Photo : http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/gauhar.htm
I first stumbled upon this lady in the unlikeliest of places - the musty but painstakingly catalogued palace archives of the reign of Krishnaraja Wodeyar, one of Mysore’s most illustrious monarchs. I was at the time researching the Maharajah’s astounding patronage of classical music, discovering that it extended not just to the greats from the world of Carnatic music – the expected thing from a South Indian monarch – but equally to luminaries from the world of Hindustani classical music.
And so it was that the legendary Abdul Karim Khan performed at the Mysore palace regularly and was so influenced by Carnatic music that he studied Carnatic ragas and incorporated several of them into Hindustani music. And it is said that the great Faiyaz Khan got his title of “Aftab-e-Mausiqui” when Krishnaraja Wodeyar conferred it on him after a particularly brilliant jugalbandhi between him and the then court musician Hafiz Khan!
But amongst all these Sangeetha Vidwans, as the Maharajah was wont to call them, I came across one more name, quite by accident. As I was chatting about the munificence of the Maharajahs’ patronage with the archivists, someone mentioned that there used to be a dancer in the Maharajah’s court - called something that sounded like “Gohar Jan”
I was immediately hooked. The name had a ring to it that was redolent with the magic of times gone by. I imagined one of those cool, velvety-soft Mysore evenings during Navratri and under the stunning expanse of the ceiling of the Diwan-e-Khas, a beautiful young court dancer. Swathed in whispering silks, adorned with jewels that winked and laughed, her black, kohl-lined eyes as eloquent as her henna-lined feet and her exquisite, soft, perfumed hands weaving their collective web of seduction as the enamoured darkness deepened and throbbed to the tabalchi’s fervent na-dhin-dhin-dha and the stars sighed a thousand sighs of longing…
In fact, Gohar Jan – or Gauhar Jan - was a singer who was 54 years old when she came to the Mysore Maharajah’s court in 1928, at the sad, tail end of her career. Mentally and emotionally sick, swindled and cheated by greedy, grasping relatives and an unfaithful lover, she died just a year and a half later, alone and almost penniless…
But in the fifty odd years of her life before that, she had amassed a dazzling musical legacy. Almost lost in the mists of time, but at my persistent digging, some of it reluctantly crept out, the shadows unable to quell the brilliance of an astounding life and talent …
She was born Angelina Yoeward in 1873, to Anglo-Indian parents of Armenian Jewish descent who lived in Azmagarh in UP. But her parents’ marriage rapidly disintegrated after Angelina’s birth with her mother Victoria’s increasing passion for Hindustani classical music and a Muslim nobleman called Khursheed. Before long, Victoria divorced her husband and went to stay with her lover in Benares, converting to Islam and changing her name Malka Jan and her little daughter’s to Gauhar Jan. Under Khursheed’s patronage, Malka Jan became a famous Baiji, referred to as Badi Malka Jan to differentiate her from the 3 other equally well-known Malka Jans at the time.
Those were heady days for Hindustani classical music. All over North India, the gharana tradition was producing some of the greatest musicians of India. But the heady, glittering vortex of those entrancing sisters of light Hindustani classical music - the ghazal, thumri, khayal and dadra - was in Calcutta, where rich, besotted zamindars flocked and patronized the melodious and gorgeous Baijis from Benares, Agra and Lucknow. In nearby Matiaburj (also known as Garden Reach), Wajid Ali Shah, the freshly exiled Nawab of Oudh had set up a court as lavish and as studded with the best musicians and poets of the land as his splendid Lucknow one had been.
Naturally, Malka and her daughter, just ten years old, moved to where all the action was…
Soon, Malka Jan was the toast of the town. In just 3 years, she had amassed enough wealth to buy an entire building in Calcutta. Meanwhile, her daughter Gauhar blossomed under the tutelage of her mother and other great teachers like Kale Khan of Patiala, alias 'Kalu Ustad', and Ustad Vazir Khan of Rampur. She also learnt dance from the legendary Bindadin Maharaj, granduncle of Birju Maharaj. Her education was both intensive and expansive. Not only did she become proficient in different forms of music including Rabindra Sangeet, she was exposed to literature and poetry and became fluent in 20 languages and dialects including Bengali, Hindustani, Gujrathi, Tamil, Marathi, Arabic, Persian, Pushto, French, Peshawari, and English. She would soon sing in at least ten of them!
Gauhar also inherited her mother’s exotic East European looks. And so, her debut at the court of the Maharaja of Darbhanga at age 13 was a spectacular one. A star had stepped down from the skies, dazzling even in a world already filled with so many other stars like her own mother. Soon Gauhar was not only singing with great virtuosity, but she was also composing her own songs under the pen name “Hamdam”. No self-respecting mehefil was complete without Gauhar’s presence and at the height of her success, the popular saying went, “Gauhar ke bina mehefil jaisa shauhar ke bina dulhan!”
Along with these fascinating stories about her, I also managed to unearth a few pictures of Gauhar Jan. All of them showed was a fair, plump, richly dressed woman who you could have called merely pretty if it were not for the imperious, slightly sulky expression in her large, dark eyes. She was a commanding, handsome presence and I could well imagine her dramatic entry into a mehefil with her silks and jewels and imposing entourage of saazindas…
It was now the turn of the century and Gauhar Jan, just 27, was Fortune’s most favourite daughter. Her fame having spread far and wide, she commanded a fabulous Rs. 3000 per performance. Naturally she had a lifestyle to match. It is said that when her cat had a litter, she threw a party that cost her twenty thousand rupees and which remained the talk of the town of years to come. She dressed to match her persona, never wearing “the same jewels twice. Strikingly effective were her delicate black gauze draperies embroidered with real gold lace, arranged so as to present a tempting view of a bare leg and a naked navel.” Pran Nevile - The importance of being Gauhar Jan, Sunday Tribune, 26.5.2002
In 1910, together with Jankibai of Allahbad, she performed at the Delhi durbar of King George and received an award of a 100 guineas!
But behind that fabulous celebrity persona was also an enormously talented musician. Her mastery over all the genres of light Hindustani music was an inspiration to many great singers who came after her. One story goes that Begum Akhtar who at one time seriously contemplated a career in films, changed her mind after she heard and became influenced by Gauhar and her mother. Incidentally, the sarangi player who used to accompany Gauhar and her mother, Ustad Imdad Khan, became Begum Akhtar’s first guru. Siddehwari Devi professed to be inspired by listening to Gauhar and her contemporaries. In one of her recitals, when the great Faiyyaz Khan refused to sing with Siddehwarafter her superb rendering of the Bhairavi thumri, “Kaahe ko daari re gulal, Brajlal Kanhayi”, he did so saying to her: "After such music there is no room for any more. After Gauhar Malika, the crown of the Thumri rests on your head".
But even more significantly, Gauhar played a pivotal role in providing rare archival material of one of the most exciting periods of Hindustani music. In 1902, Fred Gaisburg the pioneer of the modern recording industry came to India wanting to record Indian singers. And the very first Indian singer who agreed to do so was Gauhar Jan - at a time when many of the other great musicians of the time refused, perhaps suspicious of what must have seemed like some new-fangled fad. Gauhar skillfully adapted her gayaki to complete a song in just 3 minutes, a difficult task for a Hindustani classical singer used to the luxury developing a phrase or even a word for several minutes!
I actually managed to hear clips from 2 of Gauhar’s discs in a wonderfully exhaustive article on the Net by Suresh Chandvankar, Secretary, of the Society of Indian Record Collectors. Even through the poor scratchy quality of recording, Gauhar’s amazing voice struggled through – young, sultry and piercing, now trilling a perfect taan, now hitting a high note with effortless purity.
And at the end of each recording, she imperiously declares, “My name is Gauhar Jan!” (This was done apparently for the benefits of the technicians at Hanover so that they could identify the singer.) In one recording, she says, "This is an Arabic song. My name is Gauhar Jan, You have liked song!”, the last sentence being a command, not a question! In the same article, there is a photograph of one of these discs, on which is printed the legend “Dhun Kalyan. Sung by Gauhar Jan at the Town hall in Bombay, 1907”
Gauhar Jan’s records soon became enormous hits and she went to on to record an astounding 600 discs, about 150 of which are still around, carefully collected and preserved by people like Chanvankar. But ironically, Gauhar herself seems to have become a barely discernable ghost, rarely warranting a mention in any history of Hindustani music.
Like many of her kind, Gauhar’s enormous fame and wealth ultimately became her enemies. By the time she was in her forties, her personal life was a tragic mess, greedy relatives and unscrupulous lovers having taken their toll. And so the Gauhar Jan that finally took refuge in Krishnaraja Wodeyar’s court must have been a broken, sad woman. But glimmers of the dazzling exponent of the thumri and the khayal, vestiges of the gifted poetess must have still shone through to warrant this letter to her from Mr. M. Rama Rao, assistant Secretary to His Highness, The Maharaja of Mysore:
“20th August. 1928
Miss Gohar Jan is appointed a Palace Musician on a pay of R. 500 per mensem (inclusive of salaries of her musicians and accompaniments) with effect from 1st August 1928.
Dil Kush Cottage will be given free for residence.
Miss Gohar jan will be at Mysore during the birthday and Dasara seasons and on other important occasions….”
18 months later, on January 17th, 1930, Gauhar passed away in Mysore’s Krishnarajendra Hospital. Perhaps the most befitting epitaph to Gauhar is her favourite thumri, Wajid Ali Shah’s haunting, tragic composition…..
Babul mora maihar chhooto jaay,
Char kahar mil mori doliya uthaye,
Mora apna begana chhooto jaay.