Writers sometimes stumble upon material quite different from what they started with and spin off, as in this case, into unexpected areas.
Vikram Sampath, who moved from engineering to business management and software, set out to write the 600-year-old story of the erstwhile ruling family of Mysore. The rather gushy Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars was published in 2008. While researching it, he chanced upon a reference to Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930), who spent two years, from 1928, as palace musician in the Mysore durbar.
The author uncovers not only Gauhar Jaan’s illustrious career as a Hindustani vocalist of repute in the late 19th and early 20th century, but also her achievement of having recorded over 600 songs in 20 languages on the early shellac disc, as recording technology reached India.
Gauhar was born Eileen Angelina Yeoward, to an Anglo-Indian, Victoria Hemmings, and an Englishman of Armenian descent, Robert William Yeoward. Abandoned by her husband soon after she bore the child, Victoria learnt music, converted to Islam, migrated to Benares and emerged as a leading tawaif (courtesan), celebrated as Badi Malka Jaan.
It did not take long for Eileen, renamed Gauhar, to accompany her mother at mujra sessions. Her artistic rise was as meteoric as were her defeats on the personal front. Vikram details it over 232 pages, with an additional 77 pages of appendices, nine pages of index, 16 pages of colour plates and some 153 names mentioned in acknowledgement.
This glut of detail is one of the book’s drawbacks. Granted, as the author writes in his preface, that “documenting the arts in India is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks a researcher can undertake”. But then to fail in restraining oneself from gratuitous display of that research can be mistaken for pedantry.
Personalities get buried under this avalanche of detail—at times tiresome, at others ingenuous in its amateurish attempts at reconstructing history.
It is often not clear whether the book is on Gauhar or on the intricacies of Hindustani classical music or on the invention and dissemination of the gramophone in India—the ‘dhobi lists’ are extensive and the episodes repetitive.
The writing lacks musicality. The side-trips, though, on Begum Akhtar, Siddheshwari Devi, Hirabai Barodekar or Bal Gandharva are charming.