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GAUHAR JAN (1873-1930)

Gauhar Jan was one of the most influential singers in Hindustani classical music ever. She was born Angelina Yeoward. Her father, William Robert Yeoward, was an Armenian Jew who married Victoria Hemming, an Anglo-Indian singer and dancer, in 1870. Angelina was baptised as a Methodist at Azamgarh. Victoria divorced her husband in 1879 and took her baby daughter to Varanasi, where in 1881 she converted to Islam, taking for herself the name Malika Jan and called her daughter Gauhar Jan. Malika Jan wrote poems in Urdu under the guidance of Hakim Bano Sahib Hilal of Banaras and published a dewan titled Makhzan Ulfat-i-Malika, with 106 ghazals and some songs. Having spent eight years in Varanasi perfecting her music under Kalu Ustad and Ali Baksh of Lucknow, Malika Jan moved to Calcutta and sang as Badi Malika Jan because there were two other Malikas in the circuit.

Gauhar Jan’s maiden performance was in 1887 before the Maharaja of Darbhanga, himself an accomplished singer. She was adept at bhao batana, or expressing the feelings of the song and the emotions of the character through face, gesture, intonation and expression. She drove around in a four-horse open carriage and could not bear to go anywhere without it, so it was shipped by train wherever she went.

Rabindranath Tagore allowed her to sing his songs set to her own tunes, a privilege not allowed to anyone else. In 1902 on 14 November a rudimentary recording studio was set up in two hotel rooms in Calcutta by Frederick William Gaisberg and his assistants, who were on their first recording expedition to the East for the Gramophone Company, then only four years old. Their local agent had lined up for them some Western-style cabaret singers, but Gaisberg wanted more. Looking for local talent he went to the police, trawled theatres, palace mehfils, and other less than savoury places. At last an artist was found. Said to be a famous dancing girl. The ‘girl’ showed up punctually with a huge entourage, positioned herself before the weird contraption with its huge recording horn and fat wax tablet, and began to sing. She had been told that she had to sing the ghazal in exactly three minutes. She did not tell Gaisberg that a ghazal takes several hours to sing and could take all night. She simply did it, like the professional she was. In the process, she radically changed Indian music. Her early records were labelled ‘First dancing girl, Calcutta’. She recorded up to a quarter of the 600 discs the Gramophone Company got out of that expedition, singing in seven languages out of the twenty she was reputed to be able to sing in.

She was attached to the court of Darbhanga and Rampur before going to the Mysore court where she died in 1930. Her services to music were not recognised either by the state or posterity, although she enjoyed rockstar status in her lifetime and immortalised Hindustani classical music for the world.
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