Gauhar ke bina mehfil, jaise shaadi ke bina dulhan.” A musical gathering without Gauhar Jaan is like a bride without a wedding.

Gauhar Jaan was a revered name in India’s musical circles in the late 19th and early 20th century. Known as “the first diva” among courtesans, her experimental approach to music and her adaptability had made her a force. And when India entered the gramophone era, it was no surprise that she was the first person to embrace the technology.

The stories of Gauhar Jaan and other trailblazers like her are explored in Jalsa, a book by Vidya Shah, a writer and a performer from Delhi who is trained in Carnatic music and in the North Indian genres of Khayal, Thumri, Dadra and Ghazal.

Gauhar Jaan
Gauhar Jaan

Jalsa traces the journey of the Indian music industry from the first recording machine, the phonograph, to the world of cinema. It was a journey built on the contribution of women who adapted their singing styles while upholding the integrity of their art forms.

The need to record and sell music brought into focus the singing talents of courtesans and nautch girls. Unlike most male performers, courtesans had no reservations about sharing their talents, and sound engineers were indifferent to the taboos surrounding those women. What interested the engineers was the prospect of capitalising on the courtesans’ popularity.

“Records were their way around social taboos,” Shah writes. Gauhar Jaan was the first to adapt the raga to the required three-minute format required for a recording disc. In fact, the first recording released in India was a Khayal composition sung by her in 1902.

Another name who enjoyed immense popularity at the time was Janki Bai Allahabadi. Born to a mother who moved to Allahabad to pursue a life as a courtesan after battling poverty, Janki Bai was famous for her effortless renditions of ragas. Her popularity won her a contract with the Gramophone Company and admirers everywhere. Shah writes: "It is said that roads leading to the record shops would get blocked by lovers of her music whenever a new stock of discs arrived. Many of her records sold over 25,000 copies, something unheard of till then even for highly accomplished singers of her time."

Jalsa also discusses the talents of Jaddan Bai who, as the tawaif culture died, moved to Bombay to embrace the world of movies and started her own film company, Sangeet Movietone. Shah writes:

“The world of cinema was a dynamic, heterogeneous space, in which Jaddan Bai began negotiating her identity both as a woman and a former tawaif.... Jaddan Bai led the way for women who wanted to find space in the male-dominated world of cinema and its newfound sensibilities.”

Jaddan Bai.
Jaddan Bai.
Film poster of Hridaymanthan (1936), a Jaddan Bai production. Courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune
Film poster of Hridaymanthan (1936), a Jaddan Bai production. Courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune
Film poster of Kadambari, 1944. Courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune
Film poster of Kadambari, 1944. Courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune
Film poster of Achhut Kanya, 1936. Courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune
Film poster of Achhut Kanya, 1936. Courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune

Early on in the book, she explains the hierarchical structure of courtesans and differentiates between singers, dancers, entertainers and prostitutes. There are pictures in the book of forgotten jalsaghars, or places of performance, in Kolkata that invite the reader to imagine a jalsa in session.

The Ghosh bari at Pathuriaghata, which has been the cynosure of musical gatherings since colonial times (Photograph by Parthiv Shah).
The Ghosh bari at Pathuriaghata, which has been the cynosure of musical gatherings since colonial times (Photograph by Parthiv Shah).