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Her Life Her Times

On November 11,1902 a hotel room in Calcutta was converted into a makeshift studio. Eileen Angelina Yeoward nee Gauhar Jaan (an Armenian Christian who later converted to Islam) who must have been aware of the enormity of the occasion...

Written by EXPRESS FEATURES SERVICE |
May 6, 2010 2:52:30 am

On November 11,1902 a hotel room in Calcutta was converted into a makeshift studio. Eileen Angelina Yeoward nee Gauhar Jaan (an Armenian Christian who later converted to Islam) who must have been aware of the enormity of the occasion,sang into a huge recording horn which was fitted to a turntable that rotated at 78 rpm. This was the first ever recording in India. “But that’s not the only reason why we should remember her. The socio-cultural context serves to put her contribution and the role of women like her to Hindustani music in perspective. Through her music an attempt is made to analyze the different genres of Hindustani music that Gauhar and singers like her popularized,namely the Thumri,Dadra,and Ghazal,” says Vikram Sampath,who has penned the book My Name is Gauhar Jaan and was in the city to launch it earlier this week.

The title of the book has a little story too,insists Sampath. “My name is Gauhar Jaan— this high-pitched and flirtatious announcement,made towards the end of the rendition were a part of the earliest recording of Indian music,” he says. Gauhar Jaan’s story though reads like a script of a film. A film we can ill-afford to forget.

A young tawaif from Benares arrives in late 19th Century Kolkata. She wins over the city with her undeniable singing talent,has the richest nawabs and zamindars as her admirers and then fades into obscurity. Such pages have often wafted carelessly out of history books,but we can’t afford to forget Gauhar Jaan. Not when we owe so much to her. “The music scene in India at the turn of the 20th century witnessed tumultuous changes. The traditional custodians of the art form – the devadasis of the South and the nautch girls and tawaifs of the North,who had nurtured the art for centuries,became victims of the morality laws of the British government and the prudery of an ‘enlightened’ and educated Indian elite. However Gauhar JAan symbolizes the resurgent women musicians of the timem” says Sampath. Gauhar Jaan recorded a total of over 600 songs over the period from 1902 to 1920,and she sang in more than ten languages.  But equally dramatic was her decline. Towards the end of her life,Gauhar Jaan was selling her bandishes for as little as Rs 1.

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