Inimitable songster
Reviewed by Harbans Singh

My Name is Gauhar Jaan! The Life and Times of a Musician
By Vikram Sampath.
Pages 318. Rs 595.

THE title of the book is appropriately taken from the "high pitched and flirtatious announcement" made towards the end of the earliest recordings of Indian music symbolises the pioneering of "a major revolution in the field of Indian classical music". It marked a journey that took music away from the cloistered patronage of the rich and mighty to the global mass media. Recording and reproduction of human voice not only liberated the music from the hold of the resourceful but also initiated a process that changed the behavioral pattern of the society.

Vikram Sampath has through the life and times of one of the most celebrated singers of India taken the reader through the two worlds of music. One that was vainly celebrating the remains of the grandeur of the Mughal legacy and the other that democratised music and made the common man have a say in the making and unmaking of an artist and a star. Gauhar Jaan, straddled both the worlds, enjoyed its perks and also suffered the pain and agony.

In the sensitive hands of Sampath, the subject of fallen woman and the world of the courtesans, singers and twaifs becomes a study of social history of our recent past. He does not sit in judgment of the characters that he deals with and this explains the studious silence on how Khurshid, who was instrumental in the metamorphosis of Victoria and Angelina as Malka and Gauhar and then launching Malka and Gauhar in the world of twaifs, came to abdicate the role of the provider and protector. He, however, spares no effort to make the reader understand the world of music as it stood at the turn of the 19th century. In order to emphasise the historical nature of the music of Gauhar Jaan, he goes into the evolution of the recording industry in its early days.

Today, the management gurus might write volumes on the fortune that lies under the pyramid of poverty and how it could be dug out, but the earliest exponents of this theory were the pioneers of recording techniques and industry. In doing so, the invention made the faceless masses the arbiters of the fate of the singers who now no longer made it necessary for the artist to please the patron.

The importance of Gauhar Jaan lies not only in her contribution to enriching the various forms of singing but also in paving the way for other less charming and consummate artists to explore an alternate source of income. The ease with which she adapted to the needs of the new technology encouraged others to follow her. This period also coincided with rising democratic aspirations of the people and somewhere it also sounded the death knell for an extravagant and effete lifestyle. For those like Gauhar Jaan, who did not believe in the mortality of youth, fame and beauty, the end is ever so painful. Thus, the diva who had such an aura that even the Governor mistook her for royalty and curtsied and who did not hesitate to give tit for tat to the venerable Mahatma Gandhi, when she found that he had not kept his end of the promise became a bitter and vulnerable mortal on the eve of her life.

The author has worked hard on recreating the world of music and musicians of the 19th and the 20th century. The folklore and anecdotes about contemporaries of Gauhar Jaan explain the attitude and culture as it prevailed then. He has worked harder on unearthing the various songs sung by Gauhar Jaan. But in doing so, he has also found out the treasure in the form of the poetry of Badi Malka Jaan, the mother and mentor of Gauhar Jaan. The book is a treat for those who love reading the life and times of musicians of the past.