My Name is Gauhar Jaan

On Sunday, Sarthak Dasgupta brought Paikpara Akhor’s Bengali play Jaan-E-Kalkatta to the city. With Anandi Bose playing the title role, it chronicled the life of Gauhar Jaan, the beauteous, enormously gifted, flamboyant musician-dancer whose strong, sweet, pliant voice reigned over the hearts of the nawabs and zamindars of Calcutta from the turn of the 19th century into the first decades of the 20th.

From the looks of it, every Bengali in Mumbai had made a beeline for Ravindra Natya Mandir where the play was staged. Written and directed by Bhadra Basu, it moved chronologically through the diva’s charmed, eventful, but ultimately tragic life. An ambitious production, it was marred only occasionally by some over-the-top acting and clumsy scripting and staging. The scene where Gauhar Jaan sings in English, Punjabi and Rajasthani was designed to show her prowess in languages; but it was so obviously contrived that it positively creaked. Mercifully, it was saved by Bose’s superb singing, which included the tappa O miya jaanewaale. Similarly, the scene in which Gauhar was shown driving her four-horse buggy, with the imaginary horses in the wings and she holding the reins on stage, while the sound track went clip-clop, was embarrassing rather than sensational.

However, the rest of the play was efficiently scripted and directed. Anandi Bose had the voice and grace to rise to the daunting challenge of playing Gauhar Jaan. She also had enough maturity as an actor to use subtle changes in body language to bring out the emotional traumas of the diva’s life. Arguably, her finest scene was when she removed her nose ring and handed it over to Amrit Keshav Nayak, the star of the Parsi theatre in Mumbai, with whom Gauhar was to live for the next three or four years. The sensuousness of the scene was heightened with Bose’s soft, intimate rendering of Gauhar’s famous thumri, Ras ke bhare tore nain.

Nayak’s sudden death in 1907 broke Gauhar’s heart. Her relationship with her personal secretary, Saiyyad Gulam Abbas disillusioned her completely. He not only womanised shamelessly but embezzled her money as well, leading to bitter legal battles in one of which she even had to prove her parentage.  She won them all, but the fees she had to pay her lawyers turned her into a pauper. Unhappily, she accepted the humiliating job of a singer at the Mysore court, dying 18 months later, in 1930, aged 57.

Those wishful purists of Mr Dinanath Batra’s persuasion, who would deny that Indian culture is a confluence of many streams, would have to deny that a phenomenon named Gauhar Jaan once enriched this land with her music. Just look at her antecedents. She was born Eileen Angelina Yeoward in Azamgarh to an Armenian Christian father. Her mother Victoria was born to a Hindu woman, Rukmani, who coverted to Christianity when she married Hardy Hemmings, an Anglo-Indian. Later Victoria and Angelina converted to Islam, Victoria becoming Badi Malka Jaan, and young Angelina, Gauhar Jaan. Although Gauhar remained a devout Muslim all her life, some of her most popular and best-loved songs were bhajans in praise of Lord Krishna.

A quintessentially free woman, Gauhar was perfectly placed to step into the technological age when the turn of the century brought the recording industry to India. While male musicians clung to frog-in-the-well ideas about angering the gods and losing their voices if they recorded on “English machines”, Gauhar Jaan became one of the first Indian musicians to do so. In those days the master records were made here and the copies pressed in Germany. In order to help the German technicians identify the singer and label the records correctly, Gauhar was instructed to announce her name at the end of each recording. That is the origin of the quaint, high-pitched announcement, “My name is Gauhar Jaan”, that we hear on all her early 75 rpm records.

Gauhar Jaan recorded some 600 songs in ten languages. If that wasn’t awe-inspiring enough, she showed such a consummate command over her art and the new technology, that, sitting before the brass horn that served as a mike, she could condense a khayal or a dhrupad into a three-minute capsule, which was all that could be recorded on a single disc in those days. Gauhar Jaan democratised classical music, bringing it out of the courts and kothas of Kolkata into the public domain.

Bhadra Basu is to be thanked for this fine recreation of the legendary musician’s life. Wish someone would do the same in Hindi.

Published On : 13-08-2014