RECORDING GAUHAR JAAN

The Hindu
http://beta.thehindu.com/arts/music/article4 29071.ece
May 13 2010
India

Vikram Sampath looks like he's just out of college. His sense of
humour and the bright sparkle in his eyes when he laughs (which
is quite often) belie his twin passions... history and classical
music. Proving it is his second book, 'My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! The
Life and Times of A Musician.'

Overcoming all kinds of stumbling blocks, Vikram has resurrected the
glory of Gauhar Jaan, a nautch girl from Calcutta and the grand dame
of Indian recorded music. That she was the first Indian to record on a
gramophone is well-known. But how that one bold step changed the face
of Indian music, both here and abroad, is to be read to be understood.

Says Vikram, who takes Carnatic lessons from Jayanthi Kumaresh when
he is not playing financial analyst at an MNC or leafing through
historical documents, "Gauhar Jaan was exceptional in more ways than
one... she created a template to showcase something as expansive as
Hindustani music in just three minutes! Besides, she has recorded
nearly 600 songs in 20 languages. To top it all, she composed several
timeless thumris including the famous 'Kaise yeh dhoom machayi.'"

Talking about the genesis of 'My Name..." Vikram, who has been awarded
the prestigious Fellowship at Berlin's Institute For Advanced Studies,
remembers, "This book is a happy accident. While penning my first
tome, 'Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars,'
I literally stumbled upon a box of meticulously documented archival
material simply titled 'Gauhar Jaan.' My curiosity got the better
of me and I began sifting through the contents. Soon, unearthing her
life story became an obsession."

"Tracking her life took more than two years of my life. Also, India
can be a historian's nightmare often as there is a paucity of info
on musicians of those days, especially women," recalls Vikram. "But
one name that sprung up at once was that of Dr. Suresh Chandvankar
of the Society of Indian Records Collectors in Mumbai. So I wrote to
him and he sent me some documents and a CD with her songs. As I heard
her voice, I realised that I was listening to the first ever Indian
voice that left an imprint on a shellac disc. It was awesome... "

Vikram's next stop was Calcutta, where Gauhar spent some of her most
glorious days. He met several people including Mahapara Begum of Rampur
over 110 years, perhaps the only surviving person to have seen Gauhar
in flesh and blood. And bit by bit, this BITS Pilani engineer was
able to piece together once again, the life of the Hindustani vocalist.

Born Eileen Angelina Yeoward, an Armenian Christian (not Jewish as
often perceived) in Azamgarh of the United Provinces, Gauhar Jaan
converted to Islam when her mother Victoria Hemmings became Badi Malka
Jaan after her marriage turned sour. Malka Jaan was a poet in her own
right and her Urdu verses are published as 'Makhzan-e-ulfat-e-Mallika.'

Stunning looks and a sweet voice were Gauhar's assets and she used both
to her advantage to reach dizzying heights during her hey day. When
recording expert Frederick Gaisberg spotted her and put her in front
of a horn (which served as a mike), her thumris, dadras, ghazals and
the high-pitched announcement 'My Name is Gauhar Jaan' at the end of
the discs created music history.

But '...Life was never a straight path for Gauhar Jaan and tragedies
lurked in every turn and corner' in a way sums up her life. Her
ill-fated choice of men (among them, her secretary Abbas, and Gujarati
stage actor Amrit Keshav Nayak), her flamboyant lifestyle and her
two bitterly fought court battles (one where she had to prove her
parentage!) led to her downfall and penury. And ultimately the gifted
artist died prematurely in 1930, aged 57, in Mysore.

Vikram says, "Stories of her spending Rs. 20,000 for a party when
her cat had a litter and paying a Rs.1,000 fine a day for riding a
four-horse driven buggy on the streets of Calcutta are renowned."

Part-history and part-biography, the book chronicles not just Gauhar
Jaan's story but also the advent of the gramophone in England,
the decadence that set into the once rich Bengali society and the
Indian Freedom Struggle. The chapter on how the thumri, considered
the 'bridge between the world of classical and folk traditions',
became popular, is edifying.

What makes Vikram's journey remarkable is that a 25-plus youngster
was willing to go to any length and take on such an onerous task to
"place this pioneering artist in a historical perspective, bringing her
memory and contributions to Hindustani music back into the public eye."

(The book comes with a CD of Gauhar Jaan's soundtracks from original
78 rpms.)

They dared...

In those male-dominated times, the number of women who sang on
gramophones outnumbered the men. Despite their social status,
these women proved to be more daring. Gauhar Jaan led the brigade
in the north while Salem Godavari was a pioneer in the south. Some
of the gramophone celebrities were: Bengali stage artists Hari Moti
and Sushila, Binodini, Acheria, Kiron, RaniKali Jaan, Peara Saheb,
Bhavani, Ammakannu, Salem Papa, Vadammal, Dhanakoti Ammal and of
course, Bangalore Nagarathnammal. Does anybody even remember these