma broke the glass ceiling in the Bollywood music studios

A tribute to the pioneering musician who passed away.

Article by  Rudradeep Bhattacharjee

The Bombay film orchestras of the golden age from the 1950s to the 1970s were a male bastion. Sarod maestro Zarine Sharma (neé Daruwalla), who passed away on Saturday, was one of the rare women who broke the sonic barrier.

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Born in 1946, Sharma was the daughter of a police officer who encouraged her to take up Indian classical music. She started learning the harmonium at the age of four. But it was at the Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in 1952 where she heard a Ravi Shankar-Ali Akbar Khan jugalbandi that she fell in love with the sarod. Tutored in the instrument by Haripada Ghosh, she also credited vocalists SCR Bhat, Laxmanprasad Jaipurwale, SN Ratanjankar and the legendary violinist VG Jog as important influences.

Identified as a child prodigy, she had her first brush with the film studios in the late ‘50s when she played for the title music for Maasoom (released in 1960), a film that many remember for the ever-popular tune Naani Teri Morni.  But she began her association with the film industry in earnest four years later.

When the music director Roshan wanted a sitar-sarod duet for the title music of the period drama Chitralekha (1964), sitar player Imrat Khan suggested Sharma’s name. Expectedly, both the young musician and her father were unsure of what to expect. But the recording went off well and Roshan asked her father if the sarod player could come the next day to record for the background score.

So, the next day, father and daughter landed up at Mehboob Studios in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood. This time the entire orchestra was there. The teenager was intimidated. But when her father suggested they leave, she felt it would not look nice. They waited.

A few hours later, it was her turn. Years later, reminiscing about that moment, she said, “When I began to play, all the musicians who were standing around were very surprised. Because I was a lady, no? And lady players of sarod were very, very rare. And also there were very few ladies in the film line, so they all were astonished. It seemed to me as if they’d never seen a sarod before. And people came to know about me because here I was – I was just this 18-year-old Parsi girl playing in films. But mostly they didn’t know my name. I was ‘that Parsi girl’.”

Soon, “that Parsi girl” became a regular presence in the studios and worked with some of the top music directors. It was also in the studios where she also met her future husband, the sitarist Ashok Sharma.

Listen to Sharma’s student, santoor player Ulhas Bapat, talking about his guru to acclaimed vocalist Shubha Mudgal here.

Rudradeep Bhattacharjee is the director of The Human Factor, about the contribution of the Lord family to Hindi film music.