Poignant notes

Print edition : June 18, 2010

The life of Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930) is a poignant chapter in the annals of Hindustani classical music of the 20th century. She was the first recording artist in India, and the most prolific she had 600 gramophone discs to her credit and popular, too. Her glory years of recordings and concerts one fed off the other which began with the century and extended up to 1920 gave her a reach that was the envy of many a kalavant, ustad or pandit. The fact that she was a singing courtesan, or tawaif, did not endear her to the so-called masters of Hindustani music. It did not matter to them that she was superbly trained, highly literate like her courtesan mother, Malka Jaan, and composed poetry in Urdu and Persian apart from writing lyrics for thumris, horis, chaitis, dadras and chhota khayals, which were also composed by her. Her worst detractors admitted that she had an extremely melodious voice and impeccable aesthetics.

Gauhar Jaan was of mixed parentage. Her father, Robert William Yeoward, an Armenian Christian, was an engineer and indigo planter in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and her mother, Victoria Hemmings, was a Protestant Christian. The marriage was short-lived as her father, under trying circumstances, abandoned the family, forcing her mother to seek the protection of a Muslim nobleman, Khurshid. Victoria converted to Islam and became the famous tawaif of her day, Malka Jaan, in Varanasi [Banaras], where she moved along with her lover and little daughter.

Gauhar Jaan, despite her turbulent childhood marked by privations, proved to be an exceptionally talented girl with a prodigious memory and innate musicality. Apart from Urdu, Persian, Hindi (Awadhi and Bhojpuri), she was also fluent in Bengali, Punjabi and English.

Hers was a remarkable feat of self-education. She was trained initially in dhrupad, which gave her a solid base to explore other genres like khayal, dadra, thumri, ghazal and chaiti. Her thumris and Bengali kirtans were redolent of feeling and had the gravity of dhrupad. What Pandit Ravi Shankar said of Siddheswari Devi's singing, that her thumris were so grand that they bordered on dhrupad, could also be said about Gauhar Jaan, whose singing Siddheswari admired unreservedly as an aspiring artist in Varanasi in the late 1920s.

It was a strictly regimented class-ridden feudal society that Gauhar Jaan, a tawaif, practised her art in. The fact that she had conquered the hearts of maharajas, nawabs and very rich merchants through her singing and her beauty, in that order, did not bring her much happiness. She earned large sums of money in her prime and squandered it all away on feckless lovers who tried to seize her property, thus involving her in expensive and long-drawn-out lawsuits. Her extravagant lifestyle did not help either to stem the outflow of money during the most crucial period in her life as an artist and as a woman.

She was forced in the late 1920s to seek refuge in the court of the Maharaja of Mysore, Nalawadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, as a musician. His brother had heard her earlier, at a private soiree in Bombay [Mumbai], and was bowled over by her music. He recommended that she adorn the Mysore court as a singer. She was forced to leave her beloved Calcutta [Kolkata] because of the financially draining lawsuits against her former employee and lover, Abbas. She died on January 17, 1930, unattended in a hospital in Mysore.

Vikram Sampath's biography My Name is Gauhar Jaan!' The Life and Times of a Musician is remarkable for its fidelity to the singer's art and painstaking research into the historical and sociological background to the world she lived in. The fact that he is a trained Carnatic musician and a great fan of Hindustani music as well has helped him considerably in this enterprise. He has managed to trace a hundred shellac gramophone records of Gauhar Jaan and has digitally transferred 25 of them onto a compact disc that comes with the book. These recordings, covering more or less the entire period of her artistic life, show conclusively what a great singer she was.

A life full of passion

Gauhar Jaan lived a life full of passion and often of compassion. She took on Indu Bala, the daughter of impoverished circus performers, and trained her to become an excellent singer. One of the jottings in Indu Bala's diaries is a composition by Gauhar Jaan, in the rare raga Lakshmi Todi set to jhap tala, Tum hazarat khwaja, sab rajan ke raja; Hoon aayi tero darwaja\ Gauhar pyari ki araz yahi hai, jag mein rakho meri laaja.

Not every aspiring tawaif had such good and generous teacher as Indu Bala found in Gauhar Jaan. The young Siddheswari had to endure much harshness in order to learn music at the house of her aunt, Rajeshwari Bai, in Varanasi. The world of the tawaif or baiji was extremely competitive and cruel and the casualty list was very long only the toughest, and sometimes the most gifted, managed to survive.

Gauhar Jaan, 1896. Her intrinsic musical talent was often played down because of her beauty and her consummate skill at `bhav', the ability to convey through facial expressions the emotional import of the thumri being sung.-

No ustad worth the name in the 20th century Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar being perhaps the only exception was not supported in his years of struggle, or even later, by a tawaif. Ironically, the ustads only taught them enough so that they could earn a decent and, occasionally, a handsome living. Munni Bai, the star pupil of Khan Sahib Abdul Karim Khan of the kirana gharana, could elaborate, with great taste and refinement, for an hour or even an hour and a half on difficult ragas like Bilaskhani Todi. Hearing her at one of her concerts, Ustad Alladiya Khan chided his friend Abdul Karim Khan Saheb, thus: What are you doing? Just teach her as much as is required. If she starts singing for one and a half hours, who will listen to us?

Gauhar Jaan learned from a wide variety of ustads including the brilliant Ustad Kale Khan of Patiala when he visited Calcutta. The teaching, though very beneficial for Gauhar, came to a sudden end because Kale Khan demanded sexual favours of her in return. She had, however, absorbed quite a lot of music from him, being thorough in her approach to learning.

There was a tendency to be patronising about Gauhar Jaan's khayal singing amongst the ustads. They thought her raga elaboration was alright and no more. But her thumri, dadra and chaiti singing was deemed marvellous even by her opponents. Once, after Zohra Bai gave a solid khayal rendition and Gauhar Jaan had to follow, she realised that if she sang a khayal it would not impress the listeners. Instead she sang two thumris, Pani bhare ri kaun albelo ki naar, and then her own composition, Ras ke bhare tore naina. When she finished, people had forgotten Zohra Bai's musically erudite khayal recital.

The renowned musicologist Thakur Jaidev Singh speaks highly of Gauhar Jaan as being without peer in her thumri singing and in her rendering of other light classical types'. He even recalled attending unforgettable night-long sessions starting at 8 p.m. between Gauhar Jaan and Agrewali Malka Jaan. In these fascinating sessions of Sawal-Jawab or musical repartees between two veteran singers, the audience would find it difficult to decide who the better of the two was.

Masterly improviser

Gauhar Jaan's intrinsic musical talent was often somewhat played down because of her beauty and her consummate skill at bhav', that is, the ability to convey through facial expressions the emotional import of the thumri being sung. Bhav Batana' was an important part of Kathak dance in North India. Practitioners of light classical genres like thumri were often well acquainted with Kathak and Bhav Batana. Gauhar was a terrific singer and a masterly improviser.

Her flamboyance attracted many well-heeled males. She lost her nath' or nose-ring to Nimai Sen, a wealthy zamindar from Behrampore. He was deeply in love with her but refused to take her as his legal wife, possibly for fear of parental opposition. He was no different from most sons of the landed class whose courage ran out once faced with the possibility of being disinherited. She went to see her lover when he was dying but reached too late. Sen had kept Gauhar's nose-stud, which she had given him as a memento so many years ago. He had instructed an attendant to give it to her if she came. Gauhar was deeply touched and was drowned in grief and sorrow for many months. This perhaps was the only instance of true love in Gauhar's life. The other males who came were either fortune hunters such as Shaikh Bhagloo and Abbas or those who, struck by her glamour and talent, would shower their wealth on her for the pleasure of a passing dalliance.

Gauhar Jaan in a recording studio. She was the first recording artist in India and had 600 gramophone discs to her credit.-COURTESY: VIKRANT AJGAONKAR

The 1920s were bad for her. She was already in her late forties, albeit very attractively so. Her lawsuit with her former employee-turned lover, Abbas, had completely drained her emotionally and financially. She withdrew into herself. She lost, as a result, many lucrative private concerts, and offers for gramophone recordings also began to fall off. She became a misanthrope and moved to a two-room accommodation on Harrison Road, Calcutta. A sketch from 1928 by Debiprased Garg, Raja Mahishadal, shows her as a dishevelled, sad, bespectacled woman with downcast eyes. A far cry from the beautiful, middle-aged woman of only a couple of years ago.

Her last years were dogged by unending bad luck. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan of Rampur, a great connoisseur of music, invited her to grace his court as a musician and even let her stay in the zenana of his family. But a strange incident brought the cordial relationship to an abrupt end. Lord Irwin, visiting Rampur, was lavishly entertained, and a part of it was a concert by Gauhar Jaan. She sang gloriously. She, however, made one inadvertent mistake. Dressed in a saree with her customary elegance, she pinned all the medals she had received from bigwigs during her illustrious career on her chest. After the concert, against all norms of civilised etiquette, Lord Irwin reached out to examine the medals. Nawab Hamid Ali was incensed. He told Gauhar later, So you did manage to get a white man to touch your breast, didn't you? She, due to a silly, unthinking act on her part, found herself suddenly out of favour with the nawab. Most humiliating of all was the discovery that the precious diamonds she had got as gifts from him were actually cheap imitations.

The year was 1928. There was no way out for her but to proceed to the Mysore court, but before that there was a stopover in Bombay. In May 1928, Seth Madho Das Gokul Das Pasta invited her to be his guest and do a series of concerts over the next six months. He even made her his sister'. It was at one such soiree that the Maharaja of Mysore's younger brother heard her. The rest, as they say, is history.

She was utterly humiliated to find that she had been engaged on a salary of Rs.500. The final blow came when Seth Madho Das Gokul Das Pasta brought a lawsuit against her for non-payment of rent during her stay in Bombay.

Instead of supporting her, the Mysore court officials saw to it that half of her salary was deducted to pay her arrears in accordance with the instructions of a Bombay court.

Vikram Sampath brings out the poignancy of Gauhar Jaan's life and also the great musical gift she had been bestowed with by nature. Sampath's is an unusual and beautiful book, the first such in English on a Hindustani classical musician.

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