The Tribune - Spectrum

, May 26, 2002

The importance of being Gauhar Jan
Pran Nevile

Gauhar Jan singing in 1902. A file photograph from H.M.V. Calcutta
Gauhar Jan singing in 1902. A file photograph from H.M.V. Calcutta

GAUHAR Jan of Calcutta, who became a legend at the turn of the 20th century was one of the most renowned and charismatic performing artistes of her time.

The first artiste to be recorded in India by the famous Fred Gaisburg way back in 1902, Gauhar Jan recorded her song only a year after the invention of wax recording. A highly accomplished singer and dancer, she belonged to a world of grandeur and refinement in which the princely durbars and salons kothas of Tawaifs were the hub of performing arts.

Honoured and rewarded by Nawabs and nobles, immortalised by poets and chroniclers, the female dancers and singers had, through the centuries, played a vital role in keeping alive our traditional cultural heritage. It was an enchanting and romantic world that survived until the early decades of the 20th century. A lively world, now wrapped in the past, has been well-nigh forgotten. And so has Gauhar Jan who performed in the princely courts and other celebrated gatherings all over India.

There is hardly any mention of her in books of Indian music and dance.

Gauhar was born in 1875 in Allahabad. Her mother, Allen Victoria Hemming, was an Armenian married to one William Robert Yeoward, an employee of a Calcutta firm.


After their divorce in 1879, the mother and daughter had to face many hardships. Finally, in 1881, they moved to Banaras where they embraced Islam.

The mother assumed the name ‘Malika Jan’ for herself and named her daughter ‘Gauhar Jan’. Malika Jan learnt singing and dancing under the tutelage of Kaloo Ustad and Ali Baksh of Lucknow to eke out a living.

With her innate genius and determination along with dedicated practice, Malika Jan soon achieved name and fame as a professional singer and dancer. She moved to Calcutta where she had a host of admirers.

She also began writing Urdu verses under the tutorship of Hakim Banno Sahib Hilal of Banaras and became a poetess of distinction. She published a Dewan titled ‘Makhzan Ulfat-i-Malika’, which contained 106 ghazals and some songs.

Gauhar began imbibing interest in music from her early childhood, surrounded as she was by renowned artistes of the day.

The tutors were greatly impressed with the child’s inherent talents, her quick grasp and gifted voice.

They were convinced that Gauhar had a great potential and was destined to make a mark in the music world. Her maiden public performance in 1887 at the age of 12 before the Maharaja of Durbhanga, himself a good artiste, was highly acclaimed.

This event marked the beginning of her glorious career. Soon, she had a host of admirers who were greatly struck by her intelligence and cultivated mind. She had a pretty face, lustrous eyes, graceful figure of medium height, long black hair, magnetic charm and rich melodious voice — all of which contributed to her astounding success as a performing artiste.

Following the footsteps of her mother, she also became a poetess and wrote under the nom de plume Gohur. She contributed a laudatory ode to her mother’s Dewan.

Gauhar Jan became famous and dominated the Calcutta entertainment scene for decades. It was here that Abdul Halim Sharar, the famous writer from Lucknow, was dazzled by her amazing performance in 1896 and wrote, "I witnessed her skill in batana (depiction through bodily movements in dance) on the same theme for a full three hours. All those present at the gathering, including the most expert dancers and distinguished people were spellbound. There was not even a child who was not impressed by the performance".

She surpassed all other leading singers and dancers of her time with her mastery of style, flawless technique of rendering songs and wonderful display of rhythmic movements of the feet and the hands, besides fantastic facial expression and gesticulations to express various moods, feelings and emotions embodied in the song.

Commenting on her performance in Bangalore in 1912. H.P. Krishna Rao, editor of ‘Indian Music Journal’ observed: "She possesses a sweet voice which when prolonged seems uniformly grand, more so, as it is produced without any strain.

The notes are faultless and simple. The gradual transition from one note to another and the wave-like ascent and descent which produces in the mind of the listener the kind of agreeable illusion which one experiences when rocked in a cradle, are special points of beauty in her singing: Everything is precise and accurate."

Gauhar Jan was the first Indian artiste to have been invited for recording by the Gramophone Company of Calcutta, F.W. Gaisburg. The first representative of the Company who come to Calcutta in 1902, gives an interesting account of Gauhar Jan.

He says, "She was an Armenian-Jewess who could sing in 20 languages and dialects. Her fee was Rs 300 per evening and she used to make a brave show when she drove at sundown on the Maidan in a fine carriage.

Hers were among the 600 records which proved a firm foundation for our new enterprise.... every time she came to record, she amazed us by appearing in a new gown, each one more elaborate than the last.

She never wore the same jewels twice. Strikingly effective were her delicate black gauze draperies embroidered with real gold lace, arranged so as to present a tempting view of a bare leg and a naked navel. She was always bien soignee.

Through her gramophone records, Gauhar jan became a legendary figure all over India. She later served as a court singer in Darbhanga and Rampur before joining the Mysore Durbar where she died in 1930.

She had earned fame and fortune far beyond the reach of any other artiste of her day. Part of this unprecedented success was attributed to the invisible and effective self-advertisement, through her announcement at the end of her 78 r.p.m. records: "My name is Gauhar Jan"

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