My Name is Gauhar Jaan! -
The Life and Times of a Musician


Calcutta, November 1902 A. D.

Mysore, August 1928 A. D.

Calcutta, November 1902 A. D

Gaisberg eagerly waited for the morning of 11 November, when the woman he was besotted with would arrive at the makeshift studio. Gauhar’s entry into the studio on that Tuesday morning in Calcutta was to place her forever in the annals of world musical history. Her imposing persona and her flair in dress and manner had captivated Gaisberg completely.

While the accompanists tuned their sarangi, tabla and harmonium, a self assured Gauhar sauntered around the room and investigated the strange device with a huge horn that was fitted on the wall. Amused by the contraption, Gauhar asked the recording expert, ‘Am I to sing into this, Mr Gaisberg?’ ‘Yes madam’ was Gaisberg’s brief reply. He was busy fixing the recording equipment. At the narrow end of that long horn a diaphragm fitted with a needle was connected to the recording machinery which consisted of a needle placed on a thick wax master on a rotating turntable. Finally, when it was all in place, Gaisberg walked up to Gauhar Jaan and said ‘We are done. Are you ready too?’ She smiled, nodded and walked up to the horn. Gaisberg cautioned her, ‘I hope you remember all that I told you? Sing out into that horn as loud as you can. Don’t shake your head or your hands. It will spoil the quality of the recording. Also the timing… I hope you remember? It is not one of your soirees where you can develop your melodies for hours on end. Three minutes is all we have. Aah, a few seconds less than three minutes. Remember the announcement at the end which is for….’ Gauhar stopped him politely and asked, ‘Shall we start, Mr Gaisberg?’ It seemed as if this lady was born to record her voice on these discs, thought Gaisberg. He was amazed at the quiet confidence she demonstrated during a process which had daunted many an accomplished musician before her.

As the first strains of her high pitched, cultured and captivating voice were etched on the grooves of Gaisberg’s shellac, Indian classical music took a giant leap forward. From the confines of the courtesans’ salons and the rich man’s soirees, it was catapulted right into the homes of the common people. In the process it underwent a major transformation in its content, structure and style of presentation.

A feature of most of the recordings of that early era was the musician screaming her or his name at the end of each recording. Gauhar had to do it too. This announcement was necessary since the wax masters were sent to Hanover for pressing the records and the technicians there would be at a loss to identify the musicians before making the labels. So they would listen attentively to these ‘signature’ announcements at the end of the three minute performance and label the record. Gauhar’s thin, child-like and playful announcement of her name, ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan’ in fluent English pierces through all these early recordings. It reflects the great mirth and enjoyment she possibly experienced during the entire tiresome process. Some of the records have extended announcements as well. At the end of a melodious Sohini thumri, Gauhar even managed to say that it was a composition by her guru Bhaiya Ganpatrao.

Gauhar makes a three-lined announcement at the end of one of her songs labelled ‘Arabic song,’ ‘Aliya habibu aana garibun’ in Raga Jogia: ‘This is an Arabic song; my name is Gauhar Jaan; you have liked the song’--- the statement ‘You have liked the song’ sounding more like a command rather than as a question!


Mysore, August 1928 A. D.

The benign presence of the picturesque Chamundi Hills, overlooking the well-planned and beautiful city of Mysore, seemed reassuring to its people. Nestled in the idyllic and serene surroundings of the Hills, Dil Kush Cottage was true to its name - an abode of happiness. The cottage was not a sprawling bungalow, but its appearance seemed to guarantee to its inmate everything that was required for a comfortable and even a fairly luxurious life.

A horse-driven carriage drove up the road leading to Dil Kush; a road that had a stunning canopy of bougainvillea bushes in full bloom. The carriage stopped right in front of the cottage. The gandabherunda symbol, the mythical two-headed bird that was the royal insignia of Mysore’s ruling house, on the carriage implied that it carried a royal guest. It did. From the carriage emerged a stout, slightly hunched and bespectacled lady in her fifties, supported by two of her companions. One was a young woman and the other a bearded gentleman in a skull-cap. The man quickly got into action and started directing the movement of the luggage into the cottage. ‘Rahman Miya! Please handle the packages carefully, they carry some fragile and precious porcelain crockery,’ the old lady instructed.

The old woman looked around, thrilled by the scenic beauty around this little cottage and stood there appreciating the loveliness of the surroundings and listening to the chirping of the singing birds in the garden. Closing her eyes, she puffed out her nostrils and took a deep breath, filling herself with the fragrance of the jasmines that Mysore was so famous for. Involuntarily, she muttered a prayer, ‘Allah! Make this my last destination. I can not travel any more. I need rest, I need shelter, and I need your mercy!’ With slow faltering steps she entered the house with the help of the young woman.

The inside of the cottage was already done up. Huge chandeliers hung from the ceilings, expensive carpets, large teak and rosewood chests with mirrors, exquisite paintings, delicate furniture, a writing desk and a majestic Victorian table on which stood a stately gramophone with a gleaming horn adorned the room. She suddenly realized that she had not yet read the memo that had been handed over to her, by the Palace Durbar Bakshi Mr. Urs, a little while ago. She opened her purse, took out the memo and adjusted her gold-rimmed reading glasses to read it. Her gaze fixed on one of the lines which read ‘….appointed a Palace musician on a pay of Rs. 500/- per mensem (inclusive of salaries of her musicians and accompaniments) with effect from the 1st August 1928.’

The tranquil expression on her face changed and she turned livid with rage. Throwing away the memo she snapped, ‘Five hundred rupees? What do they take me for? A whore? Oh, Sheriffen! Do you know what my income used to be in my heydays?’ The young woman muttered a barely audible retort accompanied by a cynical smirk. The man was too busy shifting and assembling the trunks that were part of the vast amount of baggage, to pay any attention. In fact both of them were accustomed to these swinging moods of the ageing woman to pay them any heed. Their indifference annoyed the old lady even more and she screamed, ‘Ya Allah! Am I to live with these ghosts in this huge house, who don’t even bother to talk to me?’

Suddenly her eyes caught the mirror and she was aghast at what she saw there. Getting closer she sat down in front of it, and looked closely at the dishevelled self staring back at her. The wrinkled face, greying hair, dark circles around blank and expressionless eyes, the streaks of grey in those curved, arched eyebrows that joined each other on a broad, fair forehead, shocked her. ‘Is this really me?’ She was unrecognizable even to herself. Even as she continued to examine her face, her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden thud from inside.

‘You wretched fiend, what have you dropped?’ she screamed and hobbled inside. In her excitement to set up things quickly, the maid had dropped a package of gramophone records that now lay scattered on the floor. The old lady’s face turned red with rage. ‘La Haul Vilaquwwat! You despicable, art-less woman, do you even realize what you have dropped? They are the sum total of my entire life and whatever it is worth. ….’ Hurling a string of abuses on the hapless maid, she picked up the package and caressed them like a child. She pulled herself to the other room to check if they had been damaged in the course of her long journey to the city and this careless act of her maid. She randomly picked a record and played it on the gramophone that rested so majestically in the drawing room. As the needle moved on the grooves of the disc, a young, sultry, melodious and piercing voice struggled through:

The sweet dadra in Raga Gara turned a tome inside her. Her eyes welled up. The fragrance and the embrace of Amrit Keshav Nayak and those heady days at the Mahalakshmi racecourse in Bombay swirled in her mind’s eyes. She hugged herself in a tight embrace.

As the record drew to a close there emerged a shrill and flirtatious voice dipped in child-like mirth that proudly announced ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!

Envy of the care-freeness of that voice and the memories of the past made her break down completely. The dam that held back her tears just burst open. Sobbing loudly and inconsolably, even as the surprised maid and steward stood frozen in their positions, she fell on her knees lamenting ‘Oh! Gauhar! Oh Gauhar! What have you done to yourself?’


My Name is Gauhar Jaan!

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