This was the first article I wrote for Indian Express. That was in 2003.
A Tamil music book printed in the early 1920s, has a section devoted to the songs of Calcutta Gauhar Jan. The songs are all in Urdu and various North Indian dialects. Yet the words were written in Tamil script and set to notation so that Tamil speaking people could learn them. Such was the impact that this singer had made on South Indian audiences. At the other end of social scale, she had occasion to perform for the pleasure of the King Emperor, George V, when he visited India in 1911in connection with the Imperial Durbar in Delhi.
Calcutta Gauhar Jan was neither from Calcutta and nor was her original name the one by which she acquired everlasting fame. She was of Armenian stock and a Jew by birth. Her father was Robert William Yeoward, who worked in Azamgarh, UP and her mother Victoria. The child, born in 1873, was given the name Angelina. The passion for music and dance that Victoria had was not liked by her husband and when she took on a lover by name Khurshed, the couple separated. Victoria, Khurshed and little Angelina moved over to Benares, where the mother and daughter embraced Islam, taking on the names of Malka and Gauhar respectively. Malka, indulged in her love for the performing arts to the fullest and soon became one of the most famous courtesans of the city, taking on the name of Badi Malka Jan.
In 1883, Malka Jan and Gauhar Jan, moved over to Calcutta, then the second largest city of the Empire and cultural hub. Badi Malka Jan acquired a house on Chitpur Road and settled down. Her daughter was given the best training in music and dance and in 1888 gave her maiden performance at the Darbhanga Court. She became the rage in Calcutta, with rich zamindars and officials vying for her favours even as she entertained them with her exquisite Kathak dances and her wide repertoire of songs from ghazals to dhrupads and keertans. She also composed using the pen name “Hamdam”. Thanks to her patrons, she became very wealthy.
In 1902, the Gramophone Company sent its representative Frederick William Gaisberg to India to locate Indian artistes and record their voices. He invited Gauhar Jan first and she obliged and was paid Rs 3000 for the effort. At the end of the recording she was asked to announce “My name is Gauhar Jan” and this too was recorded so that engineers in Germany who did the copying from the master would not make any errors in giving credits. The “plates” arrived the next year and were in great demand all over India. Gauhar Jan’s fame spread she began to travel to various towns and cities of the country. In 1907 she performed at the Town Hall in Bombay. While there she would spend most of the day at the Mahalakshmi Race Course.
In 1910 she travelled to Madras where C Gopala Chetty organised a concert of hers at the Victoria Public Hall. The concert netted a sum of Rs 4000. During this visit Gauhar Jan stayed with Salem Godavari, a famed singer and Devadasi who lived in Thambu Chetty Street, George Town. A dinner in her honour was organised by the legendary Veena Dhanammal, during the course of which she was presented with a sandalwood garland. Harrisons of Broadway did the catering and the bill came to Rs 1000. But that would not have seemed a great expense to Gauhar Jan, for had she not once hosted a party in Calcutta at a cost of Rs 20000, in honour of her cat giving birth to a litter of kittens? Intrigued by the Carnatic style of music, Gauhar Jan learnt the song Bhajana parula (raga Surutti) from Veena Dhanammal and released a record of it. Her songs in turn were learnt by artistes such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar.
For all the public adulation she received, Gauhar Jan’s private life was not happy. She married her secretary, who proved unfaithful. The break up resulted in prolonged litigation. She then lived in Bombay with Amrit Vagal Nayak, a handsome star of the Gujarati stage for a few years during which she learnt several songs from him. He died suddenly, leaving Gauhar Jan prey to mental depression. Though she had earned enormously, she had given away considerable amounts to charities. Unscrupulous relatives tried to deprive her of what was left, taking advantage of her mental condition. After brief stints at Calcutta and Darbhanga, the royal invitation of HH Krishnarajendra Wodeyar IV of Mysore came like the proverbial balm. She became a Mysore State artiste and died there in 1930.
Thus ended the life of one of the most colourful artistes of the last century.