Gauhar Jaan in a rudimentary recording studio in Kolkata. (year unknown).
Vikram Sampath
Gauhar Jaan in a rudimentary recording studio in Kolkata. (year unknown). Vikram Sampath

Chasing a legend

Reconstructing the life of flamboyant 19th-century singer Gauhar Jaan involved an immersion in her loves, her passions, her demons and her music.

She was the stuff of fairy tales: a flamboyant singer much sought after by British India's nobility; a socialite who threw lavish parties; a hedonist who went about town in expensive horse buggies; a model whose image appeared on matchboxes made in Austria. And then, the inevitable end for someone leading a life as feisty as this: self-destruction, penury and a lonely death. She was Gauhar Jaan – the Subcontinent's first musician to record commercially on the gramophone when the technology came calling in 1902. Despite the cult status she achieved in her lifetime, she is a forgotten figure in the world of Indian classical music, and roams the annals of Hindustani music as a barely discernible ghost. She does have a few admirers though – old-timers and record collectors who treasure her shellac discs and speak about her heyday in superlative terms. But none of this is commensurate either with her pioneering contribution to the world of Hindustani classical music or with the dramatic life she led.

Gauhar Jaan entered my life in the most serendipitous way. It was while sifting through the musty yet meticulously catalogued archives at the Palace of Mysore when researching my first book, Splendours of Royal Mysore: the Untold Story of the Wodeyars, that Gauhar Jaan first caught my attention. The name had a certain ring to it that led me to peruse the box-file containing the exchange of letters from her short stay in Mysore. But the canvas of my project at the time was larger, involving painting a picture of about 600 years of a state's history, with myriad men and women sharing the honours. I really did not have the resources, nor did I feel the need, to dig deeper into the life of this visiting woman musician who spent barely two years in Mysore. But somehow I felt I had found familiar terrain, and she remained on my mind for a long time thereafter.

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Himal Southasian