Gauhar Jaan, the legendary musician and dancer, features on the Google Doodle on 26 June, her 145th birth anniversary. Born on this day in 1873, she was one of the first performers to record music on 78 rpm records in India. The record was released by Gramophone Company of India, which gave her the name “the Gramophone Girl”.
The doodle is an illustration by Aditi Damle showing Gauhar Jaan with her cat, with the Gramophone in the background.
Gauhar Jaan, born as Angelina Yeoward on 26 June 1873 in Azamgarh, was of Armenian descent. Her father, William Robert Yeoward, worked as an engineer in a dry ice factory, and married Victoria Hemmings in 1872. Angelina converted to Islam along with her mother in the 1880s and became Gauhar Jaan. Her mother, ‘Badi’ Malka Jaan, was an accomplished Kathak dancer and singer and was a courtesan in Benaras. Malka Jaan moved back to Calcutta in 1883, and established herself in the courts of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. It is here that young Gauhar started her training, she learnt pure and light classical Hindustani vocal music from Kale Khan of Patiala, ‘Kalu Ustad’, Ustad Wazir Khan, and Ustad Ali Baksh Jarnail (founding members of Patiala Gharana), and Kathak from legendary Brindadin Maharaj (granduncle of Birju Maharaj), Dhrupad-Dhamar from Srijanbai, and Bengali Keertan from Charan Das. Soon she also started writing and composing ghazals under the pen-name ‘Hamdam’ and became proficient in Rabindra Sangeet too.
Her maiden music concert was when she was 17 years old. Gauhar began giving dance performances too after a few years, and went on to perform across India. Travelling gave her an opportunity to learn regional art forms.
India’s first recording sessions included Gauhar Jaan singing a khayal in Raag Jogiya. The recital was recorded by Fred Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company. This was at a time when her male counterparts were reluctant to accept a new technology, fearing that would spoil their voice. But Gauhar Jaan was the first musician to accept this offer. While trial recording, she is believed to have said, “My name is Gauhar Jaan,” according to Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors. This eventually became the label of the first Indian album. Gauhar’s method of recording was adopted by many women singers, which eventually led to more women taking up recording.
There is an interesting story about the cat that is featured along with Gauhar in Today’s Doodle. It is said that Gauhar spent ₹20,000 in the early 1900s and threw a party when her cat delivered a litter of kittens, according to historian V Muthiah. Gauhar’s life had been enacted as a play directed by Lillete Dubey. Director Ashutosh Gowarikar has bought the movie rights for Vikram Sampath’s book on the biography on Gauhar’s life.