'My Name Is Gauhar Jaan'

The Enduring Legacy Of The 'First Dancing Girl, Calcutta'
By Suresh Chandvankar (Society of Indian Record Collectors)

[Ed. Note: The recordings of Gauhar Jaan, who was one of the first artists to record music on 78 RPM records in India, were important in that they were meant to preserve for posterity a centuries-old musical tradition. Trained by some of the masters of Indian vocal music, Jaan had a huge following.  Her voice was described by foreigners as being "very sweet, though not for European ears," Gauhar Jaan was one of the last of the great baijis, which can be roughly translated as "courtesan," but in the original Hindi and Urdu, there are many words that reflect the nuanced strata occupied by these women. In effect they were women who sang, and sometimes danced, for almost exclusively male audiences. Words such as baiji, tawayaf, and kothewali are all descriptions of "public women" who were musical artists. In Indian society, "respectable women" could never have been seen entertaining in public or even letting their voices be recorded. In this piece, Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, examines the life and legacy of Gauhar Jaan, an enduring legend in Indian music history and still an inspiration to new generations of Indian vocalists.]

gauharNovember 14,1902: A very rudimentary and makeshift recording studio had been set up in two large rooms of a hotel in Kolkata by the Gramophone Company. Frederick William Gaisberg and his assistants had arrived just three weeks before from England on their first Far East recording expedition for the Gramophone Company, which had been founded in England in 1898. They had appointed a local agent for selecting and training artists for recording on gramophone discs. However, the agent selected Anglo-Indian artists and completely ignored local talent. Gaisberg then sought the help of the local Police Superintendent, visited several theaters, attended mehfils at wealthy Jamindars' palaces, and thus found at least one promising artist to begin with. The artist was a very famous dancing girl, and her voice was very sweet, although not for European ears. She agreed to a recording session for the handsome fee of 3,000 rupees. Such an artist was necessary in order to build a firm business foundation on the Indian scene, especially when several other German, French and American recording companies were also planning to capture the Asian market in general and the Indian market in particular.

At around 9.00 a.m. a young lady entered the studio with all her paraphernalia, including accompanists and relatives. Loaded fully with very expensive ornaments and jewelry, this 30 year old, fair, medium-built lady went onto the stage prepared for the recordings.  Sarangi, harmonium, and tabla players began to tune their instruments. Gaisberg personally checked the equipment. A thick wax master record was placed on the turntable rotating at 78 rpm. A huge recording horn was fitted on the wall behind her and close to her face, and she was asked to sing loudly into the horn. At the narrow end of the long horn a diaphragm fitted with a needle was connected to the recording machinery, with a needle placed on rotating disc for cutting the grooves. Gaisberg requested her to sing for three minutes and announce her name at the end of the recording. At the end of the trial recording she announced, "My name is Gauhar Jaan." This announcement was necessary since the wax masters were sent to Hanover in Germany for pressing the records and the technicians would make proper labels and confirm the name by listening to these announcements at the end of the three minutes performance.

gauharAlthough sound recording was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1877, it took 20 years for the technology to mature, and after 25 years, in 1902, the first ever recording of Indian Classical music was engraved in the grooves of a gramophone record. But who was this Gauhar Jaan, the first dancing girl of Calcutta?

Born to Anglo-Indian parents, her name was Angelina Yeoward. Her father, William Robert Yeoward, was an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in a factory producing dry ice at Azamgadh near Benares. He married a Jewish lady, Victoria Hemming, around 1870. Born and raised in India, Ms. Hemming had learned Indian dance and music. Angelina was born in 1873 and baptized in the Methodist church in Azamgadh. This marriage did not last long due to Victoria's love for dance and music and her relations with a Muslim friend named Khurshed. After divorcing, she moved to Benares with Angelina and Khurshed, adopted Islam as her religion, and daughter and mother chose new names; Gauhar and Malka respectively. In those days, Benares was not only a sacred place, but also a seat of learning, a center for all the performing arts, including dance, drama and music. Gauhar spent eight years learning the art to perfection and emerged as a well-trained Baiji, as she had decided to take up the profession of entertainer through dance and music. She became popular as Badi Malka Jaan; badi (elder) because at that time three other Malka Jaans were famous (viz. Malka Jaan of Agra, Malka Jaan of Mulk Pukhraj and Malka Jaan of Chulbuli) and she was the eldest among them.

gauharAround 1883, the trio moved to Kolkata, a place of great patronage for music and the other arts. In those days, both Hindu and Muslims Baijis from Benares, Agra and Lucknow used to settle in the Bow Bazaar area. The place was famous for courtesans or Kothewalis who would entertain wealthy Jamindars and Babus with their art.  Some Ustads would train this community after a proper gandabandhan. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had settled at Matiaburj near Kolkata in his last days and his court was full of musicians and artists. In such an atmosphere Badi Malka Jaan soon established herself, and within three years she purchased a building at 24 Chitpore Road for Rs.40,000. Little Gauhar, too, was fond of dance and music and took her initial lessons from her mother. She had a sharp memory, intelligence and learned very quickly, and so Malka appointed special teachers for teaching Gauhar languages, literature, and of course, dance and music. Kale Khan of Patiala, alias “Kalu Ustad,” and Ustad Vazir Khan of Rampur trained her in pure and light classical Hindustani vocal music, whereas Ali Baksh and Brindadin Maharaj taught her the Kathak form of dance. SriJaanbai taught her dhrupad dhamar, and Charan Das trained her in Bengali Keertan. She also learned from her contemporaries, Mojuddin Khan, Bhaiyya Ganpatrao and Peara Saheb. She sang Tagore songs even before the word Rabindra-Sangeet had been coined.  She penned several compositions under the name "Hamdam," and also wrote, composed and recorded gazals. She could read, write and sing in several languages including Bengali, Hindustani, Gujrathi, Tamil, Marathi, Arabic, Persian, Pushto, French, Peshawari, and English.

After such intensive training, she first performed at Darbhanga State at the age of fifteen, and in 1896 she began to perform in Kolkata. She would sing and dance at the houses of rich jamindars and be remunerated in thousands of rupees. She was in great demand and even ordinary citizens wanted to listen to her music. Gaisberg noticed this and made her music available to listeners through her gramophone records. Gauhar Jaan recorded prolifically, more than 600 songs from 1902 to 1920, and she sang in more than ten languages. From 1903, her records began to appear on the Indian market, and were always in great demand. Thousands of copies were imported after being pressed at Hanover, and they were best-sellers throughout India. In 1908, a record-pressing factory was built at Sealdah (close to the present Sealdah railway station), Gaisberg was invited for this occasion and recorded a few more songs of Gauhar Jaan, for which the announcement of her name at the end was not required.

Gauhar Jaan, 'Thumari,' recorded for the Gramophone Company in 1907. India's first recording star, Guahar Jaan recorded more than 600 songs in ten languages.

The early records of Gauhar Jaan are labeled "First dancing girl, Calcutta." The word "first" indicates her elevated position as the premier vocalist in the Kolkata musical world of 1890-1910.  She cut records of raagdari sangeet, thumri, dadra, kajri, chaiti, bhaJaan, tarana and popularized various types of “Kachha” gana through her records. This was remarkable considering how the great stalwarts of Indian classical music ignored the gramophone and recording medium completely and refused to record. She mastered the technique of presenting a musical item in just three minutes, thereby establishing a model for the vocalists of the future. She recorded the music taught by her Ustads, which meant that she helped preserve the musical tradition of at least three to four generations preceding her own. Her recordings are prized by students and researchers studying the development of Indian classical music over the last two or three hundred years.

Through the wide circulation of her records, she became popular throughout India and received invitations to participate in several prestigious music conferences. Thus in 1911, she was invited to participate in the Prayag Sangeet Samiti, for which she was paid 1000 rupees. Later the same year, during the coronation of King George V at the Delhi Darbar, she was invited to sing a duet with Jaankibai of Allahabad.  They sang a Mujra song—Ye Hai Tajposhi Ka Jalsa, Mubarak Ho Mubarak Ho—and received 100 guineas each as a gift from the King.

gauharGauhar Jaan used to travel all over India, as a guest of patrons in the various Princely states. She also gave public performances, in which she would present ticketed programs, distributing an advance schedule of the items to be sung in her concert. She was fond of horse-racing and hence would visit Bombay during the racing season. She used to stay with AnJaanibai Malpekar, spending the day at the Mahalakshmi racecourse, and the evenings and nights at concerts. She was a great admirer of Heerabai and offered to adopt her when Abdul Karim Khan's family separated and the mother moved to Pune with her five children. She taught a number of bhajans and thumris to both Heerabai and Sunderabai, which they in their turn duly recorded on gramophone records. Because of Gauhar Jaan the songs Radhe Krishna Bol Mukhase and Kridhna Murari Binat Karat became popular bhaJaans and several singers used to sing them in concerts and on records.

As her wealthgrew, she donated generously to a number of causes. Numerous legends are associated with her. In Calcutta, she used to ride in a baggi driven by four horses, threw a party costing 20,000 rupees when her cat produced a litter of kittens, and donated only half the promised amount to Gandhiji's "Swaraj fund" when he did not keep the promise of attending the "fund raising" concert and sent a representative instead. In her personal life, she was deceived by her friends and relatives. She married her personal secretary, Saiyyad Gulam Abbas, a young man from Peshawar. He was ten years younger than her, and when she discovered his relations with other women, several court cases and unpleasant incidents ensued. Later, she stayed with Amrut Vagal Nayak in Bombay, a handsome actor on the Gujrathi stage. This relation lasted for some four years, during which she began singing songs he companion had written, including the famous Dadra, Aan Ban Jiyamen Lagi. His sudden death had a devastating effect on her. Persuaded by relatives to return to Kolkata, she moved on after only a short stay there. The machinations of selfish and cunning relatives forced her to stay in Darbhanga State for a while. Finally she joined the service of the Mysore State, where she died on Jaanuary 17, 1930.

Guahar Jaan, 'Raga Sohini Maika Piya Bina'

She recorded more than 600 songs on 150 records, most of which are in the safe custody of collectors. The Gramophone company reissued 18 songs in 1994 on audio tape and on a CD bannered Chairman's Choice, which no one (except perhaps the Chairman) noticed, due to lack of adequate publicity. It is necessary to preserve the legacy of Gauhar Jaan in a more full-scale way for posterity, and some die-hard collectors and music lovers have committed themselves to accomplishing this task.

Reprinted courtesy


Demystifying Gauhar Jaan


My Name is Gauhar Jaan!  The Life and Times of a Musician tries to demystify the myth and mystery around one of the most enigmatic legends in Indian music history, Gauhar Jaan. Vikram Sampath, in this remarkable book, brings forth little known details of this fascinating woman who was known for her melodious voice, her multi-lingual skills, poetic sensibility, irresistible personality and her extravagant lifestyle. From her early days in Azamgarh and Banaras to the glory years in Calcutta when Gauhar ruled the world of Indian music, to her sad fall from grace and end in Mysore, the book takes the reader through the roller-coaster ride of this feisty musician. In the process, the author presents a view of the socio-historical context of Indian music and theater during that period.

The author Vikram Sampath was born in Bangalore and completed his Engineering in Electronics and Masters in Mathematics from BITS-Pilani in 2003. He subsequently did an M.B.A. in finance from S P Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai. He currently works in the retail banking division of a leading multinational bank in Bangalore. The book is a must-have for all Indian and world music lovers.

Vikram Sampath's My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! The Life and Times of a Musician is available at

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