By Sadhana Ramchander

I have been fascinated by Gauhar Jaan’s life ever since I came to know about her. I bought this hard-bound book in the bookshop A A Hussian some years ago but it sat on my shelves for a long time. I finally read it, and am so glad I did because it gave me a peek into not only her amazing life but also into the journey of classical Hindustani music and musicians of the time.

Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930) was a singer and dancer from Kolkata, and one of the first Indian voices to have been recorded on 78 rpm gramophone records in 1902. The initial days of this process was painstaking and a musician’s worst nightmare. “The singer had to crane his or her neck into a narrow horn fixed on the wall and literally scream as loud as possible. The volume of the voice would ensure that the needle rotated and cut the grooves on the disc”. Added to this, a recording agent forcefully held the head of the singer in place because they were used to shaking their heads and gesticulating while singing (as they still do)!

The other interesting thing about the recordings was that the singer announced her name at the end of the recording since the wax masters of the records were sent to Hanover where the records were made, and the technicians there would not know who the singer was. Therefore, at the end of all her recordings, Gauhar Jaan says in a shrill, child-like and playful voice, “My name is Gauhar Jaan”!  This, justifiably, is the title of the book.  

Gauhar Jaan’s story has been pieced together by Vikram Sampath after painstaking research, and has a lot of details. She was born Eileen Angelina Yeoward, an Armenian Christian who converted to Islam when her mother married a Muslim gentleman. She was a naturally gifted singer, was very popular and made nearly 600 records.

The book begins with her childhood and her learning years, her loves and disappointments, and her journey to becoming a star in the world of Hindustani music. She was a much-sought-after musician, was very well dressed and stylish, and went around Kolkata in a horse-drawn carriage. She was particularly known for her thumris,[1] and sang in many royal courts all over India. The success of her gramophone records made her a celebrity in India, and she was also known in Europe. Hers was a story of great glory, and yet extreme sadness because she was not successful in love, much as she yearned for a happy relationship.

Towards the end of her life, she lost all that she earned, and finally reached the court of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV of Mysore, where she was appointed Palace Musician. Unfortunately, she died there within 18 months of going there.

‘My name is Gauhar Jaan’ ends with the following quote:

Hum tho markar bhi kitabon mein rahenge zinda;
Gham unhi ka hai jo mar jaayen tho guzar jaaten hain

(Even in death I will remain immortal in the books that are written about me
Pity those who don’t just die, but pass away into oblivion.)

The book comes with a CD with her earliest recordings, and of course, her signature My name is Gauhar Jaan’ at the end of each recording. It is such a delight to listen to them!

Gauhar Jaan’s life was also made into a fascinating play I saw some years back. It was written by Mahesh Dattani and directed by the very talented Lilette Dubey. It was brilliantly acted and the actors – Rajeshwari Sachdev, Zila and others –  also sang Gauhar’s thumris beautifully.

[1] Thumri is a light-classical song form in classical Hindustani music with romantic or devotional lyrics.