She was the stuff of fairy tales: a flamboyant singer much sought after by British India’s nobility; a socialite who threw lavish parties;a hedonist who went about town in expensive horse buggies;a diva whose image appeared on matchboxes made in Austria. And then, the inevitable end for someone leading a life as feisty as this: self-destruction, penury and a lonely death.
She was Gauhar Jaan – the Subcontinent’s first musician to record commercially on the gramophone when the technology came calling in 1902. Despite the cult status she achieved in her lifetime, she is a forgotten figure in the world of Indian classical music, and roams the annals of Hindustani music as a barely discernible ghost.
Gauhar Jaan entered my life in the most serendipitous way. It was while sifting through the musty, yet meticulously catalogued, Palace archives of Mysore when researching my first book,Splendours of Royal Mysore: the Untold story of the Wodeyars, that Gauhar Jaan first caught my attention. She had been a state guest of the Maharaja who had given her shelter during the most difficult time of her life.
She died in Mysore in 1930, lonely and forlorn with none by her bedside to shed tears for her. The name had a certain ring to it and I somehow felt I had struck familiar terrain. She remained on my mind for a long time thereafter before I eventually decided that I would take on the arduous and seemingly impossible task of writing her biography.
Piecing the fragments of her tumultuous life was akin to a detective trail. In a country that has little regard for history and documentation, more so in the performing arts, it was almost like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Gauhar Jaan had no heirs, no surviving relatives or friends whom I could talk to and gather information about her. Starting from the place of her death, I ‘chased’ her through the length and breadth of India- Azamgarh, Banaras, Delhi, Darbhanga, Rampur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai—where she had spent significant portions of her life. Looking for documentary accounts about her in newspapers of the times or regional literature, British accounts, records of stormy court cases that she was embroiled in or the exquisite Urdu poetry written by her and her mother Badi Malka Jaan—I was completely consumed by this mission.
Good biographies seldom get written unless the creator is not maniacally obsessed with the subject and it was no different in my case. Putting together the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle to paint a portrait of a forgotten diva was both immensely satisfying and at times, intensely frustrating when one hit road blocks.
But as a musician myself, analysingGauhar’s music was as important for me as reconstructing the pattern of her life. Listening to the voice of the woman I was in ‘love’ with became another obsession! In her illustrious career Gauhar recorded close to 600 records in over 10 languages. Her repertoire was vast, and ranged from the weighty Khayal and Dhrupad to the supposedly lighter forms of thumri, dadra, kajri, hori, chaiti, tarana and bhajan.Thus began another odyssey, of looking out for her old 78-rpm shellac discs which I purchased in their hundreds from record collectors and scrap shops, bargaining for a reasonable price. The early recordings were from the acoustic era, when there were no microphones to amplify one’s voice. Singers had to shout into a horn and a stylus would vibrate at the other end depending on how loudly one screamed, thereby cutting grooves on a shellac master.To Gauhar Jaan goes the credit fordevising a unique template for presenting something as expansive as Hindustani music in just three minutes of sound, which was all that a single disc could record.
The experience of listening to her record for the very first time would remain etched in my memory forever. I never realised that an old gramophone player at home which was the prized possession of my grandmother, but seldom used by successive generations, would come so handy. Nervously placing one of Gauhar’s earliest recordings dating back to 1904 on the rotating turn-table, I switched the machine on and placed the needle on the grooves of the shellac even as I literally froze with excitement and anticipation. A young, sultry, melodious and piercing voice struggled through.
The song was a cheez in Raga Sur Malhar that symbolized the monsoons and the accompanying thunder and lightning and was sung in a breathless fashion, in increasing tempos and with single breaths packing more and more notes with each progression in a melody.
“Ghoor ghoor barasat meharava, bijuriya chamaki anek baar
Gun gaao more piharava, aap jage aur mohi jagaave
Bhar bhar surava, ghoor ghoor barasat meharava.”
The rains are pouring down the skies, the lightning flashing across them many a times
Sing along my beloved one, you keep yourself awake and don’t let me sleep either
Are these torrents of rains or torrents of musical notes that are ushered in?
Almost on clue, nature seemed to respond. I was shocked to see the clouds gathering in the sky suddenly,engulfing the room in an envelope of darkness and a loud thunder that virtually shook the antique gramophone player and made the needle jump over a couple of grooves. I had gooseflesh and simply could not believe what was happening. As the record drew to a close, there emerged a shrill and flirtatious voice dipped in child-like mirth that proudly announced ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!…you have liked my song!’: the second part sounding more like a command rather than as a question or comment!
On that May evening that left me dazed and numbed for several days thereafter, I knew what the title of my biography of this diva was going to be—it undoubtedly had to be ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!’ After all she was telling her own story to the rest of the world that had forgotten her through my book and what better way to do so than with her trademark signature at the end of every record!
Vikram Sampath is a Bangalore-based author of three acclaimed books‘Splendours of Royal Mysore: the untold story of the Wodeyars,’ ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!: the life and times of a musician’ and ‘Voice of the Veena: S Balachander, a biography.’‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!’won him the Sahitya Akademi’s first Yuva Puraskar in the English Category in 2011, as well as the ARSC International Award for Excellence in Historical Research in New York. Vikram has been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin and a guest speaker at the University of Queensland. A trained classical vocalist, Vikram is the Founder of the ‘Archive of Indian Music’ (www.archiveofindianmusic.org) and the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF).