Utpal Borpujari

May 3, 2010

Gauhar Jaan: An extraordinary life brought alive

By Utpal Borpujari

December, 1911, Delhi: Emperor George V is crowned the absolute monarch of British India and simultaneously its capital formally shifts from Kolkata to Delhi. The special event is marked by the performance of two special artistes, one of whom sings “Yeh jalsa taajposhi ka mubarak ho mubarak ho!” (congratulations for this coronation), to huge applause from the gathered royalty from all over India. The two singers are specially presented to the Emperor, who gifts them with a hundred guineas. One of the them was Janki Bai. And the other, well, she was the first singer from India to have a gramophone record, on which, after every song, she used to flamboyantly announce her name: “My name is Gauhar Jaan!”

April, 2010, Delhi: Vikram Sampath, a young finance management professional working with a leading software company from Bangalore, proudly watches as Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari unveils the result of his painstacking research: My Name is Gauhar Jaan – The Life and Times of a Musician (Rupa & Co).

Nearly a hundred years separate the two events, but this much time was enough to obliterate from public memory one of the most versatile classical singers of those times, who was known as much for her talent and beauty as for her flamboyant lifestyle during the course of her lifetime that spanned between 1873 and 1930. Sampath, in a way, has done something remarkable by unearthing a treasure trove of information about Gauhar Jaan, who died so much unheralded in Mysore, where she had taken shelter as a guest of the king of Mysore in her last days on a measely pension, that noboby even knows where she was buried.

Gauhar Jaan was an exceptional beauty but her talent made her even more beautiful for people of that era. Added to that was the way she led her life – records say that she did not even wear the same jewellery set twice, and would travel on Kolkata streets on a horse buggy when Indians were forbidden from doing so, defying the rules set by the British and paying a fine for it but continuing to do so. She was born as Eileen Angelina Yeoward to an Anglo-Indian mother and Armenian Christian father. Her maternal grandfather was a British soldier and grandmother a Hindu, and when her mother married a Muslim gentleman from Azamgarh after her marriage fell apart, she converted to Islam and took the name Badi Malka Jaan, and the yougn Eileen became Gauhar Jaan. A young Gauhar learnt the basics of music in Varanasi, where they were settled initially, and later, when Malka Jaan shifted to Kolkata, Gauhar honed her musical skills in the culturally-vibrant city, and they became favourites at the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the Lucknow nawab who had shifted to the city. It was here that in 1902, Gauhar was chosen as the first Indian artiste to have a gramophone record by Frederick William Gaisberg, the Gramophone Company’s first India agent.

Sampath has broguht alive the forgotten and eventful life of Gauhar Jaan in his meticulously-researched book that would surely be marked as a milestone in research into forgotten musical heritage of India. Combining facts and legends about her life, Sampath has come up with a narrative that makes for a fascinating reading about not only the life of a person but also the socio-cultural scenario of that era. But it was not an easy task to find out details about the singer who had 600 records in 20 languages, which had her sing Thumris, Dadras and Ghazals apart from songs in Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Telugu and even French. The book is uplifting and at the same time melancholic as it records how personal fortunes swung from one extreme to another for Gauhar Jaan whose life goes for a downward spin after the death of her paramour Amrit Keshav Nayak, a famous actor and musician in Mumbai of those times, and how dies a lonely death in Mysore.

Sampath, just about 30, says he got immense help from Suresh Chandvankar, an avid record collector in Mumbai, as also quite a few other people during his research that first started when he read a document with Gauhar Jaan’s name duirng his research for his earlier book on the Mysore royal family. “She was the first artiste to have a record in India. What drove her to settle down in Mysore on a measely pension in her later life – that propelled me to find out more about her,” says Sampath, who carried out his research with his money. “The process was quite difficult but fascinating because she was someone who was such a celebrity of her times but now is almost unknown. There were enormous amount of gossip about her, like the one on how she threw a party to 2,000 people when her cat had a litter of five kittens.”

What made the research even more difficult was lack of documentation about earlier artistes. As he says, “The tendency in those times was to treat art as larger than the artistes themselves, so documenting lives of artistes did not seem important, which is why very little is known about the artistes of those times. Also, the artistes were very self effacing. Of course, now it is the other way round. Then the tendency was more so with women artistes, especially after the anti nautch campaign, because of which live stories of all those women got obliterated.”

Sampath, who is a trained Carnatic vocalist who occasionally performs, had himself had to go through a learning process during the research as he had no idea about the nuances of Hindustani classical music, which Gauhar Jaan practiced. “It was a great journey into her life that saw the heights of success and the depths of misery,” he says. His only regret is that he was not able to find her grave. “There is no account of her grave. I got records of her hospital bills, even the death certificate copy, but no details of her burial,” he says with a tinge of regret. “She certainly deserved much more, which is why I wanted to bring back her authentic memory. She was the one who devised the formula of presenting a classical piece in three minutes to suit the needs of records, which was later copied by all. She has not even got that much due. She had so much drama in her life that a movie can be made on it,” he says.

Sampath, who has just received a fellowship from the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin to work in a multi-disciplinary environment and study early gramophone artistes of India in Germany, is, however, happy that he by sheer providence got copies of some exquisite Urdu poetry written by Malka Jaan from the British Museum, which he has included in the book, which has the added attraction of a CD of Gauhar Jaan’s original recordings. “Imagine, 600 records in 20 languages – it is sheer genius,” exclaims Sampath. No less extraordinary has been his effort to bring that life alive, for sure.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 02-05-2010)

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