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A peep into the life of enigmatic Gauhar Jaan

A peep into the life of enigmatic Gauhar Jaan
February 21
07:37 2018

PALO ALTO, CA:  Enacte Arts has done it once again! Brought in an international troupe, Prime Time Theaters, directed by none other than the inimitable and delightful Lillete Dubey to tell the story of a forgotten musical gem who became the first recorded artist in the history of Indian classical music. The journey of Gauhar’s life and times was brought alive by a competent cast from India and the Bay Area, at the Cubberly Community Center in Palo Alto over the last weekend. The play is based on the story by Mahesh Dattani who drew the inspiration from Vikram Sampath’s book “My Name is Gauhar Jaan”, a signature ending to her song recordings.

We are introduced to an aging Gauhar (Zila Khan), settling into a small apartment after a luxurious stay in Calcutta and straining to remember her old songs, at the behest of her loyal entourage of servants. The unfolding saga involves numerous, effective flashback moments, tracing the arc of Angelina Yeoward, born in Azamgarh to Armenian parentage, growing up as Gauhar Jaan (Rajeshwari Sachdev), and moving between several cities known for their patronage and cultivation of artists, finally coming into her own as a legendary doyenne who permeated the homes and hearts of music lovers in India.

Troubled as she was in life, abandoned by her father, made to change her name, move cities, be harassed by drunk patrons, receive amorous adoration without legitimacy of permanence, Gauhar hones her art to perfection. Her mother, Malka Jaan’s refrains of, “Suffering translates well to art”, and “break your heart, keep breaking it till it opens” Gauhar lives the dictum.  Not only is the pain and pathos palpable in the

play, humor shows up in various forms in unexpected places. Often in witty dialogue, situational comedy where Gauhar’s servant girls (Sukanya Chakravarti and Sanjana Shukla) are terrified of being possessed by the gramophone in their living room; the same duo performing a caricature version of “Romeo and Juliet; or a young carriage-riding, royal Gauhar’s sassing the governor general when stopped and fined for using the roads.

We see Gauhar maturing into a feisty, independent young woman, passionately pursuing music, yet craving unconditional love and acceptance from the men in her life (Rajeev Siddharth and Danny Sura multiple stellar roles), who disappoint and swindle until the end. The opportune discovery of Gauhar’s talent by Mr. Gaiseberg (one of the roles of Denzil Smith), from the gramophone company in 1902 saw the birth of the first singing virtuoso in India captured for posterity on a vinyl disc.

Of course, Gauhar was forced to shorten her pieces to suit this businessman’s sales strategy for his “singing machine”. Gauhar, however, evolves as a savvy business woman with a sense of humor augmenting her regal style, and a repertoire of songs in 20 different languages molded to almost 600 records.

The subtle theatrics of the whole production melded supremely to exude suitable ambience for every scene – the sounds of the tonga wheels and bells catapulted one to the Calcutta of yore; the strains of sitar weaving in and out never letting the audience forget the period; and the sublime, effortless on-stage singing that did not let the pace drag. The captivating climax where the young and old Gauhars celebrate their life filled with love and betrayal, allows the audience a peep into the real woman behind the enigmatic Gauhar!

Archana Asthana



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