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Courtesan who didn’t care for kings

Sing into that horn as loud as you can. Don’t shake your head or your hands,” the singer was told. It was November 11, 1902. The occasion was momentous. Indian classical music was embracing technology as the biggest singing star of Calcutta, Gauhar Jaan, had agreed to preserve her voice on a three-minute shellac disc, defying superstition. At the end, she was to announce her name to identify herself to the disc-makers in Germany.

Thus was born the country’s first gramophone celebrity, who would soon have her picture on matchboxes made in Austria and picture postcards here. A book called My Name is Gauhar Jaan traces the life of one who has been hailed as “the greatest woman singer of thumri and khayal”.

“Commanding an extravagant fee of Rs 1,000 per concert, Gauhar was known as much for her flamboyance as her music,” says Vikram Sampath, author of the book launched in Calcutta recently.

“The memoirs of Frederick Gaisberg, who was sent by Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd to make the recordings, indicate that she never repeated her costumes. During performances, rifle-wielding soldiers often guarded her jewellery.”

Gauhar used to ride around in her six-horse phaeton. Once as she passed the Governor, he stopped and doffed his hat at her, taking her to be a royal. But later, on learning she was a tawaif, he slapped a fine of Rs 1,000 on her for flouting a rule forbidding commoners from riding a carriage. Gauhar paid the fine and carried on with her practice. Apocryphal stories abound, as of the party she threw for the city at an expense of Rs 20,000 when her cat had a litter.

A court musician for royals like Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who had settled in Metiabruz, Gauhar was choosy in her heyday. She refused to sing for the king of Datia, a “small” princely state of Madhya Pradesh. When the King pressured her, she demanded a special train to take her 111-member entourage.

“It included 10 dhobis, four barbers and 20 orderlies, five maids, five horses and syces, other than her disciples. The king had to comply,” Sampath smiles.

Born Angelina Yeoward to Armenian parents, Gauhar Jaan reached the pinnacle of success, singing even in the presence of Emperor George V in Delhi. “But like other courtesans of her time, she lived in luxury and died in penury, paupered by court cases.” A CD with the book brings to life India’s first recorded voice.

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