Gauhar: An Exhilarating Theatrical Journey to a Bygone Era


By Jyoti Kulkarni

HOUSTON: Indian theater lovers in Houston were transported to the exhilarating life of a tawaif (court singer/dancer). The occasion was an extraordinary play “Gauhar”, depicting the life of Gauhar Jaan, a legendary North Indian classical court musician and dancer of the early 20th century.

Gauhar’s claim to fame is that she is the first Indian voice to be recorded by His Masters Voice (HMV) Gramophone Company of India (now Saregama). Gauhar produced more 600 records from 1902 to 1920, in more than ten languages. She would round off each recorded performance by announcing, “My name is Gauhar Jaan!” Saragama India is planning to bring out a selection of her recordings in the near future.


The play is based on a book by Vikram Sampat, My Name is Gauhar Jaan. The play was adapted by Mahesh Dattani and superbly directed by Lillete Dubey. Produced by Mumbai-based Prime Time Theater Co., the play was brought to Houston by a local dramatic company, EnActe, as the first stop of a US tour.

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Azamgarh UP, of Armenian descent. Her father, William Robert Yeoward, worked as an engineer in a dry ice factory, and her mother was Victoria Hemmings, an Indian by birth.

Rajeshwari Sachdev

Rajeshwari Sachdev

In 1879, the marriage ended and mother and daughter migrated to Banaras in 1881 to live with a Muslim nobleman. Victoria then converted to Islam and changed her name to Malka Jaan and Angelina’s name to Gauhar Jaan.

The play unfolds the poignancy and vulnerability of Gauhar’s life of a courtesan, despite her eminence and dedication to her art. Gauhar was celebrated by her patrons, but none would marry her because of the social stigma. As a result, Gauhar was romantically involved with numerous noblemen, singers and businessmen, but died in relative obscurity and poverty. The play also depicts legal battles to save her assets from servants, who tried to take advantage of Gauhar’s innocence.

Gauhar Jaan and her musicians in a recording studio. Credit: Saregama.

Gauhar Jaan and her musicians in a recording studio. Credit: Saregama.

An accomplished dancer and singer in her own right, Rajeshwari Sachev, who played the lead role of Gauhar, was exquisite in presenting on stage Gauhar’s pain resulting from life’s conflicts, her revelations and jubilations in music. Some readers may remember Sachdev hosted several musical TV shows such as Antakshari.

The daughter of renowned classical maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan, actress Zila Khan portrayed Gauhar’s aging mother Malka Jaan. With the singing of haunting melodies, she beautifully created the ambience of a bygone era.

The audience appreciated the fact that both Rajeshwari Sachdev and Zila Khan performed highly difficult classical ghazals and thumris live on stage.

Notable also was the actor Denzil Smith, who played Gauhar’s father, and later, Fred Gaisberg, the Englishman who made the HMV recordings. The cast included Danny Sura, Rajeev Siddhartha, Sukanya Chakraborti and Sanjana Shukla. Sukanya and Sanjana are actually California-based actresses, who had to learn their parts in just three days.

Despite the tragic nature of the play, there were some comic scenes, particularly the reaction of the servants to the gramophone machine, calling it a “devil”, and the Englishman’s reactions to a funny rendition of a Western ballroom dance.

It is unfortunate that many Houstonians missed an opportunity to attend the play with its superb content and authentic production values due to short notice of the performances. An EnActe spokesman said the actors and backstage staff were able to obtain their US visas only 15 days before the start of their tour. As Houston was the first stop for the touring play, hopefully the production will garner bigger audiences in other US cities.