In early 1911 Janki recorded between sixty and seventy titles for TJ Noble of Pathephone and was paid Rs 5000. GTL was hot on her trail and she obliged them with twenty titles for Rs 3000, promising their recording engineer Arthur Spottiswoode Clarke another twenty-four titles. Since 1911 was a hectic year, extraordinary in many ways, the promise could not be kept for another three years. A happening year for the country and for her. Allahabad was crowded with pilgrims when the Maha Kumbh Mela began in January. Thousands camped on the banks of the Ganga, ash-smeared ascetics from the great mutts of India, ordinary people come to meditate and do penance for a month, tradesmen, artists, acrobats. What made this particular Kumbh Mela special was that part of it coincided with the great industrial exhibition of the United Provinces (UP) held at Allahabad, designed to be the greatest Indian show of the century.

Janki was as excited about the crowning event of the exhibition as the rest of Allahabad’s citizenry. The February 18 event, when a Frenchman, Henri Pequet, would pilot a two-seater biplane across the Ganga, flying from Allahabad to Naini, carrying the first-ever cargo of airmail in the world! It would take off from Allahabad’s Polo Ground and land near the Naini railway station in a field cleared by convicts from the nearby Naini Jail. The event was highly publicised. Letters and cards addressed to locations all over the world were invited, to be stamped with a special magenta seal for 6 annas each before being dispatched to the sack of 6500 similar envelopes and specially designed postcards that would fly the ten-mile distance between Allahabad and Naini and earn the distinction of being part of the first aerial postal experiment in the world.

Janki sent three letters, one to Haq Sahib, one to Akbar Sahib and the third to Manki. The first one carried a love poem, the second her respectful salutations and a quip or two about what the world was coming to with gramophones recording human voices and letters flying through the air, and the third some words of deeply felt apology and appeasement to her mother and brother. She drove all the way to the Oxford and Cambridge Hostel near the grand university building being constructed on Church Road. Both the grounds of the Holy Trinity Church and the hostel were filled with crowds, eager to deposit their letters and see them stamped with the words: “First Aerial Post, UP exhibition, Allahabad 1911”.

She knew William Holland Sahib and Wyndham Sahib somewhat, though she knew the former to be too pious to admit “nautch women” into his social circle.

After its first eruption in the late 1890s, this “nautch girl” business had raised its head again in the local papers from late 1910 onwards and only something like a flying postal service could temporarily eclipse it. But only temporarily. The great UP exhibition was a sort of trade fair, planned on a massive scale, an ambitious display of arts and crafts, farm produce, industrial goods and implements, and entertainment that would showcase the culture of north India. King George V was due to be crowned in June. Allahabad was milling with crowds, those who had come for the Maha Kumbh and those who had poured in for the UP exhibition. The city was one big fair, the papers bristling with criticism of the expense, the wastage, the mismanagement. When it had been a matter of a Congress meet, the papers argued, objections of order and hygiene had prevented the honourable sarkar from granting permission for any suitable site that was proposed. When it was a small matter of Tilak and Gokhale and Bipin Chandra Pal delivering a lecture to Allahabad citizens, all venues were cancelled due to technical reasons. Then in the matter of this massive jamboree, how was it that the entire segment of land extending just beyond Government House and Lowther Castle and all the way up to the Sohbatiya Bagh Tank had been requisitioned?

Most outrageous was the matter of the “dancing girl” celebrity, the papers stridently declared. Not just Allahabad papers but also papers from other cities of the United Provinces.

Janki followed the issue with mixed feelings, reading what the Prabasi of Calcutta said, what the Abhyudaya and the Leader of Allahabad said, and when her curiosity had been amply aroused she called for her phaeton on Sunday mornings and drove to the library in Company Bagh to read the Hindustani of Lucknow, the Fitna of Gorakhpur and the Saddharma Pracharak of Bijnor. How could the government and the organisers of the exhibition have the bad taste, the temerity to include a dancing girl’s performance in the list of special attractions? – screamed the papers. Was it only for cheap publicity and to raise funds to cover up losses incurred by gross mismanagement? Why were the young and impressionable students of the Muir Central College and the Anthony McDonnell Hindu Hostel being granted concessional passes for the performance of the said “dancing girl”? Would Mr Madan Mohan Malaviya kindly look into this moral issue, and what was Mr Motilal Nehru doing? And Sir Syed? Did Justice Iqbal Masud have any opinion at all? Most outrageous of all, the Leader decried, was the scandalous decision on the part of the citizens of Allahabad to present a gold medal to the said dancing girl, the star performer at the George Town Music Conference, the one and only Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta.

Janki read all this with interest and also – for she was only human – with some private sadness. It was so like the people of her city to fete the local artist with fulsome praise but to fall flat on their faces before a performer from the Big City.

She knew Gauhar Jaan, had recorded alongside her in Calcutta studios and engaged in gajras, nok-jhonk and musical dangals with her at Patna and Lucknow. Gauhar was then the femme fatale of the music world. Her face appeared on matchboxes printed in Austria and on postcards in wide circulation. But by 1911 Janki’s own records were competing with Gauhar’s in every market.

Janki was generous and she well understood the power of the Big City and its easy opportunities, as well as the advantages of a physically attractive personality. If Allahabad was offering Gauhar a medal, Gauhar richly deserved it. What hurt her pride slightly was that she, Janki, along with certain other performers of the second grade, was included in the performance in the capacity of filler artists. This, her own Allahabad that she swore by!

Excerpted with permission from Requiem in Raga Janki: A Novel, Neelam Saran Gour, Penguin Random House India.