This review of “My Name is Gauhar Jaan:The Life and Times of a Musician” by Vikram Sampath appeared in Biblio's September-October 2011 issue. It is freely available online, but requires the reader to register first.
Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta was not “India’s first dancing girl”, as early gramophone record covers often said, clearly inaccurately. Neither, as is also often claimed, was she the very first Indian singer to have her voice recorded. The archives of the Gramophone and Telegraph Company (GTL) and the accounts of Fred Gaisberg, who supervised the first “native recordings”, suggest that this honour belongs to Miss Soshi Mukhi and Miss Fani Bala, “two little nautch girls aged fourteen and sixteen with miserable voices”. But Gauhar Jaan, whose fascinating story is the subject of My Name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician by music enthusiast Vikram Sampath, was certainly among one of the most celebrated singers of her era. She was also among the earliest, and most successful, recording artists in India. Listen to any of the few recordings of her singing that are easily accessible today, and it is clear why: the supple voice whose bravura taankaari has survived the crudeness of early recording technology and the inevitable deterioration of sound quality over time quite obviously belonged to a singer of great virtuosity.
Gauhar Jaan’s talent was obvious even to someone completely unfamiliar with (and generally dismissive of) Hindustani music. Gaisberg, whom GTL had dispatched to India in 1902, complained that “the Oriental ear was unappreciative of chords and harmonic treatment”. But even he was forced to admit that Goura Jaan (sic), “an Armenian Jewess who could sing in 20 languages and dialects”, could “lay considerable claim to a coloratura voice”. The streets surrounding the Calcutta mansion where he first encountered Gauhar Jaan in concert were packed with people who were hoping to be able to catch a few strains of her voice. As he was shrewd enough to realise, this meant that there was a big potential market for her recordings. It turns out that Gauhar Jaan herself was more than aware of her own market value: she asked for Rs. 3,000 for each recording session at a time when the typical ICS officer was paid Rs. 350 a month. It is not clear whether her “delicate black gauze draperies embroidered with real gold lace, arranged so as to present a tempting view of a bare leg and naked navel”, whose charms Gaisberg was clearly not immune to, helped her strike an even better bargain.
Driven in part by the wide appeal of the over 150 records she cut for GTL and other companies between 1902 and 1931, Gauhar Jaan’s fame survived beyond the lifetimes of those who could attend (or hang around outside) one of the soirees at which she sang. Her status as one of the first – and biggest – ‘stars’ of the era of recorded sound should be enough to ensure that she has a prominent place in histories of Indian music. Her style of singing set the stage for what would become the standard way to render a raga in the short span of time available to the singer before the development of the long-playing record. For these reasons alone, this book is a welcome addition to the sadly short list of detailed biographies of Indian classical musicians, especially those no longer living.
And what a life it was! It turns out that the leading singer of Calcutta (some might say India, though Gauhar Jaan herself seems to have been in awe of Zohrabai Agrewali) during the high noon of Empire was, rather fittingly, in fact a woman of Indian, Armenian and English descent, christened Eileen Angelina Yeoward on the 3rd of June 1875 in a Methodist church in Allahabad. Her mother Victoria, nee Hemmings, herself the daughter of a Companywallah and his native bibi Rukmani, converted to Islam after being abandoned by her husband, becoming the celebrated tawaif Badi Malkajaan of Banaras. Badi Malkajaan eventually moved with her daughter to Calcutta, whose mix of exiled Awadhi courtiers and rich Bengali babus had made it a major centre for music and dance. An apocryphal tale, recounted in this book, has Gauhar Jaan being fined Rs 1,000 by the Governor for using a six-horse carriage, forbidden to all but the aristocracy. Gauhar Jaan, it is said, paid the fine each time it was imposed, but did not change her mode of transport. One wonders whether such stories inspired Kamal Amrohi’s creation of the character of the senior tawaif played by Nadira in Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, who was also called Gauhar Jaan.
Such anecdotes, gleaned from a wide range of primary and secondary material – including the records of a notorious lawsuit brought against Gauhar Jaan by her mother’s maid’s son – are the book’s main strength. Anyone interested in the history of the performing arts in India, the evolution of the recording industry, and the role and status of the tawaif in the evolution of Hindustani classical music will find interesting – often fascinating – nuggets interspersed through the story of the celebrated gaanewali from Calcutta and the world she inhabited. Those who have wondered, for instance, why early artists spoke their names at the end of each record – Gauhar Jaan, for instance, ended many of her recordings with the words “My name is Gauhar Jaan” – will learn that this was in part because the technicians in Hanover, where the wax masters of the records were sent, would otherwise have had no way to know who was singing. And consider this: the recording technology of the age required a minimum of movement on the part of the singer. So a recording agent would sometimes hold the ustaad or bai’s head still while he or she sang. (One shudders to think of what would have been necessary for Bhimsen Joshi, whose physical contortions challenged the skills of those in charge of microphone placement even in a much later age, to record in the days that Gauhar Jaan did.) One learnt a fair bit about the world of the tawaif, the difference between a “jaan” (who sang and danced) and a “bai” (who did not dance); that accompanists usually stood while only the singerm performed seated; that Gauhar Jaan was an early performer of Tagore’s compositions, well before they were canonised as ‘Rabindrasangeet’; about the wonderfully-named Nanuan and Bachchuan, the leading tawaifs of the United Provinces in the 1920s; or indeed about the ways in which the chhota khayal in fact emerged from a particular form of thumri, known as the bandish ki thumri.
Yet the discussion of even these interesting matters often felt both superficial and insufficiently nuanced. Much is simply asserted without an attempt to provide any supporting material. Anyone who has heard a recording of Ustad Faiyaz Khan of Agra, for instance, cannot fail to have noticed the high pitch in which he sings. The book claims that Faiyaz Khan and others like him were in fact imitating the manner of singing of tawaifs like Gauhar Jaan, whose success as early recording artists had led the listening audience to expect a certain quality of voice. Yet there is little to back up this claim, which would be fascinating if true. Did Faiyaz Khan sing differently when he was singing for a live audience? Surely some accounts must survive, or even some people who recall having listened to the maestro sing. It would have helped the account if they had been found and quoted. Instead we are told merely that Faiyaz Khan and some of his contemporaries sang in falsetto, “in order to imitate the erotic and seductive mannerisms of the courtesans”.
That last sentence should provide a clue to my other principal reservation about this book. Given the richness of the raw material, it is all the worse that it frequently makes for remarkably painful reading. In large part, this is because Vikram Sampath’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject and his tenacity in tracking down a number of interesting sources runs far ahead of his abilities as a writer. The book is best when it is reproducing what others have written: some of the florid late Victorian descriptions of Gauhar Jaan’s exploits by her contemporaries at least have the excuse of being written, in a different age. But even they can scarcely compete with Sampath’s overwrought prose. If Gauhar Jaan plays a record on a gramophone, then the latter must be one that “rested majestically in the drawing room”. The voice that emanates (or rather, “struggles through”) is “young, sultry, melodious and piercing”. (I, for one, find it hard to imagine a voice that is simultaneously piercing and sultry). When Gauhar Jaan reminisces about her past, then “the fragrance and embrace” of a former lover “swirled in her mind’s eye”. Elsewhere, one cliche follows another. A chapter titled “The Glory Years” ends thus:
Those who liked her, loved her, those who didn’t, well, they hated her and everything about her! What is remarkable is the equanimity with which she handled both. She lived life on her own terms and to the full. But fate had its own plans for her. She went from one personal disaster to another and by the time she was about forty she seemed to be heading towards what was going to prove the biggest blunder of her life.
The story of the greatest singer of her age and the first star of India’s recording industry deserved more skilful writing and considerably more ruthless editing. But at least the broad outlines of Gauhar Jaan’s story have now been committed to print. Twenty-five of her recordings, including the superbly syncretic ‘Mere Hazrat Ne Madeene Mein Kheli Holi’ and ‘Rasule Khuda Bansiwala Hai’ as well as better-known compositions like ‘Ras Ke Bhare Tore Nain’ and ‘Kaisi Yeh Dhoom Machayi’, are on a CD included with the book. Vikram Sampath’s very helpful list of all of Gauhar Jaan’s recordings will hopefully inspire someone to try and track more of these records down. If this book were to result in Gauhar Jaan’s voice being rescued from near-obscurity, that would be a remarkable achievement.