8 comments on “Gauhar Jaan – Great Singing Pioneer and Tragic Prototype

  1. I doubt if I’ll ever get around to reading this book, Richard, but thank you for a very interesting article. This was enlightening, and – as a bit of an aside – I agree, too, with AK’s comment about some of these stars having probably brought about their tragic ends by in the first place never thinking about saving for the future. There are sad stories of riches-to-rags aplenty, and somehow I find it impossible to believe that people who were once very successful and commanded massive salaries (or fees) couldn’t have saved up enough to keep them going once their careers – inevitably – would end. There are of course some who’ve been truly unlucky, but many, I think, were at least partly responsible for ending up so poor and helpless.

  2. Madhu,
    I would strongly recommend this book because it talks not only about Gauhar Jan, but also a good deal about tawaif culture. In popular imagination they were associated with brothels, but once upon a time they were supposed to be carriers of high art and ‘tahzeeb’ to whom zamindars used to send their wards for grooming in fine arts and good manners, a kind of finishing school.

    Gauhar Jan’s misery was not so much on account of reckless living, as getting married to a rogue and an obnoxious person, who cheated her of her entire assets. She spent her last years fighting court battles to retrieve her property. In this respect her story mirrors many women celebrities who were not able to get out of a bad marriage.

    Vinkram Sampath is an interesting guy. A BITS Pilani alumnus, MBA, Corporate job in Finance, and leaving all that to become a practising musician (Carnatic music), writer and archivist, is quite impressive. He has also written a very highly acclaimed biography of the Veena Man, S Balachander, and another one on Mysore Royals.
    AK

  3. First of all, to Madhu, thank you for the good words again. And I hope you do eventually read this book (which both I and AK would recommend), although I understand that first you would want to get through that 400+-page novel about Begum Hazrat Mahal. ;)

    Regarding your thoughts concurring with the comment from AK that I referred to from before and your comment, “There are of course some who’ve been truly unlucky, but many, I think, were at least partly responsible for ending up so poor and helpless,” I do think Gauhar Jaan was a little of both.

    AK, it is interesting to see you take up a sort of opposite perspective here. :) But there are parts of this book in which Sampath describes in detail Gauhar Jaan’s ostentatious ways of traveling, performing, and living in general, when she was at her peak. He seems to do so in a positive way, saying that she did not care what other people thought of all of it, because she was determined to be “herself.” But on the other hand, it is not unreasonable to assume that she might have been able to set aside something for the eventuality of hard luck had she not spent so much to maintain that image. Then when she was hit with all the legal troubles and the cheating out of money by the obnoxious man she married (who was not the only man who screwed her over in the tale related by this book), don’t you think it is possible that she might have had some other resources that she could have drawn upon, had she lived her life a slightly different way?

    When you commented about stars not saving sufficiently for the eventuality of bad times, I though that could apply, also, to not doing something sufficient in order to persevere in the event of bad luck. I don’t think the husband robbed her of everything, nor did the other legal battles, but all of it together was too much for her, and it all hit her when – and to some extent because – she was on the way down. This is not to say that I would have blamed her, but nor would I have blamed other fallen stars whom I couldn’t help comparing her too. Ultimately, I think it’s the responsibility of the society to ensure that when someone declines professionally and/or financially (as well as in terms of health), that person is not left to suffer brutal circumstances that lead to a horrible end.

    Then there is the matter that she came to depend too much on the adulation of others without ever achieving some kind of internal peace and satisfaction with herself. I think Sampath makes that point pretty clear.

    Regarding your statement about Sampath that “A BITS Pilani alumnus, MBA, Corporate job in Finance, and leaving all that to become a practising musician (Carnatic music), writer and archivist, is quite impressive”. . . Another way one might look at that is that he wanted to make sure he could secure a lucrative profession and build up his finances before taking the risks to become the things that he probably really wanted to be, such as a Carnatic musician, writer, and archivist. :)

  4. Thanks, AK and Richard. :-) Vikram Sampath was friends with me on Facebook, so I do know a little bit about him.

    By the way, have either of you read Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema?

  5. Richard,
    In Gauhar Jaan’s case my reading is that she could afford her lifestyle. I have a very strong recollection from the book that once she owned a significant part of Calcutta real estate, and later she realised that her husband had got her to sign some papers which left her nothing. That was crockery. You rightly observe that she never had inner peace. I think that was the universal tragedy of courtesans – yearning for ‘respectability’, moving from a ‘Bai’ to ‘Begum’. Some never achieved that, some were conned by horrible men. May be Gauhar Jaan was too naive and unlettered to handle that part of her life. Not everybody could be a Sitara Devi.

    The way you put Vikram’s choices minimises his switch over. I think it didn’t happen in a planned manner.
    AK

  6. Madhu,
    I have not read ‘Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema’, but now that you mention it I would look it up. Though I should say I am now reading a book co-authored by her on same sex love in literature and mythology, and I find her conclusions, suggestions too sweeping. Mentioning Krishna-Arjun, Karna-Duryodhan in that context seems too far-fetched, or I am too illiterate.
    AK

  7. Madhu, I have not read Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema, but I looked it up and it looks like something I would like to read. I will look around to see if I can find it here in the U.S. It would be particularly nice if it turned up in the library!

    AK, re. your comment that “she could afford her lifestyle,” I’m not sure what that means. If she could, then many of these stars who indulged in lavish, ostentatious lifestyles at their peak could as well. So could Cuckoo Moray, etc. You had commented on these other stars that they did not save up for the future, but one could argue that they certainly could afford the lifestyles that they indulged in at the time they did the indulging. : )

    Gauhar Jaan’s career declined – especially the demand for her live performances. Some of this was due to her getting older and suffering the decline in social appeal that many performing artists (especially women) who made it big when they were young go through as they age. But a lot of it had to do with the anti-Nautch movement and new wave of morality in the 20th century (which came from the British but which was also adopted by many Indians), which destroyed the lives of so many tawaifs. Sampath goes into this quite a bit. Gauhar Jaan could have replenished what she lost in the bad marriage had she not undergone a sharp decline in her career as well. That is what I gathered from the book, at any rate.

    Regarding Mr. Sampath, himself . . . I did not mean to imply that the change that he underwent in his life had to be the result of a careful plan. But some people are socially oriented to do everything that they can to have a lucrative occupation even though they could have been more involved in writing or the arts, etc., from the start, because pursuing the lucrative occupation is the sensible thing to do. Then, when they feel that they have some financial security, they get more into doing the things that they really would rather do. I don’t see it as a matter of his simply, heroically “giving up” one way of life to pursue the less lucrative or more risky endeavors. But, of course, I don’t know him, so I have no idea what really went through his mind.

    I am certainly not blaming him for taking the more boring and lucrative path at first. I often wish that I had more of that orientation, myself, decades ago. :)

  8. AK: “Mentioning Krishna-Arjun, Karna-Duryodhan in that context seems too far-fetched, or I am too illiterate.” Heheh! If that’s the case, then I’m illiterate too. I agree that that sounds very far-fetched. But I’ve been reading excerpts of this book on courtesans in Hindi cinema (mostly since it’s been published by my publisher, Speaking Tiger) which was why I was intrigued.

    Richard: “I am certainly not blaming him for taking the more boring and lucrative path at first. I often wish that I had more of that orientation, myself, decades ago. :)” Oh, absolutely not holding the taking of the ‘boring and lucrative path’ against him. One has to survive, and writing, as I know you know too, is definitely not the most reliable way of making a living! But I’ll write to you separately and tell you. :-)

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