Gauhar Jaan revived on stage

Nov 12, 2015, 08:23 IST | Suprita Mitter

Ahead of Mahesh Dattani turning his book, My name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician into a play, Vikram Sampath discusses his muse

Q. How did you first come across material on Gauhar Jaan?
While researching for my first book, Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars, on the history of the royal family of Mysore, I came across the name Gauhar Jaan in the palace archives. Though she lived in Kolkata for a large part of her life, she spent the last two years in Mysore and died there on January 17, 1930. Letters and correspondences between her and the Government of Mysore were fascinating; she pleaded for money and assistance in legal battles that were hounding her.

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Gauhar Jaan in a recording studio
Gauhar Jaan in a recording studio

Q. What about her made you write the book?
A. The fact that Gauhar was the first Indian to record on the gramophone drew me to her life. The gramophone company's advertising material described her as the ‘first dancing girl of India’. The few snippets that I gathered about her seemed to indicate a stormy life. For someone who was a celebrity in her heyday, the fact that she had resettled from Kolkata to Mysore, and that too, on a measly pension, seemed to indicate that she had gone through a lot. She was perhaps frustrated and exhausted by then. I was seized by some strange and inexplicable obsession to unearth more about her life

The cover of the book My name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician. Gauhar Jaan’s pictures also appeared on postcards and matchboxes manufactured in Austria
The cover of the book My name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician. Gauhar Jaan’s pictures also appeared on postcards and matchboxes manufactured in Austria

Q. Was material on her easily available?
A. Documenting the arts in India is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for a researcher. There are undoubtedly several musical treatises that have survived since ancient times. But we know so little about the nature and content of early performances, and more importantly, about the lives of yesteryear musicians, that their personal lives and challenges they faced have been completely lost. Music, therefore, seldom has a history and survives largely through anecdotal memory. It was no different in the case of Gauhar Jaan. Someone who was a celebrity and a rage across the country, whose pictures appeared on postcards and matchboxes manufactured in Austria, who was India’s first voice to be etched on the shellac disc, is today almost forgotten and unacknowledged, even by Hindustani musicians.

Q. Tell us about the process of collecting this information.
A. The overall research for the book took nearly six years. I have tried to back the general template of her life with supportive documents that were very tough to procure. Along with that, I found Urdu poetry by her mother, Badi Malka Jaan, who had published her book of ghazals, ‘Makhzan-e-ulfat-e-mallika’ in 1886, as also excerpts of diaries and writings of Frederick William Gaisberg, the German agent of the gramophone company who recorded her. The book comes with a CD of some of Gauhar’s original tracks digitised from original 78 RPMs.

Q. How did the play come about?
A. Mahesh Dattani is a long time friend. In fact, we were discussing the idea of the play even before the book came out. He said Gauhar is a subject waiting to be feted on stage and celluloid. So things worked out well with Lillete Dubey and the Prime Time Theatre (the producers of the play), who showed a keen interest in the project. My Name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician, Vikram Sampath, Rupa & Co. Rs 539 available at all leading bookstores.

About Gauhar Jaan
Born in Azamgarh on June 26 1873, as an Armenian Christian, Eileen Angelina Yeoward, Gauhar led a life replete with ups and downs. After the divorce of her parents, she followed her mother, converted to Islam and adopted the name Gauhar Jaan.

They moved to Benaras where Gauhar had the good fortune of training under eminent gurus. The mother and daughter later moved to Calcutta in 1883 and established themselves in the court of the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.

In 1902, when the gramophone company came to India to record native artistes, Gauhar became destiny’s chosen child as the first Indian voice to be recorded by the agent Frederick William Gaisberg. She cut close to 600 records in nearly 20 languages.

Did you know?
Apart from being a gifted musician, Gauhar was also a feisty woman who led a flamboyant lifestyle. She is known for the infamous party she threw at the birth of kittens by her pet cat costing her Rs 20,000.

She was among the few people in Calcutta those days to flout Government regulations and go around in a four house driven buggy. It is said that she once confounded the Viceroy of India during her evening ride. Seeing her regal appearance, the Viceroy thought she was a queen of some province and made a reverential bow.

Later, on realising she was a tawaif of the city, he was incensed and called her over and made her pay a fine of Rs 1,000. Gauhar wouldn’t care any less and continued to pay a daily fine of thousand rupees but continue on her joyrides. Such was her extravagance.

In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi requested Gauhar to sing for the Congress party in Calcutta and help raise funds. Gauhar agreed but put a condition that Gandhi should be personally present at the concert. Bapu was amused, but he agreed.

On the day of the concert she scanned the audience several times to see if Gandhi was there, but some political development had kept him away. However he had sent Maulana Shaukat Ali as his representative. The concert was a run-away success and garnered close to Rs 24,000 from a single event.

When Maulana went to collect the donation from Gauhar, he was amazed to see her give only 12,000 Rs. When asked why, she told him that since Gandhi had kept only half his promise by not coming personally, she would also give only half the donation.

Also read...

Bringing Gauhar Jaan back to life
Gauhar Jaan musical
From being the 'life' of Kolkata to being forced to leave the city in a state of penury, Gauhar Jaan – one of India's first recorded artiste's life will be staged in a riveting Bengali musical called Jaan-E-Kalkatta (Read more)

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