Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Little on Gauhar Jaan

I was doing some research this morning on an unrelated topic, when I randomly came across the name Gauhar Jaan, one of the great recording artists in India from the first years of the 20th century. Gauhar Jaan is thought to have sung on the very first recording of a song ever made in India, in 1902. Here is what she sang:

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It's a kind of Hindustani classical song called a "khayal," sung, I gather, in Raag Jogiya. At the end of it she says, famously, "My name is Gauhar Jan!"

Who was Gauhar Jaan? Her background, from what I've been able to find on the internet, seems remarkable:

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, who married a Jewish Armenian lady, Allen Victoria Hemming around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

Within a few years in 1879, the marriage ended, causing hardships to both mother and daughter, who later migrated to Banaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, 'Khursheed', who appreciated Victoria's music more than her husband.

Later, Victoria, converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan'. (link)

Through her mother, who depended on the patronage of wealthy Muslim noblemen (I'm presuming she may have been a Tawaif), Gauhar Jaan got training from the best classical music masters in Calcutta at the time. By 1896, she was a star performer in Calcutta, which is how she was able to charge Rs. 3000 in 1902 to have her voice on the first audio recording of an Indian song ever made. Later, Gauhar Jaan became a star all over India. She performed in Madras in 1910, and even performed for King George V when he visited India. She died of natural causes as the palace musician of the Maharajah of Mysore in 1930. (There is a fuller bio of Gauhar Jaan here, at the Tribune. Also, see this profile of Gauhar Jaan.)

Another song Gauhar Jaan was famous for was "Ras ke bhare tore nain," which I think many readers will find familiar for reasons that will become apparent below.

Here is a somewhat more recent version of "Ras ke bhare tore nain," sung by Hira Devi Mishra (from the 1982 film "Gaman"):

I'm finding the Hindi (Braj Basha?) a little hard to follow, so if anyone wants to help with translation, it would be appreciated. Here is the Midival Punditz' "Fabric," a drum n bass remix used by Mira Nair in Monsoon Wedding:

The neighborhood where she films those crazy wires is in Old Delhi -- the area around Jama Masjid. Nair also did her first, student film in that neighborhood (the film was her thesis at Harvard; it was a short, eighteen-minute documentary called "Jama Masjid Street Journal").


Mampi said...

I had heard of her but never heard her. Thanks for sharing with us this discovery.
And yes, the words that she used at the end did give away her non-Indian origin. It was only later that I read in your post that she was of Armenian parentage.

bluespriite said...

Oh.. this gaman song is favourite of mine.. lovely post.

narayan said...

A fascinating story.

The tag Armenian Jew piques my curiosity. A cursory look at web-sites about and by Indian Jews does not suggest any significant presence of Armenian Jews in India, although Armenians abound in historical narratives as far back as Aurangzeb or earlier. I have followed most of the links and can find only one credible source for the Jewish origins of Gauhar Jaan. S. Muthiah, who is famous as the popular-historian of Madras/Chennai, says she was Jewish and not of the Orthodox Christian faith as most Armenians in India were. On what authority he says so I don’t know, and I have a beef with him on that score in other matters - his word is gospel.

I have come across an abstract of a paper in a scholarly journal that addresses the presence in India of ‘Arabian Jews’. That paper might give a clue about Armenian Jews in India, alas I don’t have access to it (through JSTOR – perhaps you do). Most people don’t know much about social and religious divisions in other communities, and I suspect Indians are worse at this than others -- to an insular South Indian of my youth, Punjabi invariably meant a fellow with a beard and turban. The juxtaposition of Armenian Jew with Anglo-Indian on a subsidiary link is a further example of this phenomenon. I had an Armenian classmate in high school, Joseph Joseph, whom I knew through conversations to be Christian. I had a recent run-in with another classmate who insisted that Jo-Jo was Jewish, again, I suspect, on no particular basis other than the casual conflation of two alien strains. A plausible conjecture is that some Armenian Jews may have come under the coat-tails of the British. Does anyone have verifiable information on this matter?

Anonymous said...

My paternal ancestors were New Julfa Armenians who settled and traded in the East from Chennai and Calcutta. In fact one of them was Mesrovb Jacob Seth who wrote the History of Armenians in India. I think from all the references you see that it's an old historic conflation because people distinguished the Armenians from the Jews by just simply calling them Armenian Jews. Both groups were involved in commerce. An Armenian historian explained that this confusion was common in Asia. However, it's a concept most Armenians reject.