In focus

Chasing a legend

By Vikram Sampath

14 January 2014

Reconstructing the life of flamboyant 19th-century singer Gauhar Jaan involved an immersion in her loves, her passions, her demons and her music.
Gauhar Jaan in a rudimentary recording studio in Kolkata. (year unknown). Vikram Sampath

Gauhar Jaan in a rudimentary recording studio in Kolkata. (year unknown).
Vikram Sampath

She was the stuff of fairy tales: a flamboyant singer much sought after by British India’s nobility; a socialite who threw lavish parties; a hedonist who went about town in expensive horse buggies; a model whose image appeared on matchboxes made in Austria. And then, the inevitable end for someone leading a life as feisty as this: self-destruction, penury and a lonely death. She was Gauhar Jaan – the Subcontinent’s first musician to record commercially on the gramophone when the technology came calling in 1902. Despite the cult status she achieved in her lifetime, she is a forgotten figure in the world of Indian classical music, and roams the annals of Hindustani music as a barely discernible ghost. She does have a few admirers though – old-timers and record collectors who treasure her shellac discs and speak about her heyday in superlative terms. But none of this is commensurate either with her pioneering contribution to the world of Hindustani classical music or with the dramatic life she led.

Gauhar Jaan entered my life in the most serendipitous way. It was while sifting through the musty yet meticulously catalogued archives at the Palace of Mysore when researching my first book, Splendours of Royal Mysore: the Untold Story of the Wodeyars, that Gauhar Jaan first caught my attention. The name had a certain ring to it that led me to peruse the box-file containing the exchange of letters from her short stay in Mysore. But the canvas of my project at the time was larger, involving painting a picture of about 600 years of a state’s history, with myriad men and women sharing the honours. I really did not have the resources, nor did I feel the need, to dig deeper into the life of this visiting woman musician who spent barely two years in Mysore. But somehow I felt I had found familiar terrain, and she remained on my mind for a long time thereafter.

It was intriguing that a star like Gauhar had had to leave her home town of Kolkata and come to distant Mysore, where she died under pitiable conditions. Her letters portrayed an image of a frustrated diva in the sunset of her life bargaining for extra pay or a merciful act by the Maharaja’s Government. All good biographies begin as a love affair or an instance of ‘transference’, and my work on Gauhar did too. But I was entering an unknown and dark tunnel, given the difficulties of exploring the world of tawaifs and nautch girls who existed mostly in the romanticised accounts of colonial writers and were viewed retrospectively with much nostalgia. To make matters more complicated, Gauhar Jaan had died more than 82 years ago, in 1930, and had no legal heirs, no family members or friends who were alive and who could be spoken to. But it was this aura of mystery surrounding her that made my exploration of Gauhar Jaan’s life so exciting. And where better to start than the beginning.

Chaggan’s Jaan
Gauhar Jaan was born on 26 June 1873 as Eileen Angelina Yeoward, an Armenian Christian in Azamgarh in present-day Uttar Pradesh. By sheer coincidence I happened to meet someone whose ancestors were pastors in the Holy Trinity Church in Allahabad, where she was baptized in 1875. Fortunately, the church registers were maintained from the 1850s onward, and so I found my first documentary proof of Gauhar Jaan – an account of her baptism, with the names of her parents and grandparents and other witnesses to the ceremony.

How then did this Christian girl acquire an Islamic name like Gauhar? That question led me to adjoining Varanasi, where young Eileen and her mother had run away to after being forsaken by her father, Robert Yeoward. Her mother then converted to Islam, became Badi Malka Jaan, and took to the arts to become a courtesan in Varanasi. Little Eileen also presumably took on her Islamic name at this time. In the city of ribaldry and merry-making that Varanasi continues to be, there are several poseurs and intellectuals who can speak to you through the night with an authority that is tough to imitate elsewhere. And there are stories and stories about Gauhar and her mother. But this is a landmine for researchers in the performing arts, where separating the grain from the chaff can be the most challenging task. Varanasi was also the place where Gauhar found the first love of her life – a rich aristocrat called Chaggan Rai. It was a transformative experience to meet the Rai family, hear their tales and their bitterness about the woman who ‘ruined’ their ancestor’s life, and see the cottage that Chaggan had built for his lady love.

From Azamgarh, I went on to trace Gauhar’s life across the length and breadth of India – Varanasi, Allahabad, Rampur, Darbhanga, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. Every city, every town that she spent time in, gave me leads to other places and people. These connections were crucial, since documenting the arts in India is a difficult task for a researcher. There are several musical treatises that have survived from earlier centuries, but we know little about the nature and content of early performances, and more importantly about the lives of musicians and artists of yesteryear. The self-effacing world of artists of those times ensured that the art was always bigger than the artist, and the latter seldom merited detailed documentation. Music history, therefore, seldom seems to have written accounts, and survives largely through anecdotal memory. It is quite a commentary on the Indian psyche, which allows music to permeate every sphere and phase of life but considers its documentation unimportant. Music is to be heard, understood and enjoyed; ‘What is there to write about?’ is the common refrain. Spicy gossip – which seldom touches upon the persona of the musician and concentrates instead on flimsy, superficial hearsay – is generally all that remains. And rumour and legend were, of course, rife when it came to Gauhar Jaan.

Paper chase
With the exile of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata in 1856, and the 1857 revolt, the city emerged as the cultural citadel of northern India, attracting artists, musicians and dancers from Awadh and Varanasi in large numbers. This was where Badi Malka and Gauhar migrated in 1883, and the name of the city stayed with Gauhar all her life as she came to be fondly called ‘Gauhar Jaan Kalkattewali’. Thus began my own numerous visits to Kolkata to visit the archives there and to meet the zamindar families who once patronised Gauhar. It was literally like looking for a needle in a haystack, in a city that had come a long way since the time Gauhar had left it for Mysore. Its name had changed, generations had passed, and new musical interests, icons and patrons had taken over.

In an obscure Bengali journal I came across references to two stormy cases she fought – one to prove her parentage in court, and another against her lover and secretary Abbas, who cheated on her and embezzled her money and property, leading to her eventual downfall. When the Kolkata High Court changed its premises a few decades ago, in its supreme wisdom it decided to make a bonfire of all old and ‘unwanted’ civil papers. Thus Gauhar’s ‘unimportant’ papers were reduced to ashes. I tried to trace the author of that Bengali journal, who was once a scribe at the High Court. When I did eventually find his house, I was disappointed to note that he had died ten years ago. His widow was suspicious of this strange man from Bangalore trying to probe her husband’s papers. After a lot of persuasion and pleading, she finally parted with her husband’s hand-written notes on the entire case history of both these episodes. They turned out to be valuable documents as Gauhar had produced a plethora of evidence to prove her lineage. This was irrefutable documentary evidence to balance the apocryphal legends and myths that musicians loved to relate about her.

Trying to locate Gauhar’s house was another expedition. What was once famously called ‘Gauhar Buildings’ and had been a venue for her countless soirees was now a garish pink building named ‘Salim Manzil’ next to the imposing Nakhoda mosque along the crowded Rabindra Sarani (once Chitpur Road). The three-storied building had clothes hung out to dry on the parapet grills, and had shops on the ground floor that ranged from a dealer of nuts and bolts to a foreign-currency exchange. Interestingly, all the shopkeepers and vendors in the vicinity knew that this was the famed ‘Gauhar Buildings’ that Gauhar had had to sell off to fight her legal cases. While memory of her is completely lost in most other parts of the city she called her home, Gauhar seemed to live on in this narrow lane where people have forgotten neither her life nor her exquisite music. She might still be the topic of discussion in many a tea-time adda, the favourite pastime of all blue-blooded Kolkatans.

Hanover hand
As a musician myself, analyzing Gauhar’s music was as important for me as reconstructing the pattern of her life. In her illustrious career Gauhar recorded close to 600 records in over 10 languages. Her repertoire was vast, and ranged from the weighty Khayal and Dhrupad to the supposedly lighter forms of thumri, dadra, kajri, hori, chaiti, tarana and bhajan. Thus began another journey, of looking out for her old 78-rpm shellac discs which I purchased in their hundreds from record collectors and scrap shops, bargaining for reasonable prices. The early recordings were from the acoustic era, when there were no microphones to amplify one’s voice. Singers had to shout into a horn and a stylus would vibrate at the other end depending on how loudly one screamed, thereby cutting grooves into a shellac master.

To Gauhar Jaan goes the credit for devising a unique template for presenting something as expansive as Hindustani music in just three minutes of sound, which was all that a single disc could record. The end of the record was usually marked by the high-pitched and sometimes flirtatious announcement “My name is Gauhar Jaan!” This was necessary because the record masters were sent to Hanover in Germany for pressing, where these announcements helped the technician identify the singer. It is noteworthy that when recording first came to India in the early decades of the 20th century, it was the courtesans of the Tawaif and Devadasi communities who accepted and adapted to the challenges of the new technology. Disregarding several superstitions floated around by the men-folk, they went ahead and recorded. This not only helped democratise music and bring it out of the confines of the salons and courts, but also liberated these women performers from the clutches of their exploitative patrons.

It was Frederick William Gaisberg, an employee of the Gramophone Company that came to Kolkata from London in 1902, who recorded Gauhar Jaan. I therefore set out looking for Gaisberg’s diaries. I found them in Berlin, and his memoirs of his India expedition were a treasure trove. They gave first-person accounts of how Gauhar Jaan bargained for higher remuneration, of how he was besotted with her voice and her appearance, and of the manner in which she came dressed to the studios, in all her finery and with her retinue of slaves. He was also impressed by her sheer confidence during the recording process, as well as by her fluent English. The British Library and the EMI Archive in London held a few surprises too. I managed to procure an entire collection of Urdu poems by Gauhar’s mother, Badi Malka Jaan, titled Makhzan-e-Ulfat-e-Malka, or the ‘Treasure trove of Malka’s Love’, published in the 1880s in Kolkata. It was a collection of over 500 exquisite Urdu poems, with a foreword from Gauhar in chaste Urdu and brief biographies of both mother and daughter.

After four long years of painstaking research, having collected much authentic material on Gauhar Jaan and having been consumed by the idea of her, putting it all together into an interesting story was easy. As much as I could, I had lived her life all over again, and I believe every true biographer dies multiple deaths while navigating the highs and lows of the subject’s life. Gauhar narrated her life’s tale through me, and so I felt it apt to name the book in the same way she signed off on her recordings: ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!’

It does require tremendous patience and perseverance to chronicle the performing arts in the Subcontinent as sources are so scanty. The passion of an investigative journalist, who tenaciously puts together the parts to paint a portrait, is not something that everyone would be interested in enduring. With archives mushrooming in the Subcontinent one can only hope that we stem the loss of valuable historic material in this field before it is too late.

An Urdu couplet seems most germane for the thousands of stories of artists of yore which we have sadly lost due to our apathy:

Hum to mar kar bhi kitabon mein rahenge zinda,
Gham unhi ka hai, jo mar jayein to guzar jate hain!

Even in death, I remain immortal in the books that are written about me. Pity those who don’t just die, but pass away into oblivion!

~ Vikram Sampath is a Bangalore-based author whose most recent book, My Name is Gauhar Jaan, won him the Sahitya Akademi’s 2011 Yuva Puraskar in the English category.

~This article is from our series of articles on the state of archiving in Southasia.

2 Responses to “Chasing a legend”

  1. Loved reading your journey Vikram. Hope to read the book soon enough. Another reminder to start reading Sahitya Academy winners and not the best sellers.

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  2. It is a great tribute to a legend, Congrats sampath

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