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Gauhar Jan in Madras


Gauhar Jan

I knew Reader Sriram V would not let me down after reading Miscellany, December 31 and sure enough he turned up with the information that when Calcutta Gauhar Jan visited Madras in 1910, she stayed with the person I was seeking information about, Salem Godaveri. That famed singer from Salem, Sriram tells me, was a renowned devadasi who lived in Thambu Chetty Street, George Town. Unfortunately, he does not add more about her, so maybe someone else will one of these days.

Gauhar Jan, apparently, came to Madras at the invitation of C. Gopala Chetty who had organised a concert for her in the Victoria Public Hall. In Madras, Veena Dhannammal hosted a dinner for her that was catered by Harrison’s of Broadway and which cost Rs.1000. That might have been a large sum in those days, but it fades into nothingness compared with the Rs.20,000 Gauhar Jan herself once spent on a party in Calcutta to celebrate her cat delivering a litter of kittens!

Veena Dhannammal taught Gauhar Jan the song Bhajan parula (raga Surutti) and the Calcutta singer released a record of it. Madras artists, in turn, learnt her songs; Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar was one of the learners. Many of her Hindustani and Urdu songs and those in other North Indian languages were published in a Tamil music book that came out in the early 1920s. In the book, the words of the North Indian languages were written in Tamil script and accompanied by notation that Tamil-speaking singers could follow.

Gauhar Jan’s interest in Indian music she owed to her mother - and, intriguingly, neither was Indian. Gauhar Jan was born to one of Eastern India’s many Armenian families, but hers, unlike the others who belonged to the Orthodox Church, was a Jewish one. She was born in 1873 to Robert William and Victoria Yeoward in Patna and christened Angelina. When Victoria Yeoward’s passion for music and dance were better appreciated by a man named Khurshed than by her husband, she went with her daughter to live with him in Benares, where they became Muslims and took the names Malka and Gauhar respectively. In time, after Malka became an accomplished Hindustani singer and Kathak dancer, she moved on to become one of the most famous courtesans of the city and took the name Badi Malka Jan.

All the while, Gauhar was learning to follow in her mother’s footsteps and with their skills the two moved to the Indian capital, Calcutta, in 1883. There, in 1888, Gauhar Jan gave her maiden performance at the Court of Dharbhanga. There was no looking back after that, especially once the Gramophone Company’s recordings of her spread throughout the country.

But with fame came not only fortune but unhappiness as well. She could not put down roots anywhere…Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Dharbhanga all were temporary homes. Finally, at the invitation of Krishnarajendra Wodeyar IV of Mysore, she moved there, found a modicum of peace and passed away in 1930 in Mysore.

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