Indian singer and dancer Gauhar Jaan has gotten a lot of press throughout the years. Her baptismal name, father’s name, and that she was apparently of “Armenian origin” are terms of introduction that are commonly used to introduce her early life. She was believed to be a feisty woman who dressed in opulent clothes and popularised several styles of Hindustani music. She was a musician par excellence who lived life on her own terms.
But what do we know about her?
It was the year 1902. In a hotel in Calcutta, a crude, spontaneous and makeshift studio had been put up. On November 11, she arrived with her entourage of maids and musicians, dressed in her finest – beautiful black gauze saree adorned with real gold lace. Frederick William Gaisberg, the Gramophone and Typewriter Limited (GLT)’s first recording expert from London, asked her to climb on the table and crane her head into the recording horn. She sang as loud as she could. The needle on the other end on the master shellac disc spun and carved grooves depending on how loud she sang. She just had three minutes to communicate something as vast and improvised as Indian classical music. At the end of the tape, she said, “My name is Gauhar Jaan!”
This became her trademark.
This feat made an indelible remark in Gauhar Jaan’s grace and skill as she is credited with creating the most unique framework for delivering Hindustani music on a single disc.
Gauhar Jaan was born Eileen Angelina Yeoward on June 26, 1873, in Azamgarh, then in the United Provinces. Her grandfather was a British soldier and her grandmother, a Hindu. Her father was a Christian Armenian. When she was merely six years old, her parents’ marriage ended in a painful divorce. Victoria Hemmings, Gauhar’s mother, relocated to Benaras with her daughter and their sponsor, Khurshid. Victoria and her six-year-old daughter converted to Islam here and chose the names Badi Malka Jaan and Gauhar Jaan, respectively. Benaras had the perfect atmosphere to develop Gauhar’s talent. Gauhar remained a committed Muslim for the rest of her life, despite the fact that most of her works are filled with Krishna bhakti.
Following this, they relocated to Calcutta, where they established themselves at the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, a talented musician and writer. Gauhar Jaan had her debut musical performance at the royal courts of Darbhanga Raj (Bihar) when she was 14 years old. Gauhar Jaan seemed to have embodied the secular ideology that Indian classical music is known for.
Her magnificent performance won her the favour of the rulers of the Maithil dynasty, who invited her to their royal courts on several occasions. Her devotees affectionately referred to her as ‘Gauhar Jaan Kalkattewaali’ and rightly honoured as she was one of Calcutta’s most sought-after.
When the gramophone technology entered India, women apparently accepted it widely, they went on and recorded despite various superstitions that were floated by men. This not only helped to democratise music by bringing it out of the kothas (brothels) and courts, but it also freed these playing women from their oppressive patrons.
She recorded 600 songs in over ten languages, including English, French, and Pashto during her successful musical career. She was equally competent in Dhrupad, Thumri, Dadra, Kajri, Hori, Tarana, Rabindra Sangeet, and Bhajan, and she did not limit herself to one type of song. Her famous songsThumhari and Raske Bhare Tore Nain continue to astonish with its melancholy melodies of old composers. Contemporary musicians, on the other hand, criticised this for limiting khyaal music to a three-minute album, claiming that it ignored the richness and breadth of the genre. She, however, was untouched by them and instead began a new presentation style.
Gauhar Jaan lived a luxurious life. She would break government restrictions in Kolkata by riding around in her four-horse-drawn buggy, for which she paid the viceroy a daily fee of 1,000 rupees. She earned between 3,000 and 4,000 rupees every recording, which was a lot of money at the time.
When her cat had a litter of kittens, she became famous for hosting an extravagant celebration that cost 20,000 rupees. She had absolutely no concerns about her growing celebrity status and unabashedly embraced her success. The kind of status she achieved in her lifetime, very few women of her era could ever imagine.
Some scholars, such as Vikram Sampath, Mrinal Pande, and Chaitali Roy, have taken it upon themselves in recent years to resurrect her long-forgotten legacy, although her life remains mostly unexplored. Historians are now attempting at bringing her memory and contributions to Hindustani music into the public discourse. In a culture where the art is always perceived to be bigger than the artist and where documenting their personal lives is rarely given any importance, it is refreshing to see a legendary artist like Gauhar Jaan be talked about.
If you enjoyed reading this, we suggest you also read: