Talent has its roots in the most unlikely places. Once discovered, given the right encouragement, it flowers. Encouragement if continued, sustains the talent. If not it just withers away.
William Robert Yeoward and Victoria Hemming were man and wife. He was an Armenian Jew, she, a Christian, born and brought up in India. He worked in a dry ice factory in Azamgarh, she being Indian, knew the art of Indian music and dance. Angelina was born to them in 1873 in Patna and baptized in Azamgarh’s Methodist Church.
The marriage soured up and in 1879, Mrs.Yeoward and her daughter Angelina embraced Islam since Victoria had developed a relationship with a family friend Khurshed and the couple had divorced. Victoria became Malak Jaan, Angelina took on the name Gauhar Jaan. Since there were other Malak Jaans, she distinguished herself as “Badi” Malak Jaan.
In those days, there was a tradition of lady entertainers who trained in the arts of singing and dancing and entertained the nobility of the land. They were given the term ‘tawaifs’ but essentially they entertained through their skills in dance and song. Malak Jaan was already having a reputation for being a good singer and dancer in Azamgarh.
But looking to greater prospects of earning in a big city like Kolkata, both Mother and daughter shifted to Kolkata in 1883. Training in vocal music under Ustad Kale Khan of Patiala and Kathak dance under Ali Bux, both mother and daughter excelled further in the performing arts.
In 1887, Gauhar Khan had her debut recital in the court of the Maharaja of Darbhanga. At the tender age of 14 before a packed court, she impressed the Maharaja so much with her performance, that she was appointed as court musician / dancer from that time onwards.
A journey well-begun
The journey of Gauhar Jaan as a professional in her own capacity, started. She became a master of Kheyal, Drupad and Thumree, and even today her name is taken as one of the finest exponents of Kheyal singing in India. Supported by her eager mother, that she excel in dance and song, she underwent training under great masters. Vocal under Ustad Wazir Khan of of Rampur, Pyare Sahib of Calcutta, and Kathak under the great Maharaj Bindadin of Lucknow, she also had training in dhrupad and dhammar under Srijanbai, and Bengali Kirtans under Charan Das. These are what helped her in establishing herself as a reputed singer and performer of sorts.
A milestone in her life
A major event in her life and in the history of Indian music occurred in 1902. The famous recording company of the time “Gramaphone Company” asked her to record a series of songs for them. Her recordings served the company as a cornerstone for their business for many years. Paid Rs.3000 per recording, a very huge sum then, she recorded over 600 songs in more than ten languages and came to be known as the country’s first recording star. The recording limit was three minutes, on account of the technology available then, which she utilized fully for the compositions she delivered. In fact her talent of starting and ending correctly within the available time was acknowledged and she was a hit. Till the LP recordings came, the three minute format remained the standard for many decades later.
As time rolled by, her talent in singing and dancing became a force unto itself. But slowly the ‘tawaif’ culture declined and she had to seek more professional ways in which to sustain in the changing environment.
A flashy lifestyle that spoke much
Like a reigning queen she paraded her tastes and flaunted her finery in a manner that spoke of almost limitless wealth. Mr. F. W. Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company noted that whenever she came for recordings, she always wore fine gowns and the finest jewelry. In fact she is said to have never worn the same jewelry twice. A penchant for cars and royal carriages, a fondness for horse racing for which she made trips to yesteryear’s Bombay (now Mumbai) during the racing season and a home known for its lavish surroundings were what people noticed and saw about her life. When at her peak she charged Rs.1000-3000 for a sitting (Nazrana) and being endowed with good looks and a well-maintained profile she could afford to have a lifestyle like she displayed.
Stories spoken about her ostentation mentioned that she squandered 1200 rupees to celebrate the marriage of her pet cat, spent Rs.20000 when her pet cat had a litter of kittens, took a big entourage of her personal professionals like cook, washerman, private physician, a retinue of servants when she was persuaded to go to Datia for a performance to be given, for which she demanded a train for herself.
Her motto it seemed to say was “when life favours you, live king size”.
One of the many incidents that is often spoken about her life tells about her strange personality of fearlessness combined with graciousness.
Benazirbai, a well-known tawaif of the time, was at a gathering (Mehafil) and was giving a performance before Gauhar Jaan. Benazirbai was decked out in all her opulent jewellery. After she had given 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." And as if on cue to show what she meant, she gave a spectacular performance herself.
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 under her wing 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 came up to Benazir and graciously said, "God bless you, now your diamonds are really flashing".
Wow! What a great lady, who not only showed her the way but got her to become one like her.
When sourness crept into Gauhar Jaan’s life
Like any woman of her age, she was also attracted to and got involved with men in her life. Maybe that was her undoing. Three men were significant in her life. A Zamindar named Nimai Sen who bestowed gifts upon her inordinately, Saiyad Ghulam Abbas, her tabla accompanist and personal assistant, and Amrut Vagal Nayak, a Gujarati stage actor. The first remained at a relationship level, the second married her but in his infidelities not only ruined their marriage but also ruined her life through innumerable lawsuits he set up against her that ate into whatever she possessed. The third was a good person who had a good relationship but which ended soon tragically with his death.
Her personal life now overshadowed her much better and respected life as a court musician and dancer. A bit dazed from her blows of fate, she moved for a while from court singer in Darbhanga to court singer at Rampur and then settled for some time in Bombay. The Mysore Maharaja of that time Krishna Raja Wodeyar impressed by her talent in singing and dancing invited her to come and stay as a court musician in his court. She was appointed in August 1928. But sadly she passed away in January 1930.
Thus ended the great but checkered career of a talented woman who if she had lived maybe a little wiser and concentrated more on her immense knowledge of music and dancing would have shone even more.
A tremendous contribution to Indian society
When one reflects on Gauhar Jaan’s life of 60 years, the fact that she was harassed no end by her husband Saiyad Ghulam Abbas and her conniving relatives, deprived of most of her hard-earned wealth in her ailing days and died almost penniless, do sadden us much.
But the fact that she was a beacon of hope to hundreds of especially music and dance aspirants in her time and an inspiration to generations till date, show truly what a great person she was and remains in Indian history. Belonging to a profession that hardly got respect or which was socially accepted in the society of her times, she nevertheless displayed the immense talent and worth that she possessed in the performing arts like singing and dancing that earned her unusual respect and standing that may not have been hers otherwise.
Her recordings even today in a variety of genres that she excelled in, like Kheyal, Drupad and Thumree and the fact that she recorded in very many languages including Bengali, Hindustani, Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Arabic, Persian, Pushto, French, and English, which in itself is an astonishing achievement, are testimony to the genius that she was.
Her legacy to her students is over 600 plus, maybe even more of excellent compositions rendered by her in her clear voice and distinct notes. A few songs which are particularly noteworthy are:
- Tan Man ki Sudh an-ban jiya me lage
- Hamse Na bolo raja
- Jiya me lage an ban
- Tan Man dinh ja sanwaria
- Maika Piya bin kaccchu na suhave
- Ras ke Bhare tore nain
- Piya cal hat tori banawati bat na mane ri
She would round off her performances for a record by announcing 'My name is Gohar Jaan'.
What Gohar Jaan will also be fondly remembered for
While she will always be spoken of in high terms in the music world for her fantastic repertoire that she ‘willed’ to her thousands of followers, her name will also be mentioned with awe for the following:
- India's first disc had Gauhar Jaan, singing a khayal in Raag Jogiya, recorded on 2 November 1902, by Fred Gaisberg, an assistant to Emile Berliner, the father of Gramophone record.
- In charging Rs.3000 for this single recording session done in a makeshift recording studio in two large hotel rooms of Kolkata, she bagged an unheard-of princely sum that was mind-boggling considering the age and time when the incident occurred.
- Her patent signing-off on each recording being done with “My name is Gauhar Jaan” reminds us that even in this day of “attitude” very few rock stars attempt such sign-offs.
- Her records were in great demand in Indian markets by 1903, when professional singers, few and far in those times, themselves did not enjoy such royal responses.
- Saregama India(formerly Gramaphone Company of India Limited or His Master’s Voice (HMV) plans the re-release of the milestone recordings of Gauhar Jaan. Some would be available from the Gramaphone Company’s London archives, to recall an era that will always be remembered for her singing.
- Interestingly there were three other contemporaries of her time who had their first names spelt almost similarly in English or were pronounced as such. Gauhar Jaan of Patiala; Miss Gohar, who was associated with Parsi Theatrical Company in Bombay (Mumbai); Gohar Kayoum Mamajiwala (also known as Miss Gohar), a singer actress who was associated with Ranjit Films (studio), Bombay; and Gohar Bai Karnataki of Bijapur, who was typically associated with Bal Gandharva
Souls like Gauhar Jaan are a unique breed, whose talent can just not be contained. Irrespective of circumstance or situation, it just has to come out forcefully and excellently to create a positive difference, an overwhelming outcome that leaves a beneficial effect for its immediate recipients and the generations to come.
She has left an indelible mark in the receptive minds of all music lovers forever. That is why we say She’s Different!
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