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The Story of Gauhar Jaan: India’s First ‘Pop’ Star

Dive into the tale behind today’s Google Doodle and get to know one of India’s first ever recording artists

Riddhi Chakraborty Jun 26, 2018

Gauhar Jaan's illustrious career is now mostly forgotten but definitely worth re-discovering. Illustration by Aditi Damle. Photo of Gauhar Jaan: Public domain

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Portrayed with a gramophone, a small white cat and a flower, the illustration of Gauhar Jaan by Aditi Damle on today’s Google Doodle offers a passageway to her impressive list of achievements. From becoming the first Indian to record music on a 78 rpm record, to performing for King George V and becoming the palace musician of Maharaja Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV of Mysuru, this legendary musician and dancer’s illustrious career is now mostly forgotten but definitely worth re-discovering.

The Google Doodle by Aditi Damle honoring Jaan.

Born Angelina Yeoward in 1873 near Patna, both of Jaan’s parents were Armenian. Her mother Victoria Hemmings, however, was Indian by birth and had grown up learning classical music and dance””a passion she passed on to her daughter. After her marriage with Jaan’s father dissolved, Hemmings moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) with little Angelina to settle down as a performer in the courts of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Both converted to Islam which is when ‘Angelina’ became ‘Gauhar Jaan.’

Jaan would go on to learn the performing arts from several accomplished individuals who attended the court and lived in her neighborhood; she was trained in classical Hindustani vocals, Kathak, composed ghazals under the pen-name ‘Hamdam’ and mastered  ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ before turning 15. By 1900, she had developed a steady fanbase in the city due to her many performances and soon she began to travel around the entire country for shows.

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In 1902, U.K. recording company EMI’s subsidiary the Gramophone Company made a decision to expand to India and create a series of sessions with local artists. The sessions began in November and continued over the course of six weeks with several esteemed artists in attendance; Jaan was the first to record her vocals for the project, performing a khayal in “Raag Jogiya” and was recorded by the Gramophone Company’s leading sound engineer Fred Gaisberg.

Once the 78 rpm records were manufactured and began distribution in India, Jaan shot to fame as the country’s most famous recording star and by 1903, there was a huge demand for her music across the nation. She was especially known for her technique of condensing elaborate Hindustani classical tracks to just three and a half minutes for a record and therefore making the music easier to consume by a wider range of audiences.

Gauhar Jaan in 1904. Photo: Public domain

Jaan would go on to make more than 600 records from 1902 to 1920 in several languages including Bengali, Hindi, English, Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Arabic, Persian, Pashto and French. She would end each performance with a proud declaration of “My name is Gauhar Jaan!” and was even invited to perform at King George V’s coronation in New Delhi in 1911.

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The singer’s career came to a sudden end due to her death in 1930–shortly after she was made palace musician at Maharaja Wadiyar IV’s court in Mysuru–but Jaan’s place in Indian music history remains firm. In addition to becoming the country’s first official ‘pop’ star, Jaan’s recordings also cemented the idea of purchasing recorded music among Indian audiences who were previously reluctant to try the Western invention.

Hear a thumri recorded by Gauhar Jaan in 1905 below:

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