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A hundred years of unsung love

Updated on: 13 June,2010 01:54 PM IST  | 
Lalitha Suhasini |

Gauhar Jaan, a tawaif who cast a spell on pre-Independence India with her thumris and became the country's first artiste to cut a gramophone record, has a book to her name. Out on stands this week

A hundred years of unsung love

Gauhar Jaan, a tawaif who cast a spell on pre-Independence India with her thumris and became the country's first artiste to cut a gramophone record, has a book to her name. Out on stands this week

November 8, 1902 was a milestone for Indian music history. The first 'native' gramophone recordings were made this day and celebrated vocalist Gauhar Jaan took home a princely sum of Rs 3,000 for the session.

Gauhar Jaan, who sang and composed thumris, dadras and ghazals, lent her voice to as many as 600 records.

This week, Bengaluru-based author Vikram Sampath's book on Gauhar, My Name Is Gauhar Jaan -- The Life And Times of a Musician, traces the life and music of the Armenian Christian who converted to Islam, rising to fame as she performed across the country. The minstrel appeased her faithful audiences in Kolkata, the courts of Datia, a princely state in Madhya Pradesh, Mumbai and Delhi, before finally settling down in Mysore.

Gauhar Jaan in a recording studio. PICS /Courtesy My Name is
Gauhar Jaan

A photo from the archives dated 1896

And it is in the treasured archives of Mysore Palace that author Sampath first chanced upon a box of letters written by Gauhar to the palace authorities, as he researched for his book Splendours of Royal Mysore: the untold story of the Wodeyars.

Sampath spent three years interviewing over 60 people to place the pieces of this puzzle together. Excerpts from an email interview with the author:

What ran through your mind when you first listened to Gauhar Jaan's records?
I received a CD with a couple of tracks of Gauhar Jaan from Dr Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Records Collectors in Mumbai. Though I was playing it on a modern DVD player, the full-throated and melodious voice that struggled through all the noise and the sound of the turntable, took me back a 100 years.

Thereafter, I bought many of her original 78 rpm records in the chor bazaars of Mumbai and Kolkata, and of course, Dr Chandvankar, Kushal Gopalka, Vikrant Ajgaonkar, Dr Amlan Dasgupta of Kolkata's Jadavpur University and other record collector friends in Mumbai.

Which was the toughest chapter to tackle?
I had come across some details related to two significant court cases that Gauhar fought in her life -- a paternity suit to prove that she was indeed her mother's legitimate daughter, and another with her secretary-lover Abbas that led her to penury. While some Bengali documents and books mentioned these details, I was desperate to get the original court papers. Since there were no case numbers in the Bengali sources,
I couldn't obtain the documents.

It was later by sheer providence that I stumbled on the original court documents, and that opened a new window into Gauhar's forgotten life! But running around for these was by far the most difficult part of the research trail.

My sojourn in Mysore to try and locate her grave was another challenge. Perhaps the one major regret I have is the fact that I was neither able to locate it in Mysore or Kolkata, nor ascertain the reason for her death. The Mysore records are meticulous. They chronicle each bill she owed to the hospital, to the baker, to the municipal body, but curiously, there is no cause of death or reason for hospitalisation accounted. After all, 57 is not that old an age to die.

So I was given to assume that perhaps it was an emotional breakdown and the loss of a will to survive and put on a fight that ultimately killed the songstress ultimately. Also, no traces of her family or children could be made, though there is a stray reference of a daughter called Loila Jaan, who is mentioned in the diaries of Gauhar's student and eminent Bengali actress Indu Bala.
How was it to meet 110-year-old Mahapara Begum who had heard Gauhar Jaan live?
It was initially a frustrating experience at Rampur. Gauhar had stayed there for varying periods during her life and was very close to Nawab Hamid Ali. Then she left Rampur in 1926-27 following an altercation with the Nawab and his treasurer who had sought to dupe her.

Perhaps it was because of this, but the Rampur records had wiped out all references to Gauhar. Even a mention of her name in the heavy registers that documented visiting and palace musicians was not to be found. I thought I had made a wasteful trip in the peak of summer and an impending Parliamentary election to this little town in UP.

That was when a friendly staffer of the Raza Library directed me to the house of Mahapara Begum. In a narrow by-lane of Rampur, her house is nestled amid several others that make up a perfect scene of deprivation.

Reluctant to speak to this stranger who came in from a distant South Indian city, Mahaparaji was not willing to talk too much. She was also quite disgusted by the fact that I train in Carnatic music, which she thought lacks in all aspects of creativity and musical 'ras'. It took a lot of effort to get her to open up about Gauhar's stay at the zenana in Rampur.

There too, I found a sense of subtle rivalry. After so many years, she derided Gauhar as being a tawaif who perhaps seduced the Nawab with her charm rather than hail her for her musical talent. But for herself, she claimed that she was just a musician who worshipped music and that she would change her name if someone told her that the Nawab's fingernails had touched her!u00a0

It was valuable first-hand information about the musical splendour of Rampur, the Nawabi era and of course, of Gauhar too. She even volunteered to sing in a fragile and scratchy, yet beautiful voice, several songs of the Rampur tradition.

My Name Is Gauhar Jaan -- The Life And Times of a Musician is published by Rupa Books and priced at Rs 595. The book launches in Mumbai on June 16 and will be available in bookstores thereon

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