A forgotten anecdote of a Tawaif who emerges to be India’s first record artist

A musician par excellence of the era, who devised a way to compress the “Khayal” into 3 minutes or less, which traditionally expanded into hours. A feisty woman who lived an ostentatious lifestyle earned well and spent lavishly even when her cat gave birth. Such was her class and aura. Thanks to the British Gramophone’s search for native voices, which brought India’s Gauhar Jaan, who has many renowned titles to her name? 

The Journey to earn all this was not at all easy; she experienced many sexual assaults while being a prostitute and conquered it all to surface as the ruler of Indian music industry. 

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Gauhar Jaan

Born as Angelina Yeoward in Azamgarh, on 26th June 1873, Angelinia’s mother-Victoria Hemmings, was Indian by birth and was an avid learner of classical music and dance, which she had passed on to her daughter. Jaan’s parent’s marriage finished in a harsh separation, and later her mother migrated to Bnaras with a Muslim nobleman, “Khursheed.” Victoria turned Islamic, named Angelina to “Gauhar Jaan” and herself “Malka Jaan.” 

Gauhar, launched herself in 1887 at the royal courts of Darbhanga Raj and became Court musician. And after that, she couldn’t look back. For her show in Calcutta, she was titled as the ‘first dancing girl’. In 1902, the skillful artist did India’s first-ever record, India’s first disc had her singing a “Khayal”

Popular in the Indian market, she recorded more than 600 records during the next 18-years in several languages. She knocks off her show with her signature line, “My name is Gauhar Jaan.” Famous for her styles, Gauhar always wore the finest gowns and never seemed to wear the same jewellery twice. She earned 1000 – 3000 rupees for her performances, which was a very high amount at that time. 

The vocalist’s career ended because of her death in 1930. She died nearly penniless as her ex-husband and relatives had diminished her wealth. The gramophone girl redefined music, left the legacy of recorded music, and must be remembered by all generations. Her recording solidified buying recorded music in India. Gauhar’s place in Indian music history will endure forever.

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