“They say beauty is but a flash in the pan
And the arts just facades for sorcery
Yes, she was one whose heart was wanton
But even today, immortal she stands”
(Lines by Anuvab Chattopadhyay)
Singer, Dancer, Courtesan, Performer, Seductress 1873-1930
When news broke out of a possible movie on Gauhar Jaan, it made headlines all across Bengal. However, this solitary headline also flashed the proposed name cum subject of the film, someone whose cultural legacy has been neglected but lives on in a flurry of little salaams still proffered to a few elusive nautch girls in North Kolkata, some haunting Sarangi laced melodies wafting out of a few remaining grand old mansions in the city, flashes of imbibed etiquette and creativity that harks back to a golden time before..Gauhar Jaan.
Gauhar Jaan was an Indian courtesan and a singer and dancer of repute. She was a famous tawaif or courtesan in India. A little known fact about her is that she was one of the first ever singers to record music on 78 rpm in the country that was released by the Gramophone Company of India. Born as Angelina Yeoward in Azamgarh to an Armenian father William Robert Yeoward and trained musician and dancer Victoria Hemmings, she faced the vagaries of poverty and sudden fall from grace at a very young age when her parents’ marriage disintegrated amidst a million tensions in 1879.
Victoria and Angelina found no choice but to migrate to Banaras in the year 1881 with Khursheed, a Muslim nobleman. What gave Victoria solace was that Khursheed started liking her musical talent more than her ex-husband ever could. She converted to Islam in the near future, taking the name of Malka Jaan and Angelina was also changed to Gauhar Jaan as a result. Malka Jaan became a reputed singer, courtesan and Kathak dancer in Banaras and steadily became known as Badi Malka Jaan as there were three other popular Malka Jaans in the country and she was the oldest among the quartet.
Despite her growing popularity in Banaras, Malka Jaan decided to shift to Calcutta in the year 1883 and established her position at Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s courts. The Nawab was then settled at Garden Reach or Matiaburj near Kolkata and her success enabled her to purchase a house at 24, Chitpore Road or the present day Rabindra Sarani for a hefty sum of Rs. 40, 000. Gauhar Jaan started learning Hindustani classical music here from Kalu Ustad, Kale Khan from Patiala, Ustad Ali Baksh and Ustad Vazir Khan who were all the founders of the revered Patiala Gharana. Additionally, Gauhar also learnt Kathak from the famed Brindadin Maharaj who was the grand-uncle of Pandit Birju Maharaj. Srijanbai taught her the dhrupad dhamar while Charan Das tutored her in Bengali Keertan.
Gauhar started her creative odyssey as a writer of ghazals under the name of Hamdam and soon picked up Rabindra Sangeet as well. She first performed at the Darbhanga Raj courts in the year 1887 and was appointed court musician there. Her Calcutta performances kicked off in the year 1896 and she was the first professional dancing girl in the city according to records. Gauhar also performed in 1910 in Madras at the Victoria Public Hall and this led to the publishing of her Urdu and Hindustani songs in a Tamil music book. She was also invited to sing at King George V’s coronation at the Delhi Durbar where her Mubarak Ho Mubarak Ho and Ye Hai Tajposhi ka Jalsa created quite a stir.
She finally shifted to Mysore as a guest and palace musician of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV and died there in 1930. Gauhar Jaan recorded a staggering 600 records between 1902 and 1920 in Bengali, Persian, Hindustani, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Pushto, Arabic, English and French! At every performance, she would conclude by remarking, My name is Gohar Jaan. She played a huge part in popularizing Hindustani classical and some of her most iconic melodies were Mere dard-e-jigar, Radhey Krishna Bol Mukhse, Ras ke bhare Tore Nain and Mora nahak laye gavanava.
Gauhar Jaan’s life is also defined by her unsuccessful and often tragic quest to find true and pure love. She was a supremely beautiful woman who could drive men crazy with a single look and had her fair share of admirers and hangers-on. She lived a flamboyant lifestyle and threw parties costing Rs 20, 000 and more for several occasions including a time when her cat produced kittens. She violated government regulations and drove around in a four horse buggy for which she kept paying a fine worth Rs 1, 000 every day to the Viceroy.
All her fame and success could not quite get her love and Gauhar had an unsuccessful fling with the noted Gujarati theatre actor Amrit Keshav Nayak in Bombay. She then moved on to her much younger secretary Abbas but this relationship ended in a huge legal wrangle when Gauhar discovered that Abbas was stealing her money. She won a legal case against Abbas but the costs of the case reduced her to near penury. She spent her last couple of years lonely and neglected with no one standing at her bedside. Not many know that Gauhar Jaan’s photographs appeared on matchboxes and picture postcards in her lifetime as she was one of the first true celebrities of Calcutta.
Gauhar Jaan’s legacy lives on in a few stray remnants of the glorious original but Hindustani Classical music is yet to acknowledge, preserve, digitize and commemorate her music. Her beauty and dancing skills are often mentioned in a few books or forgotten newspaper archives establishing her as the first famous baiji (courtesan) of Calcutta. Seldom is her musical talent mentioned or feted by classical music doyens.
She pined for love in her lifetime and now her soul hovers around old Calcutta’s winding bylanes, collecting scraps of proof of her immortality.
By Anuvab Chattopadhyay
– I am a writer, poet & musician. I run my own content startup and have worked extensively as a journalist and magazine editor.