Zila Khan’s singing, both as Gauhar Jaan and her mother, pierced the air of Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto shattering the breathless silence of the audience. The heavy tenor of her Sufi voice belied the softness of the form that it arose from, taking the audience and, it seemed, the singer by surprise. Zila, named by her father the legendary sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan, on the raag Zila Kaafi of Amir Khusrau, was tutored by him for 14-16 hours a day. Zila Khan’s musical heritage spans seven generations of Indian classical musicians and five generations of recorded music. She played both Gauhar and her mother at different times in the play.
The play Gauhar, presented by Enacte Arts in the Bay Area, told a story of defiance, foresight and unrequited love. At the turn of last century in 1902, when music rang out only from the durbars of rich patrons, a thirty-year-old Hindustani vocalist entered the studio of the Gramophone Company resplendent in jewels accompanied by her entourage and proceeded to record the first thick wax record turning at 78 rpm on the turntable. The huge recording horn was attached to the wall behind the musicians, its mouth practically bending into their faces. “Sing out loud!” – the instruction was announced. At the end of the recording the singer said: “My name is Gauhar Jaan.”
From her early days in Azamgarh and Banaras to the glory years in Calcutta when Gauhar ruled the world of Indian music, to her sad fall from grace and end in Mysore, the play based on Vikram Sampath’s well researched book, My Name is Gauhar Jaan! brings forth little known details of the artist who lived from 1873 to 1930. Look out for an upcoming film on Gauhar Jaan. Ashutosh Gowariker known for directing films like Jodhaa Akbar has bought the film rights to the book. “Recently I have acquired a book called ‘My Name Is Gauhar Jaan’ by Vikram Sampat. She is the first lady who recorded for Gramophone Company of India. She is a great singer from a forgotten era and I think it is a lovely story. So it is quite inspiring….” he said to TOI last October.
“She was way ahead of her time. She was beautiful, feisty and independent. She spent Rs.20,000 for a party when her cat had a litter! But she was emotionally very weak and yearned for love, because of which many men used her, and she died in penury,” says Lillette Dubey, the director of the play.
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan writes, “My introduction to Gauhar came by way of my father, Ustaad Haafiz Ali Khan Sahib who was a contemporary of hers. Gauhar Jaan was a legend even in her own life time and commanded a huge amount of respect in the musical circles of the time.” (My Name is Gauhar Jaan!)
Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta, The Empress of Indian music, the Cuckoo of Calcutta, changed the music industry forever when she dared enter where no other artist dared to. She excelled in condensing the essence of the Hindustani thumri to 3 minutes, the time the record could play at that time. She left nazams, thumris and bhajans for generations of singers that followed. They would sing her songs not knowing whose soul had entered their voice.
As Zila Khan broke into Raske bhare tore nain the penny dropped in the minds of the audience. The songs they had so casually hummed under their breath were gifts of Gauhar Jaan: Mohe panghat pe nandlal; Kaisi ye dhoom machai ..a hori; Ras ke bhare tore nain. They had heard the nazams many a time and had not known whose song it really was!
“Theatre is the last bastion of human-to-human interaction in our increasingly technological world,” Lillette Dubey said at the end of the performance. “It requires not just an actor but also an audience to make it happen.”