In December of 1911, at the famous Delhi Durbar, Emperor George V was crowned the paramount power of British India in the presence of Indian princes and aristocrats. While the announcement by the emperor that the capital of his Indian territories would be shifted to Delhi from Calcutta might have cast a pall of gloom in “the second city of the empire", the durbar itself brought unprecedented glory to one Calcuttan—the legendary Hindustani vocalist Miss Gauhar Jaan.
Pop sensation: (clockwise from top) Gauhar Jaan in a recording studio; a nautch performance under way in the early 1900s; a Singer record of Gauhar Jaan’s; a portrait of young Gauhar; and a 1905 drawing of her on a matchbox that was made in Austria. Photographs Courtesy Rupa and Co.
At that glittering ceremony, in the presence of the emperor and his queen and all of India’s royalty, Gauhar Jaan, along with her contemporary Janki Bai, were bestowed the rare privilege of presenting a song specially composed for the occasion Yeh jalsa taajposhi ka mubarak ho mubarak ho! They were escorted to the emperor after the concert and he praised them profusely for their talent and presented them with a hundred guineas as a token of his appreciation.
Such was the fame of the first Indian and woman to record on the gramophone, Gauhar Jaan. Born Eileen Angelina Yeoward in Azamgarh, in what was then the United Provinces, in 1873, Gauhar was a woman of exceptional beauty, talent and grace. She seemed to symbolize the secular ethos that Indian classical music is known for—her grandmother was Hindu, grandfather British and father Armenian Christian. Gauhar embraced Islam and remained a devout Muslim all her life, though most of her compositions are replete with Krishna bhakti.
The marriage of her parents ended in a bitter divorce when she was barely six years old. Angelina and her mother Victoria then moved to Benaras, where they converted to Islam and took on the names of Gauhar Jaan and Badi Malka Jaan, respectively.
In the culturally vibrant atmosphere of Benaras, Gauhar’s innate talents in music, dance and poetry blossomed. Fortunes turned for the mother and daughter as they moved to Calcutta and established themselves in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. They were counted as among the most famous baijis of Calcutta. No wonder then that in 1902, Frederick William Gaisberg, the Gramophone Company’s first India agent, chose Gauhar as the first Indian artiste whom he wanted to record.
When recording technology came to India in the early decades of the 20th century, it was the women who accepted this very novel and unfamiliar medium and adapted to it. Disregarding several superstitions (recording on evil English instruments would displease the gods and make one lose one’s voice) that were floated by men, they went ahead and recorded. This not only helped democratize music and bring it out of the confines of the kothas (brothels) and courts, but also liberated these performing women from the clutches of their exploitative patrons.
To Gauhar goes the credit of devising a unique template of presenting something as expansive as Hindustani music in just 3 minutes, which was all that a single disc could record at the time. The end of a recording was usually marked by the high-pitched and sometimes flirtatious announcement “My name is Gauhar Jaan!". This was of course a technical necessity because record masters were sent to Hanover in Germany for pressing, and these announcements helped the technician identify the singer. In her illustrious career, Gauhar recorded close to 600 records in over 10 languages. Her repertoire was vast and ranged from the weighty khayal and dhrupad to the supposedly lighter forms of thumri, dadra, kajri, hori, chaiti and bhajan.
But what set Gauhar apart as a star of her times was her feisty nature and flamboyant lifestyle. She became notoriously famous for throwing a lavish party that cost Rs20,000 when her cat produced a litter of kittens. She was among the few people in Calcutta who flouted government regulations and went around in a four-horse-driven buggy, for which she even paid a fine of Rs1,000 a day to the viceroy.
Despite all the fame and adulation, Gauhar pined for true love all her life. After several unsuccessful and short-lived romantic escapades, including one with the famous Gujarati theatre actor Amrit Keshav Nayak in Bombay, Gauhar chose the most unlikely of suitors—her secretary Abbas, who was much younger than her. Sadly their courtship ended in a bitter legal tangle after she realized that Abbas was embezzling her money. She won the case but lost all her money in the process of funding her high-profile lawyers and was reduced to a state of near beggary. That was when she was invited to Mysore by the Maharaja Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar as a state guest and court musician. But by then Gauhar had lost the will to fight and in 1930 breathed her last in Mysore, lonely and forlorn, with none by her bedside.
In her lifetime, Gauhar attained a celebrity status that few women of her era could even dream of. For someone whose photograph appeared on picture postcards and matchboxes during her time, sadly today Gauhar is almost forgotten and largely unacknowledged even by the world of Hindustani music. This is what made researching her life for her biography an immensely challenging, yet enjoyable task. In a culture where the art is always perceived to be bigger than the artiste, and where documenting their personal lives is seldom considered important, it was quite an exercise to exhume this marvellous artiste from her grave and place her in a historical perspective, bringing her memory and contributions to Hindustani music in the public discourse. The CD that comes along with the book of her digitized and mastered soundtracks from original 78 rpms, seeks to immortalize Gauhar Jaan for readers and lovers of Hindustani music. As an Urdu poet had once said:
Hum to markar bhi kitabon mein rahenge zinda
Gham unhi ka hai jo mar jaayen to guzar jaate hain
(Even in death I will remain immortal in the books that are written about me,
Pity those who don’t just die, but ‘pass away’ into oblivion).
Vikram Sampath is the author of ‘My Name is Gauhar Jaan!’ The Life and Times of a Musician.