ASK your neighbour whether he has heard of Gauhar Jaan. The most likely response would be: “What is that?” Today we live in a different world. We have little or no concept of an India of the latter half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, of the role of Nawabs, Maharajas and rich landlords and the patronage they bestowed on musicians.
In her time Gauhar Jaan was a name to be reckoned with in the world of Hindustani music. She was the first one to have a 3-minute record cut by Gramaphone and Typewriter (GTL) Ltd, precursor of His Master’s Voice (HMV). She could command attention just by saying her name is Gauhar Jaan. But strangely enough she was not a born Muslim.
Her grandfather was an Englishman called Hardy Hemmings. He had kept an Indian mistress, Rukmani, par for the course, in mid 19th century. They had two children, one named Adeline Victoria, and another named Bela. Hemmings died at an early age leaving his family to struggle to make a living. Adelina Victoria grew up in poverty. About the time she was 15, a man of Armenian descent, Robert William Yeoward, fell in love with her and, with her mother’s ready consent, married her. They had a child baptised as Eileen Angelina. Circumstances forced Robert to stay away from his family for months together. Apparently that led Victoria to have an affair with a Muslim nobleman named Khurshid. Shocked, Robert claimed divorce. It became the talk of the town. In order to save face, Khurshid, Rukmani and Angelina left their home town Azamgarh and migrated to Banaras, home of courtesans. Here Victoria decided to embrace Islam. She changed her name to Malka and Angelina was named Gauhar.
In due course Gauhar took to the study of music and made a name for herself. Her mother Malka distinguished herself as a leading twaif and in no time the mother-and-daughter duo became the toast of the town. But this book is not just about Malka and Gauhar. It is quite literally the cultural history of post 1857-India when British soldiers in the Indian Army, for want of female company, would either opt for homosexuality, or visit prostitutes, or maintain a ‘keep’, known as bibi – common law wife! For an Englishman, a European wife would cost upward of Rs 5,000 per month to maintain while having a bibi was affordable at Rs 40! Many preferred to have bibis. Renowned courtesans were in demand by the rich and the charge for a night would equal the daily revenue of the king of Kashi! The tawaifs were at the top of the social structure. Among them, too, the Bai who only sang, was above the Jaan who sang and danced. Below the twaifs came a broad based category of professional women. At the bottom were the Khanagis who included sexual favours as part of their entertainment packet.
Gauhar, of course, was at the top of the lot, highly respected, indeed and even highly paid, that when invited to Mysore to live as Palace Musician on a pay of Rs 500 p.m. – this was in 1928 – she was shocked beyond recall and, throwing away the appointment letter, she shouted: “Five hundred rupees? What do they take me for, a whore?” At that time she was among the highest paid artistes and commanded an extravagant sum of Rs 1,000 per concert. With her rising popularity came a flurry of invitations from a host of princely states and wealthy households. They deemed it an honour if Gauhar graced their soirees.
Long is her song-list which includes: Hai Gokul ghar ke chora, Krishna madho ram niranjan, Aayi Kaari badariya, Tan man ki bisar gayi, Shyam re mori baiyyan gaho naa…. She practised a lot. But she would spend most of what she earned on her pleasures and fetishes.
Gauhar passed away on January 17, 1930 in a “lonely and forlorn corner of the Krishnarajendra Hospital in Mysore, with none by her beside to shed tears for her. This book has to be read to be believed. It tells us as much about Gauhar and her musical talents as of her loves and losses and the times she lived in. But if you care, shed a tear now.” “Reading the Book” Vice President Hamid Ansari is quoted as saying, “has opened a whole new world for me”.
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