Today is the 145th birth anniversary of legendary dancer and singer Gauhar Jaan.
Gauhar Jan was a very noteworthy artist of Calcutta at the turn of the 20th century. It seems strange that today she is largely unknown, but at the time, she was one of the most famous vocalist in India. She was one of India’s first recording stars. She was as famous for her larger-than life lifestyle as she was for her artistic abilities. One would not be out of line to say that she was India’s first “recording superstar”.
She is known for her contributions to both dance as well as singing. She was one of the last of the once noble tradition of female entertainers known as tawaifs. As changing social conditions forced the decline of the tawaifs, she was intelligent enough to alter her professional tactics in order to thrive in the new environment.
Gauhar Jan’s had rather unusual origins for a tawaif of the 19th century. She was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna. Her father was William Robert Yeoward. He was an Armenian Jew who worked in a dry ice factory in Azamgarh. Her mother was Victoria Hemming, who was born and brought up in India and knew Indian music and dance well. Angelina was their only child. She was baptised in the Methodist Church in Azamgarh near Allahabad.
Unfortunately, the marriage between William and Victoria marriage did not survive long. Victoria developed a relationship with a friend by the name of Khurshed. Angelina’s parents divorced 1879. After her divorce, Mrs. Yeoward embraced Islam and took the name Malak Jan, and her daughter assumed the name Gauhar Jan. Gauhar also had the nickname of “Gaura”. It should also be noted that Gauhar’s mother is often known as “Badi” Malak Jan, because at the time there were three other famous Malak Jans. The designation of Badi implying that she was the eldest of the Malak Jan’s.
As the mother’s career and reputation entered an ascendency, they both moved to Calcutta where the professional possibilities were greater. This was about 1883. Both mother and daughter continued their training. The both learned vocal music from “Kalu” Ustad (i.e., Kale Khan of Patiala) and kathak dance under Ali Bux.