Gauhar Jaan, a forgotten figure in the world of Indian classical music and the first musician of the Subcontinent to record commercially on the gramophone, was born as Eileen Angelina Yeoward on 26 June 1873, to Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Christian and an engineer in a dry ice factory in Azamgarh, in present-day Uttar Pradesh. Her mother, Victoria Hemmings, was an Indian by birth and had been trained in music and dance. Eileen was duly baptized in the Holy Trinity Church in Allahabad in 1875.
After being deserted by her husband, Victoria, with the help of one of her Muslim suitors, Khursheed, shifted to adjoining Varanasi with her daughter and with the intention to become a professional courtesan, converted to Islam, became Badi Malka Jaan and started to learn the method to become a proficient courtesan. She added the word ‘Badi’ (older) before her name, as there were three more reputed Malka Jaans at that time and she was the oldest among them.
Probably, little Eileen also took on her Islamic name at that time. It was in Varanasi, where Gauhar found the first love of her life, a rich aristocrat named Chaggan Rai.
With the exile of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta in 1856, many artists, musicians and dancers from Awadh and Varanasi shifted to the city. Badi Malka and Gauhar also migrated to the city in 1883 and the name of the city stayed with Gauhar all through her life, as she came to be fondly called ‘Gauhar Jaan Kalkattewali’.
Gradually, Gauhar became a flamboyant singer much sought after the nobility of British India, a socialite who threw lavish parties, a self-indulgent beauty who went about the town in expensive horse-drawn carts and a sensuous model whose image appeared on matchboxes made in Austria. She had lots of ornaments and never seemed to wear the same jewels twice. Apart from having a special affinity for expensive cars, she also had great likings for horse racing. Within three years, she purchased a building at 24 Chitpore Road alias Rabindra Sarani, for Rs. 40,000 and started her training in Hindustani vocal music under Kale Khan, Ustad Ali BakshJarnail and Kathak dance from Brindadin Maharaj. She gave her maiden performance at the royal courts of Darbhanga in 1887 and started performing in Calcutta in 1896.
On 8 November 1902, in India's first recording sessions, Fred Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company recorded the voice of Gauhar Jaan, as she rendered a Khyal in Raag Jogiya. She recorded more than 600 songs from 1902 to 1920, in more than ten languages, which became very popular. In her records, she always announced her name as ‘My name is Gohar Jaan’. For each recording, she was paid 3000 rupees, which was considered a lot of money in those days.
She first visited Madras in 1910 for a concert and finally, moved to Mysore, at the invitation of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, where she was appointed as a Palace Musician on 1 August 1929. During her last days at Mysore, she was virtually alone. The legal harassment initiated by her ex-husband and the conspiring relatives had long since reduced her great wealth. When she died at the age of 60, she was nearly penniless.
It seems that Gauhar had intimate relationship with three men, one of whom was Zaminder Nimai Sen, whose inordinate level of material gifts to her seemed to be unusual. She also had significant relationship with Saiyad Gulam Abas, her erstwhile table accompanist, whom she married, even he was ten years younger than her. However, the relationship became bitter due to his infidelities. Subsequently, he tied her up in a long series of lawsuits. Later, she used to live with Amrut Vagal Nayak, a noted actor of the Gujarati stage. The relationship lasted for 3/4 years, which ended with his sudden death.
Salim Manzil, located next to the Nakhoda Masjid, at 92 Rabindra Sarani, was once the residence of the famous singer and courtesan Gauhar Jaan, where she lived between 1890s and 1927.