Vikram Sampath opens his biography of Gauhar Jaan, the first star in the history of recorded music in India, with this couplet: “Which story would you find more pleasing?/ Should I narrate the tale of the world or the one of my life?”
The big strength of My Name is Gauhar Jaan is that it narrates the dramatic life of a woman artiste with all her idiosyncrasies, even as it tells the tale of the world that shaped her life. It is a meticulously researched documentation of Gauhar's triumphs and tragedies as a musician and as a woman whose character was a complex blend of extraordinary grit and deep-seated insecurities.
The story unfolds in the historical context of the colonial period with rich detailing of the social and cultural upheavals that marked it. It focusses particularly on the changed notions of morality the colonial governance ushered in, which robbed tawaifs like Gauhar of their pride as artistes. It also places her in a context where the aesthetics and the business of music saw a major shift at the turn of the century with the arrival of recording technology.
As the author says in the introduction, piecing together the story of Gauhar is not easy, considering there is little documentation of the early women musicians, especially those who inhabited the fringes of the “respectable” world. He reconstructs Gauhar's life based on both the apocryphal stories and bits of recorded history. Several fascinating and oft-quoted stories of her escapades, heartbreaks, and extravagant lifestyle are presented with a dramatic touch. Her negotiations with her patron-Indian rulers and the prolonged court battles she fought are described in detail, with the letters and judicial records reproduced in the appendix.
Sampath is careful enough to provide a nuanced view of the times Gauhar lived in, allowing the reader to approach her life from different points of view. For instance, even as he exposes the hypocrisies of the anti-nautch movement that deprived thousands of tawaifs of their livelihood and access to traditional spaces of learning, he does not gloss over the insecurities this community of women artistes faced within an overarching patriarchal and feudal structure of the pre-colonial times.
The book also grapples with the question of how Indian music shaped itself in the era of mechanical reproduction. Gauhar had her foundation in the rigorous Drupad tradition. Did the restrictions of the early recording technology stymie her potential as an artiste, even as it brought her unprecedented national and international fame? This question is reflected in the contradiction between some of the comments of her contemporary artistes and Gauhar's own perception of the art.
At another level, Gauhar's life makes us re-examine some of our notions of religion and identity outside of what we would today call “secularism.” While her grandmother was a Hindu, her grandfather was British and father an Armenian Christian. Gauhar was Eileen Angelina Yeoward until her mother, an accomplished poet, sought a rich Muslim merchant's patronage and changed her religion. Sampath traces this intriguing religious trajectory, but thankfully, does not indulge in any rhetoric on secularism and Indian art.
One, however, wishes that the book had gone through tighter editing to remove redundancies and provided footnotes indicating the source of some specific incidents. But these minor shortcomings are swept away by the mesmerising life story of Gauhar Jaan.
Sampath's book comes with a CD of some of Gauhar's original sound tracks digitised from 78 rpm records. As mandated by the recording system of those times, each song ends with an announcement by the singer: “My name is Gauhar Jaan!” The rudimentary recording technology of those times may have failed to capture Gauhar's music in all its grandeur, but there is no missing the indomitable confidence of that signature declaration.