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who takes Carnatic lessons from Jayanthi Kumaresh when he is not playing financial analyst at an MNC or leafing through historical documents, “Gauhar Jaan was exceptional in more ways than one… she created a template to showcase something as expansive as Hindustani music in just three minutes!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.)
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 trendsetters?