A Little on Gauhar Jaan; and Remix vs. Original?

I was doing some research this morning on an unrelated topic, when I randomly came across the name Gauhar Jaan, one of the great recording artists in India from the first years of the 20th century. Gauhar Jaan is thought to have sung on the very first recording of a song ever made in India, in 1902. Here is what she sang:

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It’s a kind of Hindustani classical song called a “khayal,” sung, I gather, in Raag Jogiya. At the end of it she says, famously, “My name is Gauhar Jan!”

Who was Gauhar Jaan? Her background, from what I’ve been able to find on the internet, seems remarkable:

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, who married a Jewish Armenian lady, Allen Victoria Hemming around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

Within a few years 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’. (link)

Through her mother, who depended on the patronage of wealthy Muslim noblemen (I’m presuming she may have been a Tawaif), Gauhar Jaan got training from the best classical music masters in Calcutta at the time. By 1896, she was a star performer in Calcutta, which is how she was able to charge Rs. 3000 in 1902 to have her voice on the first audio recording of an Indian song ever made. Later, Gauhar Jaan became a star all over India. She performed in Madras in 1910, and even performed for King George V when he visited India. She died of natural causes as the palace musician of the Maharajah of Mysore in 1930. (There is a fuller bio of Gauhar Jaan here, at the Tribune. Also, see this profile of Gauhar Jaan.)

Another song Gauhar Jaan was famous for was “Ras ke bhare tore nain,” which I think many readers will find familiar for reasons that will become apparent below. Here is a somewhat more recent version of “Ras ke bhare tore nain,” sung by Hira Devi Mishra (from the 1982 film “Gaman”):

I’m finding the Hindi (Braj Basha?) a little hard to follow, so if anyone wants to help with translation, it would be appreciated. Now, compare that song with the Midival Punditz’ “Fabric,” a drum n bass remix used by Mira Nair in Monsoon Wedding. The Punditz use Hira Devi Mishra’s voice from the track above as a sample:

The neighborhood where she films those crazy wires is in Old Delhi — the area around Jama Masjid. Nair also did her first, student film in that neighborhood (the film was her thesis at Harvard; it was a short, eighteen-minute documentary called “Jama Masjid Street Journal”).

Which would you prefer to listen to in traffic on a rainy day, the Hira Devi Mishra “Ras ke bhare,” or the Midival Punditz’ “Fabric”?

23 thoughts on “A Little on Gauhar Jaan; and Remix vs. Original?

  1. Great find! Thanks for the info – tribuneindia.com is however categorized as an attack site (by Google) .Midival Punditz’ “Fabric” is very fusion type music and I ‘ve always been a fan of it.

  2. Thanks for this, Amardeep. I’d never heard of Gauhar Jaan – this discovery has sent me off on a search about tetrachords in Armenian and Indian music. Fascinating!

  3. The first clip does not work, perhaps b/c I am trying to access it from Vancouver, Canada?

    Anyways, the second clip is beautiful and so I ‘Fabric’ the third one. I guess I would listen to the Hira Devi Mishra “Ras ke bhare” on rainy day in Bombay, it kind of asks for that monsoon rain, which we hardly get up here in Vancouver :o )

  4. Once again, a fantastic post on SM! Thanks for digging this stuff up and sharing it.

  5. Interesting.

    I would definitely prefer the the original “Ras ke bhare”. But many thanks to Mira Nair for bringing this (as well as “Aaj jane ki zid na karo” by Farida Khanum) forgotten song into limelight.

  6. Btw, Amardeep, prior to 1757 Armenians had a rather large presence in Hoogly (now West Bengal); in fact India–especially the coasts–was astonishingly consmopolitan prior to that.

  7. Nice writeup, but lets not give Amardeep too much credit here. All the info on Gauhar Jan is directly lifted from her wikipedia entry. Some more info from the part-time carnatic music historian Sriram V


    [quote] For all the public adulation she received, Gauhar Jan’s private life was not happy. She married her secretary, who proved unfaithful. The break up resulted in prolonged litigation. She then lived in Bombay with Amrit Vagal Nayak, a handsome star of the Gujarati stage for a few years during which she learnt several songs from him. He died suddenly, leaving Gauhar Jan prey to mental depression. Though she had earned enormously, she had given away considerable amounts to charities. Unscrupulous relatives tried to deprive her of what was left, taking advantage of her mental condition. After brief stints at Calcutta and Darbhanga, the royal invitation of HH Krishnarajendra Wodeyar IV of Mysore came like the proverbial balm. She became a Mysore State artiste and died there in 1930.

    Thus ended the life of one of the most colourful artistes of the last century. [/quote]

  8. Beautiful post, and thanks for bringing so many aspects of Gauhar Jaan into light, including the music….hauntingly beautiful. I had no idea that she had Armenian Jewish heritage. As someone mentioned there were lot of Armenians in the coasts. A ghat of Ganga in Calcutta is still named ‘Armenian Ghat’ and there are still Armenian Jewish synagogues present in Calcutta.

    Rasika, thanks for the extra info about her life. But I do give Amardeep credit of bringing this to our notice and writing such a coherent article.

  9. The following website from ‘Musical traditions’ have much more info here , including her pictures. Probably Sriram V., also got his information from here (’03), as this article predates his (’02).

  10. i’m gonna let @10 go, cause it’s stupid and uncalled for for obvious reasons.

    good job prof!

  11. I read throughout the article and I dont think to anything else in this article.I agree with you. Nice comment as well as nice article. Rubic Attorneys

  12. Love the original! Thanks for posting this! The lyrics (translations attempts mine):

    arey pathik giridhari sun itni kahiyo ter dig jhar layi raadhika ab brij bhoolat pher [pathik = traveler, dig (like drig in Hindi/Sanskrit) = eyes]

    aa ja sanvariya tohe garava laga loo ras ke bhare tore nain, saanvariya ras ke bhare tore nain [garava = chest/heart]

    jehi chitavat tehi bas kari raakhat naahi pade maika chain sanvariya [chitavat - from chit in Hindi/Sanskrit = mind]

    ras ke bhare tore nain

  13. O trveller, just tell Girdhari (Krishna) when you see him that Radha has run out of tears, When would he come back to Brij? (Vindavan and Barsana) Come to me Saanvariya (One with dark skin, Krishna), let me embrace you. Your eyes full of elixir. O Krishna, your image is in my heart and i can find no peace.

    These lines, i think, are the closest to a translation. Thanks for the great post

  14. “Which would you prefer to listen to in traffic on a rainy day, the Hira Devi Mishra “Ras ke bhare,” or the Midival Punditz’ “Fabric”? “

    Rain is for the classics. Definitely the original.

  15. A fascinating story.
    The tag Armenian Jew piques my curiosity. A cursory look at web-sites about and by Indian Jews does not suggest any significant presence of Armenian Jews in India, although Armenians abound in historical narratives as far back as Aurangzeb or earlier. I have followed most of the links and can find only one credible source for the Jewish origins of Gauhar Jaan. S. Muthiah, who is famous as the popular-historian of Madras/Chennai, says she was Jewish and not of the Orthodox Christian faith as most Armenians in India were. On what authority he says so I don’t know; I have a beef with him on that score in other matters too. I have come across an abstract of a paper in a scholarly journal that addresses the presence in India of ‘Arabian Jews’. That paper might give a clue about Armenian Jews in India, alas I don’t have access to it (through JSTOR – perhaps you do). Most people don’t know much about social and religious divisions in other communities, and I suspect Indians are worse at this than others — to an insular South Indian of my youth, Punjabi invariably meant a fellow with a beard and turban. The juxtaposition of Armenian Jew with Anglo-Indian is a further example of this phenomenon. I had an Armenian classmate in high school, Joseph Joseph, whom I knew through conversations to be Christian. I had a recent run-in with another classmate who insisted that Jo-Jo was Jewish, again, I suspect, on no particular basis other than the casual conflation of two alien strains. A plausible conjecture is that some Armenian Jews may have come under the coat-tails of the British.
    Does anyone have verifiable information on this matter?

  16. One of the greatest Indian female vocalists…also look into Anjanibai, less known…very powerful voice and an expert at thumri and kajri

  17. Nice write up! I am a historian/author and i am glad to inform you that i have just completed writing a book on the life and times of Gauhar Jaan, based entirely on original and rare documents related to her. It should be out in a couple of months. I would like to point out that the claim of her being a “jewess” is incorrect. It has been repeated so many times and by virtue of that gets passed on as the truth. She was of mixed lineage. Her grandmother was Indian Hindu, her grandfather Brit and therby her mother of mixed Christian origin. Her father was an Armenian Christian and they were married also in a church at Allahabad. Also, she was not born in Patna as suggested but in Azamgarh in the then United Provinces in 1873.