Gauhar Jaan (born Angelina Yeoward, 26 June 1873 – 17 January 1930) was an Indian singer and dancer from Calcutta. She was one of the first performers to record music on 78 rpm records in India, and released by Gramophone Company of India.
Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward on 26 June 1873 in Azamgarh, of Armenian descent. Her father, William Robert Yeoward, worked as an engineer in a dry ice factory, and married her mother, Victoria Hemmings, in 1872. Victoria, an Indian by birth, had been trained in music and dance.
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’.
In time, Victoria (now ‘Malka Jaan’) became an accomplished singer, Kathak dancer and a courtesan in Banaras, and made a name for herself, as Badi Malka Jan; she was called Badi (elder) because at that time three other Malka Jans were famous: Malka Jan of Agra, Malka Jan of Mulk Pukhraj and Malka Jan of Chulbuli, and she was the eldest among them.
Finally, Malka Jaan moved back to Calcutta in 1883, and established herself in the courts of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who had settled at Matiaburj (Garden Reach), near Kolkata and within three years purchased a building at 24 Chitpore Road (now Rabindra Sarani), for Rs. 40,000. 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 Vazir Khan of Rampur, and Ustad Ali Baksh (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.
Gauhar Jaan gave her maiden performance at the royal courts of Darbhanga Raj in 1887 and was appointed as court musician, after receiving extensive dance and music training from a professional dancer at Banaras. Gauhar Jan started performing in Calcutta in 1896 and was called the ‘first dancing girl’ in her records. She met Gujarati Parsi theatre artist Amrit Keshav Nayak around 1904–1905 and had a brief relationship with him before his sudden death in 1907. He helped her recover from trauma following death of her mother.
Gauhar Jaan first visited Madras in 1910, for a concert in the Victoria Public Hall, and soon her Hindustani and Urdu songs were published in a Tamil music book. In December 1911, she was famously invited to perform at the coronation of King George V at Delhi Durbar, where she sang a duet, Ye Hai Tajposhi Ka Jalsa, Mubarak Ho Mubarak Ho, with Jankibai of Allahabad. It is said that, Begum Akhtar in her early days wanted to pursue a career in Hindi films, but after listening to the singing of Gauhar and her mother, she gave up the idea completely and devoted herself to learning Hindustani classical music, in fact, her first teacher was Ustad Imdad Khan, who accompanied the mother-daughter duo on sarangi.
Eventually, in her final days, she moved to Mysore, at the invitation of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV of Mysore, and on 1 August 1928, she was appointed as a ‘Palace musician’, though she died within 18 months, on 17 January 1930 in Mysore.
In her lifetime, she recorded more than 600 records from 1902 to 1920, in more than ten languages, including Bengali, Hindustani, Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Arabic, Persian, Pushto, French, and English. She would round off her performances for a record by announcing ‘My name is Gohar Jan’.
She popularised light Hindustani classical music with her thumri, dadra, kajri, chaiti, bhajan, tarana renditions, and also mastered the technique of condensing performing the elaborate melody Hindustani classical style to just three and a half minutes for a record. Her most famous song are, thumri sung in Bhairavi is Mora nahak laye gavanava, jabse gaye mori sud huna live, Ras ke bhare Tore Nain, Mere dard-e-jigar and Bhajans like, Radhey Krishna Bol Mukhse.