Not many of us are aware about Gauhar Jaan, one of the first female recording artists of India. Also gaining the reputation of the most famous vocalist in the country, she has been acknowledged considerably for her works throughout the early 20th century.
She was born on 26 June 1873 in Patna, Uttar Pradesh as Angelina Yeoward to her parents Victoria Hemmings and William Robert Yeoward. Victoria was Indian and William Yeoward was Armenian. When Angelina was 6 years old her parents got divorced. Her mother developed a relationship with a Muslim nobleman and took her to Banaras to stay permanently and converted to Islam. Therefore her name was changed to Gauhar Jaan and Victoria was renamed Malak Jaan. Gauhar’s poetry skills were remarkable just like her mother Malka’s. She was also an exceptional Kathak dancer. She was among the top notch courtesans in Calcutta, where she began to perform for many private mehfils and concerts.
She became a prominent khayal and thumri vocalist and shot to fame in a short period of time, when Gramophone Company, London offered her a recording contract. India’s first ever record was a khayal in Raag Jogiya sung by Gauhar Jaan, making her the first Indian artist to be recorded on disc. She was paid a hefty 3000 Rupees per session at that time. Recording was done in Kolkata and when her records hit the market, her reputation grew rapidly. It changed the whole music industry in the country altogether. Gauhar Jaan was well versed with several languages like Hindustani, Tamil, Gujarati, French, English, Marathi etc. She has a total of about 600 records to her name sung in over 20 languages. She is also credited with developing the 3-minute format for classical performances. Also, she is known to have a style signature of saying “my name is Gauhar Jaan” at the end of record.
She was later appointed as a court musician in the Royal court of Mysore where she saw the last days of her rather glorious life. After the sudden death of her husband Amrit Keshav Nayak, her health was starting to give away before the trauma finally took its toll on her. She served in the Royal court for 18 months. Her contribution to the Indian music industry is priceless and needless to say-legendary. The voice of the first recording superstar will forever be preserved on the records and echoes of her success will reverberate through the history of Indian music industry forever.