Author: Vikram Sampath
To begin with, you're not sure what to expect from a book about a songstress of a bygone era one has never even heard of. Also, the backdrop about North Indian classical music and the birth of the gramophone make it appear that it could perhaps be of more interest to music aficionados. To a layman, it could seem quite technical and dull. How wrong I was, because Vikram Sampath's new book is not just a fabulously engaging story about a singer who became the first gramophone superstar of the country, it also gives an exhaustive and thoroughly fascinating account of the times in which she lived.
Gauhar's antecedents were not the most usual. She was born (1873) to an Armenian father and an Indian mother. A misunderstanding leads to their divorce, after which her mother marries a Muslim man and assumes the name of Badi Malka Jaan and becomes a singer and poetess of repute herself. Gauhar's grandmother had married a British man. Since the book travels through these different time periods, one gets an account of early British life in India and their equation with the natives. I was fascinated to know about the 'biwi khana' . This was a time when not many English women made the long and torturous journey to India. This obviously was a problem for the British settlers because it affected their domestic lives severly. So they married native Indian women or took them in as mistresses and their union existed as long as the officers stayed back in India. The woman lived in the lady-house (biwi-khana) that was in the same compound, separate from the main bungalow. This worked out well for both the native women and the officers. However, once the steam ships became more frequent, European women started coming to India in larger numbers in search of eligible husbands. These ships were called 'Fishing fleet'. Those girls who couldn't find a match would go back to England and ships carrying them were termed as 'Returning empties'
The book is full of such interesting period details. All the while, the historical and cultural context of the time is closely allied to Gauhar's story. Since Gauhar's mother - Malka- is a talented singer, her husband encourages her to sing publically. In those days, women could take up singing at mehfils etc only by turning courtesans, which incidentally was an accepted practice. It was still not the most respectable of vocations, but it was not really frowned upon either. Women in the mainstream were not allowed to sing and dance. By contrast, courtesans (not to be confused with common prostitutes) were a highly literate lot, artistically trained and culturally groomed. Gauhar's gorgeously plaint voice instantly found admirers, when she sang as a young girl along with her mother. She was an undisputed favourite with various Nawabs and maharajas who besieged her to sing at their courts and showered her with gifts and money.
Using the factual and anecdotal information at hand, Sampath weaves together a captivating story about Gauhar's luminous ascent as the queen of thumri and khayal and her unexpected tragic end. The narrative is dotted with interesting episodes that give a vivid sense of Gauhar's personality. She was outrageously extravagant in her spending habits (she's known to have thrown parties worth 20000 in those days to arrange a marriage between her cats! She would go for joyrides on the roads of Calcutta in a six-horse carriage...). She was also rather impulsive and prone to temper tantrums, leading to a tumultous personal life. She never married, but had short-term relationships with a few men, which mostly ended in pain and frustration.
Gauhar's life would perhaps have not been very different from say, Umrao Jaan's (another famous tawaif), had it not been for her definitive contribution to the success of the gramophone in India. Hers was among the first Indian voices to be recorded and heard on the gramophone when the instrument came to the country via first recording expert to India, William Gaisberg in 1901-02. Gauhar took to singing on this ‘horn-like’ machine like she was born for it. Gaisberg writes in glowing terms about her immaculate dress sense, beauty and poise in his book.
The popularity of the gramophone was really a god-send for Gauhar in many ways. Though courtesans were a sought-after group of alluring and cultured women, the profession was slowing starting to gain disrepute after the anti-nautch campaign. Later of course, the whole musical legacy of courtesans was attempted to be systematically white-washed and cleaned by self-appointed custodians of classical music. While the tawaifs suffered in the North, the devdasis met with the same fate in the South.
In the book, Gauhar comes across as a very feisty and original character, who never shied away from trying anything new. The male singers were jealous of their female counterparts (courtesans) who were more in demand for gramophone recordings. They spread vile rumours that the gramophone was ‘evil’ and ruins one's voice. But Gauhar dismissed these ideas and in fact moulded her singing (she compressed khayal into 3 minutes, which was the original time limit of the disc) as per requirements.
This was an important development, because the gramophone in many ways 'democratised' music. Suddenly, music that was hitherto only accessible to the rich zamindars and royal courts became available to the common man.
The book closely follows the life of Gauhar, but it also manages to give the reader a comprehensive idea about the developments that took place in field of Hindustani classical music. There are some pages dedicated to the evolution of thumri, khayal etc, which I can confidently state will not put off any reader, even if it might appear technical. They in fact tickle ones interest to know more about the various genres of classical music.
Gauhar's life takes a turn for the worse once she gets entangled in a few long-drawn legal battles. One might perhaps find her downfall from the heights of glory to be a bit too sudden. But it certainly seems plausible, given Gauhar's high-strung nature and unplanned life-style. She was reduced to penury in the last days of her life, and died a sad, lonely woman.
Gauhar was the brightest star of her times, and the fact that she traveled a great deal – from Benaras to Lucknow and from Calcutta to Mumbai to Mysore – enabled her to learn from various gharanas, making her one of the impressive and illustrious singers of pre-Independence India. Sadly, she remains a pale shadow in the alleys of Hindustani classical music. Which is why author Vikram Sampath’s endevour is a very welcome and a noble one. The fact that Gauhar’s life and her personality are interesting by themselves enable Sampath to etch out a rich and colourful narrative out of it.
Sampath keeps the language simple and lucid, but elegant enough. It’s some triumph for the writer that in spite of the pages packing in so many details, you never feel lost in the course of reading. The author - through his meticulous research and delightful anecdotes – manages to effortlessly transport you to those glorious times.
Seeing how successfully the author brings Gauhar Jaan’s life to the fore, makes you wonder about the enormous potential for non-fiction writing and how there are so many real-life stories waiting to be told.
PS: Most chapters begin with an Urdu couplet at the top. Some of them have been taken from Gauhar Jaan's mother -Malka's book of poems. Many of these couplets are splendid, but the English translation is not upto the mark at all
PPS: The book also contains a CD with some of Gauhar's earliest recordings where she flirtatiously announces 'My name is Gauhar Jaan' at the end of each of her songs.
Interview: Vikram Sampath
Vikram Sampath's new book, My Name Is Gauhar Jaan, is a rivetting read about a courtesan, who was also India's first gramophone superstar. Sandhya Iyer caught up with the author at a recent reading session of the book in Pune
It was while researching for his first book, Royal Splendours of Mysore, in the musty but meticulously maintained library of the Mysore Palace, that the name Gauhar Jaan first came to the attention of author Vikram Sampath. The young writer was intrigued looking at the numerous correspondences Gauhar had made in the last years of her life while staying as a guest of the Wodeyar rulers in Mysore. "The uncanniness to Umrao Jaan struck me. Gauhar was an ageing diva in Mysore, and earlier was the first gramophone celebrity of India. She was extremely wealthy in her hey days but her last letters showed her complaining about her meagre salary of 500 a month, where she was asking the palace for tax exemptions. So I was curious to know what prompted her to leave everything in Calcutta and come to Mysore," narrates Sampath.
Sampath says there were some difficulties in the course of the research. The word of artists in those days was rarely documented, as art was always considered superior to the performer. "Most of the information I got was anecdotal and the word-of-mouth variety. The problem with such oral tradition is that a lot of mumbo-jumbo gets into it, and one is left with very little real information. So I would be told superfluous stuff like how Gauhar was as fair as milk and when she chewed paan, one could see the colour in her throat etc," he says imitating in Hindi.
Besides meeting several people who directly and indirectly could provide him details of Gauhar's life, he mostly relied on the official correspondences (legal and other personal letters) to piece together her life. He had a tough time finding her recorded discs, but ultimately found them in a chor bazaar for which he paid a princely amount, he tells us. Sampath himself is trained in carnatic classical music, and didn't have much knowledge about Hindustani classical, for which he needed to educate himself.
While the research lasted for three years, it took him just 15 days to write the 232 page book. "Once I had the material in place, I started writing in one great flow. It was like an energy that I had stored which I had to get out of me," he says.
In the end, the book is all facts, says Sampath. This naturally points towards the enormous potential of non-fiction. "Oh yes, there are stories in every pocket of the country that are waiting to be told," he says.
Though both of his books have been very well-received, Sampath still continues his full-time job as a finance guy in Bangalore, where he is based. "Ideally, I would just like to write," he says. Given what a fine book he has come up with, we sincerely hope so too.