Gauhar Jan of Calcutta, who became a legend at the turn of the 20th century was one of the most renowned and charismatic performing artistes of her time. A highly accomplished singer and dancer, she belonged to a world of grandeur and refinement in which the princely courts and private salons were the nucleus of the performing arts.
She was born to Anglo-Indian parents as Angelina Yeoward, in 1870. After her parents divorced, she moved to Banaras with her mother, where they embraced Islam and chose new names: Gauhar and Malka respectively. With her innate genius and determination, Malka Jan soon achieved name and fame as a professional singer and dancer. They subsequently moved to Kolkata where Gauhar developed keen interest in, and began imbibing music. She took her initial lessons from her mother and later came under the tutelage of Kale Khan of Patiala and Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur in Hindustani Classical Music. She also trained in Drupad Dhamar and Kathak from the stalwarts of the time. She learnt from her contemporaries. She sang songs written by Tagore. She could read, write and sing in several languages.
Her maiden performance was at the court of Darbhanga in 1887. That marked the beginning of her glorious career. She was soon dominating the musical scene in Kolkata, singing and dancing at the homes of the rich. Gauhar Jan was the first artiste to be recorded in India way back in 1902. She recorded prolifically, cutting records of raagdari sangeet, thumri, dadra, kajri, chaiti, bhajan, tarana. She mastered the technique of presenting a musical item in just three minutes, and this became a model for the vocalists of the future. Through the wide circulation of her records, she became popular throughout India and received invitations to several prestigious music conferences and also as a guest of patrons in the various princely states.
Gauhar Jan lived a very wealthy life, and she also donated generously to a number of causes. She spent her last days in the service of the Mysore Durbar, where she died in 1930