Gauhar Jan was a very noteworthy artist of Calcutta at the turn of the 20th century. It seems strange that today she is largely unknown, but at the time, she was one of the most famous vocalist in India. She was one of India's first recording stars. She was as famous for her larger-than life lifestyle as she was for her artistic abilities. One would not be out of line to say that she was India's first "recording superstar".
She is known for her contributions to both dance as well as singing. She was one of the last of the once noble tradition of female entertainers known as tawaifs. As changing social conditions forced the decline of the tawaifs, she was intelligent enough to alter her professional tactics in order to thrive in the new environment.
Gauhar Jan's had rather unusual origins for a tawaif of the 19th century. She was born Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna. Her father was William Robert Yeoward. He was an Armenian Jew who worked in a dry ice factory in Azamgarh. Her mother was Victoria Hemming, who was born and brought up in India and knew Indian music and dance well. Angelina was their only child. She was baptised in the Methodist Church in Azamgarh near Allahabad.
Unfortunately, the marriage between William and Victoria marriage did not survive long. Victoria developed a relationship with a friend by the name of Khurshed. Angelina's parents divorced 1879. After her divorce, Mrs. Yeoward embraced Islam and took the name Malak Jan, and her daughter assumed the name Gauhar Jan. Gauhar also had the nickname of "Gaura". It should also be noted that Gauhar's mother is often known as "Badi" Malak Jan, because at the time there were three other famous Malak Jans. The designation of Badi implying that she was the eldest of the Malak Jan's.
As the mother's career and reputation entered an ascendency, they both moved to Calcutta where the professional possibilities were greater. This was about 1883. Both mother and daughter continued their training. The both learned vocal music from "Kalu" Ustad (i.e., Kale Khan of Patiala) and kathak dance under Ali Bux.
With her mother's support, Gauhar continued her training under many great masters. She had training in vocal under Ustad Wazir Khan of of Rampur, Pyare Sahib of Calcutta, and the great Maharaj Bindadin of Lucknow (kathak). She also had training in dhrupad and dhammar under Srijanbai, and Bengali Kirtans under Charan Das.
It was during this period that Gauhar had her ranga pravesham (debute recital). This was particularly noteworthy. This was in 1887 at the court of the Maharaja of Darbhanga. She was only 14 years old. In spite of her young age, the Maharaja was sufficiently impressed by her performance to appoint the young Gauhar as a court musician / dancer. Gauhar Jan became a master of the kheyal, dhrupad, and the thumree. Her kheyals were so noteworthy that Bhatkhande declared her to be the greatest female kheyal singer in India.
A major milestone in the history of Indian music occurred in 1902. It was in this year that Gauhar Jan was asked by the "Gramophone Company" to record a series of songs for them. This corpus of recordings became a cornerstone for their business for many years. She was paid 3000 rupees per recording, which was considered a lot of money in those days. As it turned out, the historical value of these recordings would be priceless. From 1902 to 1920 she recorded over 600 songs in more than 10 languages. She became India' s first "recording star", who learned very early on the value of the recording industry for advancing her career. It should be noted that she is often given credit for developing the three minute format for classical performances. This was the time limit imposed by the recording technology of the day. This format remained the standard until the advent of lp recordings many decades later.
It was about this time that Gauhar became as well known for her lifestyle as her art. Mr. F. W. Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company noted that whenever she came for recordings, she always wore fine gowns and the finest jewellery. Furthermore, he noted that she never seemed to wear the same jewels twice. She had a special penchant for cars and royal carriages. She was very fond of horse racing, and used to make trips to Bombay during the racing season. Her home was known for its opulence. During her heydays at Calcutta it is said that her nazrana (fees for a sitting) were 1000-3000 rupees; this was an absolutely an outlandish sum in those days. Some have speculated that she became a crorapati (1 crore =10,000,000 Rs) in the early 20th century, although the exact extent of her wealth may never be known.
Perhaps her wealth was matched only by her ostentation. She became famous, (or infamous) in the manner in which she flaunted her wealth and power. One of the most noteworthy examples of this is that it is said that she squandered 1200 rupees to celebrate the marriage of her pet cat. Another version of the story has it that she spent 20,000 rupees for a party when her pet cat had a litter of kittens. On another occasion after she was persuaded to go to Datia to give a performance, she demanded her own train, in which her entire retinue of cook, cook's assistants, her private hakeem (physician), dhobi, (washerman), barber, and dozens of servants went along. It is clear that Gauhar was a diva among divas.
Many anecdotes of the late Gauhar Jan have been related. As with any other legendary personality it is often hard to tell truth from fiction. One particularly striking anecdote relates to the well known bai (tawaif) known as Benazir. It seems that Benazirbai was at a mehafil (i.e., gathering) giving a performance before the great Gauhar. Benazirbai was decked out in all her opulent jewellery. After giving a respectable performance, Gauhar approached the young tawaif and sarcastically said "Benazir!, Your ornaments may shine in bed but in a mehafil it is only your art that will shine." Whereupon Jauhar Jan gave a spectacular public performance. The young Benazir was humbled and when she returned to Bombay she presented all her jewellery as an offering to her teacher, who took her and taught her more classical "taleem" (material). After ten years of serious study, it is said that Banazirbai again had the opportunity to perform in front of Gauhar. This time it is said that Gauhar comes up to Benazir and graciously says, "God bless you, now your diamonds are really flashing".
Now the personal life of any famous person is always difficult to scrutinise, Gauhar Jan is no exception. Perhaps the personal life of a tawaif is even more difficult to fathom. However, it appears that there were three men who were "significant" in her personal life. One of these was the zamindar Nimai Sen. The nature of his attachment to her is indicated by the inordinate level of material gifts that he bestowed upon her. Although tawaifs were particularly noted for extracting large material gifts from their patrons, this level of material appreciation seemed to be unusual even for those standards. Another significant relationship was Saiyad Gulam Abas who is reputed to be her erstwhile tabla accompanist and personal assistant. She was married to him even though he was a good ten years younger than her. This relationship soured when she became aware of his marital infidelities. He subsequently tied her up in a long series of lawsuits. Later on, she started living with Amrut Vagal Nayak, a noted actor of the Gujarati stage. It is said that this relationship lasted 3-4 years. Although the relationship is reputed to have been a stable and harmonious one, it ended with his sudden death.
In her later years she moved around a bit. She served as court singer in the court of Dharbhanga, She moved to Rampur and became a court singer there. She left Rampur and moved to Bombay for a short period.
Finally she moved to the royal court at Mysore at the invitation of of the King Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV. There she was appointed court musician in on August 1, 1928. However this appointment only lasted 18 months. She died on January 17, 1930.
Her last days at Mysore could not be described as happy days. She was virtually alone. The legal harassment of her ex-husband, as well as the conniving relatives, had long since reduced the great wealth that she had once enjoyed. She was 58 years old, and in failing health. At the age of 60 she died nearly penniless.
But she left behind corpus of material that is truly remarkable. She recorded songs in over 20 languages and excelled in a variety of genres. The number of songs that she recorded, sang, or taught to students was very great. However a few songs which are particularly noteworthy are:
Bhairavi Thumri - by Gauhar Jan
Bhupali - by Gauhar Jan
Khamaj Jogia - by Gauhar Jan
© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney
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