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Gone in the Air

“My Name is Gauhar Jaan!” The Life and Times of a Musician, by Vikram Sampath (©2010)
Rupa Publications, New Delhi, ISBN 8129116185 –

In 1857, following the deposition of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the cities along the Ganges one by one slipped into the hands of the British East India Company and three hundred years of Mughal reign in the subcontinent ended. Shifts in fortune, power, patronage, and custom at the eye of the pyramid dripped down the walls of Indian society, north to south; new power structures were erected, and with them new technologies and customs emerged, new histories were written, and new fortunes were made, many of them sealed with blood. It was against this unutterably complex social transformation that a young girl named Gauhar Jaan (born Eileen Angelina Yeoward) arrived with her mother, ‘Badi’ Malka Jaan, a tawaif, in Calcutta to seek the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, the fifth (and last) king of Oudh and a great patron of the arts and esoteric sciences.

In the court of Wajid Ali Shah, Malka Jaan established herself, thrived, and after three years purchased a house for her and Gauhar, who was herself well on her way to a tawaifdom. In 1886, at the age of fifteen, she performed alone at the Darbhanga Raj and, following a successful performance, was appointed court musician there. For the next several years she sang and danced at the courts of patrons and in the houses of wealthy zamindars and in doing so became a wealthy and renowned young woman. Even the Maharaja of Mysore learned of her exceptional abilities and invited her to perform at his distant southern kingdom. Increasingly it appeared as if history had a special place reserved for this hard-working and talented girl.

In 1902, Fred Gaisberg, an American, one of the world’s first record producers and talent scouts, and a hawkish proponent for the replacement of phonograph cylinders with 78 rpm flat discs, arrived in India and, under the auspices of the Gramophone Company, to make the very first recordings there. His first subject was none other than Gauhar Jaan, whom he chanced to see at the home of a wealthy Bengali patron and later recorded in a makeshift studio in a Calcutta hotel room. Gaisberg recollects that at 9:00 AM on Saturday, 8 November 1902, a fair-skinned young lady, full of jewelry, entered the room with paraphernalia, relatives, and accompanists on sarangi, harmonium and tabla. Gauhar watched as a thick shellac disc was placed on the turntable rotating at 78 RPM and on the wall was hung a huge horn into which she was told to sing loudly, and for just under three minutes.  At the end of each recording she says, “My name is Gauhar Jaan” so that mastering technicians in Hanover, Germany, to which the discs were sent, would know what to print on the record labels. Thus ended India’s first ever recording session and thus began a new epoch in the long history of Indian musical arts and in mass media.

Though its significance to mass media is not yet fully understood, the invention of the gramophone record is analogous to the invention of the printing press. The arrival of the gramophone in South Asia and the Far East represented, in McLuhan-era media studies terms, a defining moment in the inception of the global village, for vernacular musics now could be heard far from their places of origin. Most all of India’s great voices and players of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never saw a gramophone horn either for lack of opportunity or simply because most ragas and talas were far too long to fit on a 78 RPM disc, which in those days lasted less than three minutes per side. Indeed, many Hindustani and Carnatic vocalists take three minutes to develop a single phrase or word. Also, many musicians in the pre-War years were incredulous to the idea of being recorded for spiritual and superstitious reasons. Misapprehensions abounded that singing into “this evil English instrument” would cause irrevocable loss of voice. Rahimat Khan Haddu Khan stormed out of an HMV playback session because someone who sounded just like him was singing back through the horn. Singers also questioned the spiritual purity of the song if it were endlessly duplicatable, for how can the song go on living if it is not immediately, as Eric Dolphy once said, “gone in the air”? Couched in such objections is prescient critique inasmuch as they foresaw a similar political hazard in the mechanical reproduction of art as did Walter Benjamin thirty years later.

Philosophical objections aside, the more concrete limitations of the gramophone were in its obtuse response and limited frequency range—hardly suitable for musical forms that rise and fall with great subtlety. Most string instruments were completely undetectable. Recordings of this vintage were made mechanically (electrical recordings were not possible until the 1920s) by piping sound into the horn that stimulated a diaphragm that in turn stimulated the cutting stylus. Singers had to put their entire face into the horn and quite literally scream to make the needle move around. You can hear Gauhar’s voice echoing in the horn (her accompanists sound as if they are playing in another room), and the circular scratching sound of the stylus cutting the wax—itself a new vista in the metapragmatics of aesthetic experience.

Track One: Hai Gokul ghar ke chora- Khayal -Raag Multani, as sung by Gauhar Jaan

Track Eleven: Tan man ki bisar gayi–Thumri- Raag Pahadi Jhinjhith, as sung by Gauhar Jaan

Though other singers were recorded by Gaisberg in these initial sessions, the significance of Gauhar’s career cannot be understated. Here we have a young woman, self-made in a male-dominated tradition, who readily adapted her gayaki to fit the three-minute limitation and thus established a new template for generations of vocalists. As well, she recorded the music of her ustads and thus preserved centuries old formal traditions. Her records sold by the hundred in major cities, as did gramophone machines (which initially cost only Rs 250) to a new generation of middle class Indians, for whom gramophone ownership became something of a status symbol. Between 1902 and 1920 she recorded some 600 tracks about 150 of which are still known to exist in some form. Perhaps more remarkable, she sang in at least thirteen languages and covered the entire formal range of Hindustani classical music, as well as a few Carnatic and English language titles. Gauhar was India’s first mass media superstar; her voice was heard by millions of Indians, even those who could not afford a gramophone. Music, no longer the property of the rich and privileged, became part of the march toward democracy on which India had persevered since its first Revolution. And this meant singers and musicians achieved a kind of national, even global, popularity impossible in the nineteenth century and before, when even the most revered and talented players and voices were heard by only a parochial audience in the age of courtly salon patronage.

Gauhar Jaan’s fame and fortune steadily increased in both the commercial sector and by way of traditional private patronage. Always in demand, she travelled long distances to perform in Rampur, Madras (Chennai), and Delhi. In 1911 she was invited to via letter to perform for Emperor George V at the Delhi Durbar. Always the romantic and always prone to tragic love affairs, often at the expense of her artisanship, Gauhar fought a rapacious public eager for details of her affairs, and increasingly, the noonday demon. Unfortunately her fame also attracted the attention of parasites close to her heart. Bhaglu, the son of her mother’s maid, filed an affidavit asserting his sole right to the not inconsiderable inheritance of Malka Jaan—a legal move that could have left Gauhar on the streets. Only after months of hearings and dredging up ghosts from the past (including her estranged father Robert William Yeoward) to testify, was the case decided in her favor and Bhaglu evicted from the estate. Abbas, Gahuar’s young secretary who had taken charge and comforted her through the court hearings, and to whom Gauhar later entered into muta, came to betray her both as financial manager and lover, and yet another cause célèbre court case ensued. By the end of it Gauhar was drained emotionally and financially. This combined with the anti-nautch movement fostered by rising Christian evangelicalism in the subcontinent saw the impoverishment of thousands of tawaifsacross India. Reportedly even Gandhi rejected them from his movement as “obscene”. Gauhar Jaan moved from place to place, eventually ending up in Mysore in 1928, where she died of fever in Kirishnarajendra Hospital, alone and forlorn, obscure and unknown as the day she was born.

The great mystery of Vikram Sampath’s definitive account of Gauhar Jaan’s life is how India’s first recorded voice, whose image appeared on Austrian-made matchbooks, and whose voice was known to and loved by millions of Indians all but vanish from history? That Mr Sampath’s richly detailed biography of Gauhar Jaan is the first of its kind (barring an extremely obscure Bengali language work) is testament to his inquiry into this mystery. Sometimes overnight successes vanish by the very principle that inflates them, and other times events seem to conspire against individuals and leave us with no trace of them.  Even if the old guard who, in refusing to be mechanically recorded, remain part of a millennia-old oral tradition gone without a trace and thus kept their art free from political machination, we may also listen to Gauhar Jaan as the first voice heralding the dawn of a new kind of history.


  1. surojit banerjee says:

    heavenly voice. wish she is reborn as Gauhar Jan again

  2. Abdul Aleem says:

    One of the crisp and clear reviews on this earlier unknown singer. There is a reference to a Bengali language written book. Any information on the ‘title’ and is a copy of it available . An email id is not availabe to contact you . Appreciate the clear review.

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