In modern day, word ‘Tawaif’ is associated with prostitution. However, Tawaifs were originally respected members of the feudal society of India and considered as an authority on etiquettes. Tawaifs are also known as Kanjaris in North India. They were the courtesans in Mughal era, who were expert in music and dance. They were the elite female, masters of Urdu Poetry, whose job was to entertain the nobles through their dance, music and poetry.
On June 26, 1873, a girl was born to William Robert Yeoward and Victoria Hemmings in Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh). Her father was an Armenian Jew and mother was born and bought up in India. They named their daughter ‘Angelina Yeoward’. Like her mother, she was also trained in Indian music and dance. When she was 6, her parents parted ways and later Victoria, her mother, took her to Banaras in 1881. Victoria was accompanied by a Muslim Nobleman ‘Khursheed’. In Banaras, Victoria converted to Islam and adopted a new name ‘Malka Jaan’. Her daughter, the star of our story, Angelina Yeoward was renamed as ‘Gauhar Jaan’.
Malka Jaan became popular by the name Badi Malka Jaan, as there were three other Malka Jaan, younger than her. She became an accomplished singer & Kathak dancer of Banaras. In 1883, she moved to Calcutta to establish herself in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who had settled in Matiaburj near Calcutta. She became so popular, that within 3 years, she earned enough money to buy herself a building at 24 Chitpore Road (Now Rabindranath Sarani) for Rs. 40,000. Her daughter Gauhar Jaan started her training at this place. She was being trained by the founding member of Patiala Gharana, Ustab Ali Baksh along with Ustad Kale Khan of Patiala and Ustad Vazir Khan of Rampur. She also started learning Kathak from grand uncle of Pandit Birju Maharaj, the legendary Pandit Brindadin Maharaj. Her Dhrupad training started in parallel with Srijanbai and Bengali Keertan with Charan Das. She soon became proficient in Rabindra Sangeet and was writing with penname ‘Hamdam’.
Gauhar Jaan made her debut performance in the court of Dharbhanga Princely State (Bihar) at the age of 14 in 1887. She was soon appointed as the court musician. In 1896, she started performing in Calcutta and was called as ‘First Dancing Girl’ in her records.
In 1902, The Gramophone Company approached Gauhar Jaan to record India’s first ever record. This was a major milestone in Indian Music Industry and Gauhar Jaan became the pioneer, establishing her name in history for ever. She sang a Khayal in Raag Jogiya. The record format required the song to be 3 minute long. Gauhar Jaan developed this format for them. At the end of every song, she recited ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan’, which was a practice for records in those days. Gauhar Jaan charged Rs. 3000 per sitting, which was a huge sum in those days. F. W. Gaisberg, the owner of Gramophone Company noted that Gauhar never wore same jewels or dress twice. Even her motorcade was nothing less of royalty. Gauhar recorded more than 600 songs in 10 languages for them in next 18 years.
In 1910, she visited Madras for a concert in Victoria Public Hall. She impressed Tamils so much that her songs were translated and published in Tamil Music Books. By this time she was at the peak of her career. Next year, in 1911, King George V came to India for his coronation. Gauhar Jaan had the ultimate honour of performing during the coronation ceremony. She sang a duet ‘Ye hai Tajposhi ka Jalsa, Mubarak ho Mubarak ho’ with famous Jankibai of Allahabad.
Mallika-e-Ghazal, Padma Shri, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, popularly known as Begum Akhtar was one the most famous Ghazal, Thumri and Dadra genres of Hindustani Classical Music. It is said that Akhtari Begum wanted to pursue her career in Hindi Films. But after listening to Gauhar Jaan, she gave up the idea of performing in films and started concentrating on Hindustani Classical Music. Gauhar Jaan’s Sarangi player, Ustad Imdaad Khan became Begum Akhtar’s first teacher.
Gauhar Jaan lived a lavish lifestyle. Nazrana for 1 sitting was 1000-3000 Rs., which was an outlandish sum in those days. Some speculated that she made over 1cr back in early 1900s, making her the richest and one of the earliest Millionaires of India. She flaunted her money so much, that Rs. 12,000 was spent on her cat’s marriage and another 20,000 on a party, when her cat gave birth to kittens. When Gauhar went to perform in Datia, entire train was booked for her. Cook, Cook’s assistants, private Hakeem, Dhobi, Barber and dozens of her servants travelled with her. She was nothing less than a Diva of Divas. She decided to move out of Calcutta. She became court singer of Darbhanga, and later Rampur. From there, she moved to Bombay for a short period.
On 1st August 1928, Gauhar Jaan was appointed as the Palace Musician in the court of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV of Mysore. In less than two years, as she turned 56, her financial state was bad. She had lost most of her money to the lavish lifestyle she kept. Her travel and lawsuits also cost her a fortune. While she was still respected, her patrons were reduced and the inflow of gifts and money had almost stopped. On 17th January 1930, Gauhar Jaan died almost penniless.
* This article was also published in NRI Achievers Magazine