Staring at you from the cover of My Name is Gauhar Jaan! The Life and Times of a Musician is Gauhar Jaan herself. “Even this picture has a story behind it,” says author Vikram Sampath. “It is from a picture postcard sent by a British officer to his mother back in England, mentioning how besotted he was with this Indian beauty. Instead of keeping the postcard, his incensed mother chose to give it away. The postcard traveled around and somehow made its way to Switzerland and back to India. And now it is on the cover of this book.”
Gauhar was no ordinary woman. The first Indian classical musician and woman to record on the gramophone at the turn of the 20th century when technology was at its most basic, this feisty Hindustani vocalist from Calcutta adapted to the needs and demands of recording with elan. Today technology may have made recording a breeze, but the book tells us how in that era, artists had to sing very loudly and refrain from making any movements to ensure a good recording.
The book also traces Gauhar Jaan’s life and times as a musician, and for Sampath it was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Bemoaning the lack of documentation of artistes’ lives, he says, “For these people, the music was bigger than the person.” After two years of research, he has collected documents that put to rest myths about her date of birth as well as her lineage — Gauhar Jaan was born Elieen Angelina Yeoward on June 26 1873 in Azamgarh. Born into an Armenian Christian family, she was six years old when her mother and she converted to Islam.
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