Gramophones may have lost the battle with technology, but there are some voices — heard and unheard — etched on them. In a world characterised by such forgetfulness, a book on the songbird Gauhar Jaan is staggering. Gauhar Jaan, a tawaif who was born to an Armenian father, lived in Calcutta in the late 19th Century. She was the first Indian musician to sing on the gramophone (1902), and, in that sense, a pioneer.
Vikram Sampath, author of the recently released My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! The Life And Times Of A Musician, stumbled upon this grand songster of regal bearing, when he was researching in the Mysore Palace Archives for his earlier book, Splendours Of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story Of The Wodeyars.
“Her name had an interesting ring, and the fact that she was the first musician to sing on the gramophone fascinated me,” he says.
On the Gauhar trail
While on the Gauhar trail, he was shocked that there was practically no information on this amazing singer who was patronised by the Mysore Maharajas. She, in fact, died in Mysore in 1930.
“All I got in my first few attempts were bits and pieces of stories that were passed off as history.” People who lived in her times were long dead and gone. Despite these impediments, Gauhar Jaan didn't stop haunting Vikram. “Whatever little I learnt was anecdotal in nature: ‘She threw a party when her cat littered', ‘She had an entourage of 111 people' and more. The paucity of information was worrying,” recalls Vikram, thinking of how people went into raptures about her fair complexion, her paan-stained lips, her immaculate dressing sense — which was for them, the sum total of Gauhar Jaan.
Vikram, an engineer with HP, travelled extensively in the North, and managed to lay his hands on many legal documents connected to the birth and life of Gauhaar Jaan and her mother Malka Jaan.
For instance, the birth of Gauhar registered at the Protestant Church in Allahabad, a declaration that said she was Chagganji's mistress and long court proceedings with her maid's son who was trying to usurp her wealth.
All this spoke of a woman with enormous conviction; in fact, this conviction gave her the status of an unparalleled star in the world of music.
Gauhar Jaan was a phenomenal talent — she could condense the reflective khyal into three minutes for the gramophone and could also remarkably package the romantic thumri. “In those male-dominated times, the number of women who sang on gramophones outnumbered men. These remarkable women were hugely tech savvy and achieved what male musicians had shied away from,” explains Vikram.
The book cleverly walks the line of biography and period history. It juxtaposes Gauhar Jaan's life with the Raj, the freedom movement, and the coming of the gramophone to India. It steers clear of an anthropological vision and brings alive the enormous hardships of the women of those times.
Strong and vulnerable
The manner in which Gauhar Jaan bargained for her remuneration, the way she captured her audience, her highly adaptable musical skills and her unflagging self-esteem say a lot about the woman's intelligence. But she was also vulnerable — she was moved by goodness and great music, and her loyalty towards those she loved was unflinching.
“They were so learned and highly liberated. But, it is tragic that they were all branded as just tawaifs.
Vikram started work on the project with many disadvantages — he was male, not familiar with Bengal and the language, did not understand the nuances of Hindustani music… “I have struggled to understand the woman that she was, the life that she lived… to feel and think like her…,” says Vikram. “Sometimes, I wondered if Gauhar Jaan's extravagance was a mask to hide her troubled life.”