A pioneer and a `path maker`, Sharan Rani was the first internationally renowned woman instrumentalist of India and one of the foremost sarodiyas of the 20 th century. She was the very first woman to take up the `Sarod`.
She was born in Delhi on 9th April, 1929 in a conservative, non-musical Hindu family of businessmen and educationists. As a child, much against social norms and family pressures, she first learnt Kathak from Guru Achhan Maharaj and Manipuri from Guru Nabha Kumar Sinha. Her love affair with the sarod started at the age of 8 when she chanced upon the instrument lying around in her house. Overcoming innumerable challenges which included conservative social norms, the hereditary male dominated Gharanas of music and the fact that she lost both her parents in her childhood, she opened the doors of Hindustani instrumental music for women, by charting her own course. She learnt Sarod from the great maestro `Baba` Ustad Allauddin Khan and from his son, the Sarod wizard, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. As a young girl, she left home against all odds and went to live in Maihar, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, to learn Sarod as the resident disciple of the legendary musician, `Baba` Ustad Allauddin Khan. For Sharan Rani, the home of her Guru was like a temple of music. In 1953, she did her M.A from Delhi University.
The musical genius of Sharan Rani was a brilliant combination of superb artistry and intense soul searching emotions, blissfully transporting her listeners to a profoundly moving experience. She played from within and her music was a pure and spiritual journey through which she sought the Divine. A virtuoso composer, she created many beautiful Ragas and bandishes.
Sharan Rani began performing in major music conferences and festivals from a very early age. She had the honour of receiving a gold medal from Dr. Radhakrishnan, the then President of India at an early age. On the concert stage for over seven decades, she earned the affectionate title of `Sarod Rani` (Queen of Sarod) and was critically acclaimed as a `musician`s-musician`, and a `Thinking Artist` by the world of music. She was an inspiration for men and women from non-musical families to come on the concert stage and played an exceptional role in changing the mindset of conservative society.
The then Prime Minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, called her the `Cultural Ambassador of India`, as she played a primary role in introducing and popularising Indian classical music across continents since the 1950s. She was the first Indian artist to introduce Indian classical music through her Sarod recitals in many countries including Australia, Russia, Iran, Mongolia etc. It was artists such as she along with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pt. Ravi Shankar who were responsible for the spread of Indian classical music in other continents.
Concerned that the rich Dhrupad tradition was fading away, she was also the only instrumentalist keeping alive the tradition of playing Sarod with both Pakhawaj and Tabla. Hence, in many concerts, she specially presented her solo recitals accompanied by both Tabla and Pakhawaj, besides her usual concerts wherein she was accompanied by the Tabla.
Sharan Rani, spent nearly four decades using her own resources building an extraordinary collection of old and rare classical musical instruments from the 15th till the 20th century. From her unique personal collection, she gifted nearly 450 musical instruments to the National Museum, New Delhi. The first part of her collection is housed in a permanent gallery in her name, The Sharan Rani Backliwal Gallery of Musical Instruments. This is the first and only collection of its kind in the world.
It was also due to her persistent efforts that the first ever postage stamps on Indian musical instruments were released in 1998, by the Indian government. Her tireless research of many decades also resulted in a book about the origin of the sarod, ‘The Divine Sarod’. She also authored many articles on music that have been published and translated in foreign languages in India and abroad.
She taught her many students in the Guru–Shishya parampara tradition, never accepting any form of remuneration from the many Indians and foreigners who lived in her house as her resident-disciples. In order to popularize classical music amongst the youth of today, she gave special concerts and lec-dems, free of charge for children and young adults in India and abroad.
Sharan Rani was the first woman instrumentalist of Hindustani classical music to receive the Padma Shri (1968). She later received the Padma Bhushan (2000). Besides these, she received a whole host of honours and prestigious titles including the Delhi State’s Sahitya Kala Parishad Award (1974) and the Central Sangeet Natak Academy Award (1986). In 2004, she was conferred the title of National Artiste, along with other legendary names: Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pt. Ravi Shankar and Smt. M.S. Subbulaxmi.
Graceful, simple, humble and dignified, Sharan Rani touched the hearts of many through her generosity of spirit, love and compassion. In 2007, her twin grandchildren, Aneesha and Aaditya Narain, at the tender age of 4 months, became her youngest `Ganda-Bandh` disciples of music. She passed away on 8th April 2008, a day before she would have stepped into her 80th birthday.