A few years ago, thanks to the efforts of two Facebook and blogging friends, I had the pleasure of receiving a free copy of the book My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! by Vikram Sampath. I received this book from Karen Joan Kohoutek (of the blog October), who sent me an extra copy of it after asking for a suggestion of whom to send it to in a conversation with Suzy AKA Sitaji (who should be familiar to many longtime readers here.) It was great, indeed, to have this thick biography about India’s first recording star. But I must have been very busy or distracted at the time, because I really only skimmed it and probably not cover-to-cover, either. But this past month, I decided to read it again, a few days after learning (on June 26) that people were observing Gauhar Jaan’s birthday. And as I started to read it, I realized that it connected in a lot of ways to a few books – and general subjects – that I had just recently read and blogged about.
For instance, after writing a bit about Wajid Ali Shah (as well as reading and writing about his famous wife), it was very interesting to read that Gauhar Jaan had started on her path to becoming a famous singer by singing (along with her mother) in Wajid Ali Shah’s court in Calcutta. Sampath also took the time to write a very informative chapter about the thumri, the musical form that specifically is connected to both Wajid Ali Shah (whose artistic reign was known for the growth of thumri and, especially, Kathak) and Gauhar Jaan (because it is a form of music that she became very well known for, too).
My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! also contains a good amount of information about the fate of the tawaifs in this era. Sampath writes a lot about the anti-Nautch campaigns that eventually contributed to Gauhar Jaan’s demise, but he also describes how Gauhar Jaan became the first among many tawaifs who transcended the limitations of the tawaif culture (which was due to decline in any event) when she became the first star of India to transfer her talents onto records. (By the way, contrary to what many people say, she was not the first Indian singer to have performances recorded – a fact that becomes evident in the book and which is also very well documented in an article by Surjit Singh. But she was, indeed, India’s first recording star.)
Apparently, in a great way, Gauhar Jaan was a true pioneer. But there was another, far less positive way in which she was also a sort of prototype.
The bad/sad side of Gauhar Jaan’s story looked very familiar to me as I read about it, because it had a lot in common with some other stories that I had read about (and wrote about in other blog posts). That is because, in addition to being a bit of a rag-to-riches story at the beginning of her career, she was even more a riches-to-rags story at the end.
The story of Gauhar Jaan’s decline, impoverishment, and sad demise reminded me a bit of the story of Zarina Begum, a protégé of Begum Akhtar (who actually had, herself, been known to be well influenced by Gauhar Jaan). Since I have written about Zarina twice before in this blog (and also turned those blog posts into an article that was published in the journal The World of Apu), it was natural that Zarina’s story was one of the first that came to my mind. But there was an aspect of Gauhar Jaan’s decline that was more reminiscent of at least one of the artists whom I mentioned in my post Here’s to the Birth or Death Anniversaries of Three Classic Hindi Film Artists Who Certainly Should Not Have Died In Poverty. If you read the comments below that post, you’ll see an astute one by AK (blogger at Songs of Yore) pointing out that at least some fallen Indian film artists contributed to their own demise with their “excesses in lifestyle” (that is, the reckless and ostentatious lifestyles that they indulged in), with “total lack of concern for savings for future” (probably because they never considered that the good days might end). And at that point, I pointed out that the fallen artist in my post who most fit that description was the great pioneering film cabaret dancer, our beloved Cuckoo Moray.
Unfortunately, due to limitations of time, space, etc., I have decided that I cannot get (back) into the specific tales of those later fallen artists here (unless you would like me to take another six weeks to put up a post). But with a little investigation, I’m sure that most readers will be able to find a few such stories. Since I mentioned Cuckoo, I would like to recommend the sad story to be found at Cineplot, and also to look at Wikipedia and other sources. You will, indeed, find some uncommon parallels. Meanwhile, let’s get back to our poor departed Gauhar . . .
While at her peak, Gauhar Jaan became notorious for the lavish way she traveled (very fancy stagecoaches, etc.), her elaborate, mostly paid entourage, and her heaps of highly authentic jewelry, she was overwhelmed with debt by the end of her life, when she died in a “desolate corner” (as Sampath describes it) of a hospital in Mysore after suffering from a fever resulting from an unspecified ailment. Though once surrounded by hordes of admirers, there was no one around to keep her company on her deathbed, and apparently, no one is sure exactly where she was buried, and she might have just been left in an unmarked grave. (Had there been resources set aside for the purpose, her body might have received an appropriate burial in Calcutta.)
And in future years, Sampath tells us, Gauhar Jaan’s legacy was nearly forgotten, as other musical stars – on records and then in films – claimed all the attention of audiences throughout the rest of the 20th century. But as with some of those other fallen stars of the 20th century, there seems to have been some revival of her legacy in the past couple of decades. That’s why Google issued a Gauhar Jaan “Doodle” for her birthday. (Unfortunately, I live in the U.S., where so many of these Google Doodles related to Indian music and films are never posted. Nonetheless, it usually is still pretty easy for me to find out about them and see them.) There have been re-releases of Gauhar Jaan’s work in recent times, and we can even find 114-year-old recordings of her in audio clips on YouTube (such as the great one that I have included below). Obviously, this revival has been somewhat facilitated by new technologies that brought global access to Gauhar Jaan’s recordings so that people like yours truly could hear her voice with the click of a button while sitting in an apartment in 21st Century New York City, USA.
At the end of his biography, Sampath speculates that Gauhar Jaan’s ruined emotional state – due to the decline of her career and her finances – might have been a major contributor to her death. As with some others among that not-small number of stars who sadly followed in Gauhar Jaan’s footsteps via their own decline and descent into obscurity, at the sad end to her tale, we are left thinking, if only she could have known that her reputation would be at least somewhat revived many years later. But there are many things that Gauhar Jaan could never have predicted, including the fact that her voice would be heard via technology that far surpassed the once seemingly miraculous sound recordings in which she had played the part of India’s greatest singing pioneer.