Gauhar Jaan, the gramophone queen of India

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 1 2017)

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The celebration of Eid on Monday happened to coincide with the birth anniversary of a remarkable Muslim woman. She wasn’t actually born Muslim—this lady of decidedly imperious mien was in fact the daughter of an Armenian, whose wife was half Hindu, half British Christian. Her mother was known as Victoria Hemmings, and the girl Eileen Angelina Yeoward. But when she was still a child, her identity was transformed forever after Victoria embraced Islam and became “Badi” Malka Jaan. Her daughter followed suit and took the name Gauhar Jaan, a name that would deliver her to greatness not only as the “first dancing girl of Calcutta” and India’s earliest recording sensation, but indeed as the foremost of this country’s musical divas.

Gauhar and her mother were performers, both of them talented, impetuous women whose lives featured disappointing men or, at any rate, disappointments caused by men. Malka Jaan’s marriage with her ice-factory-engineer husband ended when Gauhar was less than six years old. They moved from Azamgarh to Benares (now Varanasi) with Malka’s paramour, and here the mother achieved a certain celebrity as a dancer and courtesan. By 1883, when Gauhar was 10, they settled in Calcutta, as Kolkata was then called, and grew accustomed to a life of some luxury and success, even as Gauhar was trained in Kathak, to sing, and to acquire a rich grasp of languages: Between 1902 and 1920, Gauhar would sing for around 600 gramophone records in tongues as diverse as Persian, Gujarati and Pashto.

Following in her mother’s artistic footsteps, Gauhar’s first public performance came in her teens at the court of the raja of Darbhanga in 1887. Though recognized immediately for her talent, she was not satisfied as a court musician in a second-grade principality, returning to bustling Calcutta to make her name instead. And indeed it was here that she began to attract the high and mighty, their wealth and riches collecting in proverbial mountains beside her. Gauhar soon became something of a legend: the woman who drove around in splendid carriages and cars, the lady who disappeared to Bombay (now Mumbai) now and then for the races, the tawaif (courtesan) who demanded a whole train from a royal patron to convey her entourage to his capital and, most famously, as an eccentric who spent the then extravagant sum of Rs20,000 on a party to celebrate the birth of her beloved cat’s kittens.

But what distinguished Gauhar was the gramophone. In November 1902 at the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, Gauhar arrived with her retinue to sing for Frederick Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company. Prolonged negotiations had preceded this meeting, and Gauhar was paid a princely Rs3,000 for singing into a contraption rumoured to be the devil’s own, something that could irreversibly seize her voice. She was undaunted, though perhaps somewhat irritated, by having to sing into the massive brass recording horn that was placed near her face. She had 3 minutes—and indeed, would master the technique of delivering an entire song in that duration—at the end of which she spoke into the device and signed off in what became her trademark: “My name is Gauhar Jaan.”

Over the next two decades, and through her hundreds of recordings, Gauhar changed the way music was practised in India, and amplified its reach. Her voice travelled not only to faraway places in India but also abroad, and as her biographer Vikram Sampath discovered, her unibrowed face appearing on picture postcards in Europe and even on matchboxes. Gaisberg knew he had a figure of great glamour here, noting that he never saw her repeat either her clothes or her jewellery, both of which she possessed in inexhaustible quantities, while rumour placed the price of a pass to her salon at anywhere between Rs1,000-3,000. Less than a decade after she first announced her name into that brass horn, Gauhar was at the height of her fame, performing at the famous Delhi Durbar before the newly crowned British king and his consort.

But while professional successes were many, personal tragedy too wove its way into Gauhar’s life through unfortunate romances. She fell in love with a famous stage actor and lived several happy years with him. When her mother died, it was he who consoled her and became a pillar of strength. His death by a sudden illness, however, terminated that relationship. What followed was a disastrous affair with her secretary, a man 10 years her junior, who in the end proved to harbour more affection for Gauhar’s possessions than Gauhar herself. Court cases had to be fought and at one time she was compelled to prove her paternity to a judge, pleading before her long-lost father to acknowledge her as his, humiliated in public.

The ostentation that was as much a part of Gauhar’s life as was her talent, would, in the end, dissolve her life and career. Accustomed to a life of glitter and style, she made predictable mistakes where her finances were concerned. By the 1920s, Gauhar had passed her prime, her legal battles and other woes taking a toll on her bank balance. She moved, eventually, far away from the Calcutta where she once towered over her peers, and settled in Mysore, where the local maharaja granted her a modest pension. And here, in a cottage in the south of India, she who was born Eileen, knew fame as Gauhar, and whose voice thrilled a million admirers, died a forgotten woman in 1930.

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