Gauhar Jaan, the Gramophone Queen of India

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    Before you could store all of the recorded music in history into a contraption the size of your thumb, before you could stream any of your favorite tunes online, without setting foot inside a record store, indeed, much before the time record stores came into existence and eventually ceased to exist, there was the gramophone which played tunes etched into the grooves of a gramophone record.

    And the first one in India to record her silken-smooth voice on it was a lady of Armenian descent from Calcutta who would be known to the world as Gauhar Jaan. She thus became India’s first artist to record on a 78 rpm gramophone disc, with her exquisite khayal singing in Raag Jogiya recorded on 2 November 1902.

    Born Eileen Angelina Yeoward on 26 June 1873 in Azamgarh, Gauhar was a talented performer from a young age, taking after her mother. The family moved from Azamgarh to Benares (now Varanasi) when she was six, it was here that her mother achieved a degree of celebrity as a dancer and courtesan going by the name Badi Malka Jan.

    Gauhar Jaan first gained fame as a dancer and courtesan in Calcutta

    In 1883, Gauhar moved with her mother to Calcutta, where she would start training in the courts of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, who was in exile at Metiabruz, a suburb in the city, and would go on to be revered as a diva among the Baijis or senior courtesans.

    Gauhar Jaan's first major performance was at the courts of Darbhanga Raj, in modern-day Bihar, in 1887 and she was subsequently appointed as a court musician of note. Later in 1896, she started performing regularly in Calcutta and developed a huge following among the local populace.

    This was a time when all the music would be performed live, if you were not listening to someone sing it, you were singing it. All this changed with the advent of the gramophone, which really put Gauhar Jaan on the radar and on the road to worldwide acclaim.

    In 1887, Emile Berliner, a German inventor based in Washington, DC, finally broke through with a successful system for sound recording, using the spiral-grooved plastic disks that adorn many a hipster wall today. Berliner was the first inventor to stop recording on cylinders and start recording on flat disks, which were then pressed into vinyl records, as we know them today.

    In 1887, German inventor Emile Berliner had a breakthrough with the gramophone disc

    He founded ‘The Gramophone Company’ in 1897 to mass manufacture his sound disks, as well as the gramophone that played them. To help promote his self-sufficient ‘music system’ of the day, Berliner embarked on a promotional campaign worldwide, persuading popular artists to record their music using his new invention.

    It was to this effect, in November 1902 at the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, having heard of her widespread fame and personally choosing her as his artist to record, that it was arranged for Gauhar to sing for Frederick Gaisberg, the first-ever agent of The Gramophone Company in India, and assistant to Berliner.

    She had 3 minutes, the industry standard for a pop song today, and she would go on to master the technique of compressing lengthy Hindustani music pieces into that short duration. It was a formula that was adopted by the entire recording industry in India and also influenced women to take up recording as a profession.

    She also signed off with the line “My name is Gauhar Jaan.” Originally a necessary announcement to help technicians in Hanover, Germany (where the wax masters were sent for pressing the records) identify the artist and assign proper labels to the record, it became her sonic signature. It is also a motif that permeates any rap record today. She was the original rockstar, who announced her arrival.

    Less than a decade after creating India’s first recording, Gauhar was performing at the famous Delhi Durbar before the newly-crowned King George V and his retinue. She went on to perform in many parts of India, including Mysuru, Chennai and Allahabad. Gauhar used her travels as an opportunity to learn various regional art forms and learnt to sing in as many as 20 languages.

    Gauhar Jaan recorded 600 songs in more than 10 languages over her lifetime

    As is the bittersweet irony that laces the lives of these larger-than-life personalities, Gauhar Jaan lived a life filled with hedonism and heartbreak. She threw lavish parties, had the best possessions money could afford her, yet had to deal with the debilitating loss of her mother and a host of paramours who fancied her wealth more than her well-being. Repeatedly cheated by the men in her life, she was reduced to a life of near-penury.

    Her financial and personal woes meant that, by the 1920s, way past her prime, she had to move far away from Calcutta, where she once ruled as the ‘Gramophone Queen,’ and settle in Mysore on a modest pension granted her by the local Maharaja.

    It was here that Eileen’s enchanting voice, that revolutionized the way music was heard in India, was forgotten and fell silent in 1930, with her death at the age of 56.

    Gauhar Jaan would record 600 songs in her lifetime, and while history seems to have forgotten her, the memories and legend of India’s first recording superstar etched in wax, live on and resonate in our ears and hearts.


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