Today’s Google doodle features legendary musician and dancer Gauhar Jaan, the first Indian to record music on a 78 rpm record, thus opening up a new avenue for Indian classical music. Gauhar Jaan was born on this day in 1873.
The illustration is by Aditi Damle, showing Gauhar Jaan with her cat, and the gramophone in the background.
Gauhar Jaan was born Angelina Yeoward to an Armenian Christian father and an Indian Jewish mother. Angelina converted to Islam along with her mother in the 1880s and became Gauhar Jaan. Her mother, ‘Badi’ Malka Jaan, was an accomplished Kathak dancer and singer and was a courtesan in Benaras. Gauhar learned classical music and dance from her mother. The duo moved to Kolkata later, where Gauhar learned more classical forms such as the Patiala Gharana, Dhrupad, Thumri, and the Bengali keertan. She started singing songs penned by Rabindranath Tagore much before it came to be known as ‘Rabindra Sangeet.’
Her maiden music concert was when she was as young as 17 years. Gauhar began giving dance performances too after a few years. She went on to perform in many parts of India, including Mysuru, Chennai, Dharbanga, and Allahabad. Gauhar used her travels as an opportunity to learn regional art forms. She could sing in as many as 20 languages.
When Frederick William Gaisberg, the iconic recording engineer from the Gramophone Company, visited India to record Indian music, Gauhar Jaan was the first musician to accept his offer. This was at a time when her male counterparts were reluctant to accept a new technology, which they feared would spoil their voice. On the day of the trial recording, she is believed to have said “My name is Gauhar Jan,” according to Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors.. This eventually became the label of the first Indian album. Gauhar has over 200 records to her credit. In 1994, the Gramophone Company re-released 18 of her songs as a collection.
“Gauhar Jaan was exceptional in more ways than one… she created a template to showcase something as expansive as Hindustani music in just three minutes!” said Vikram Sampath, who wrote her biography ‘My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! The Life and Times of A Musician.’. Earlier gramophone records would last only for three minutes and artists had to scream into horns as the acoustic technology was in its nascent stage. Gauhar’s method of recording was adopted by many women singers, which eventually led to more women taking up recording.
In the book, Mr Sampath has chronicled the life and times of Gauhar, including her lavish lifestyle, her ill-fated relationships, and dwindling health during later years. There is an interesting story about the cat that is featured along with Gauhar in Tuesday’s Doodle. It is said that Gauhar spent ₹20,000 in the early 1900s and threw a party when her cat delivered a litter of kittens, according to historian V. Muthiah. However, she spent her last days as a court musician in the Mysore Maharaja’s palace for a sum of ₹500 per month, before she passed away on January 17, 1930.
Director Ashutosh Gowarikar has bought the movie rights for Mr Sampath’s book, hoping to bring Gauhar’s life to the silver screen. Gauhar’s life had been enacted as a play directed by Lillete Dubey. Singer Rajeshwari Sachdev played the title role, while Zila Khan played the older Gauhar.