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Calcutta Chronicle -The Jaans of Calcutta
Tarun Goswami
2021-12-22 13:37:47

The Jaans of Calcutta

The Jaans of Calcutta

A 14-year-old girl was performing solo at a musical programme in Mahajati Sadan in the early 1940s. Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan was accompanying her on the harmonium along with two illustrious musicians of that era, playing the sarengi and tabla. The audience was left spellbound when Gauhar Jaan, a noted singer of that period went to the stage and blessed the girl as the future queen of Ghazal. The girl was none other than Akhtari Bai, popularly known as Begum Akhtar. 

Gauhur Jaan was an important figure in the music circle of Kolkata, the cultural capital of the country. She once sang a Rabindra Sangeet in presence of Tagore which was recorded by Megaphone Company. Tagore appreciated her style of rendition and pleasing personality.

 The tawaif, also referred to as bai or jaan played a significant role in the prevalence of Indian Classical music and dance. Many of them had worked during the days of silent movie. It had become a custom for the aristocrats to invite them to their mansions and watch them perform every evening. The palaces of the native kings had huge dancing rooms where the professional singers were invited to perform. They were accompanied by musicians and attendants and their troupe often had 10 to 15 members. It is also interesting to note that the tawaifs prepared leaflets, a sort of resume which contained personal details and that of their art. These were kept in the custody of the secretaries of the native rulers who would choose and invite a tawaif suited for the occasion.

  When Nawab Wajed Ali Shah he came to stay at Metiabruz after the Sepoy Munity as a connoisseur of Indian Classical music and dance and he used to patronize these tawaifs who excelled in music and dance particularly Kathak. Each tawaif performed mujras at their kothas which was bound by their own unwritten code of conduct and guests had to adhere to them. The tawaif community had 13 major sections and Calcutta was one of the sections along with places like Lahore or Lucknow. The popularity of the tawaifs can be easily gauged from the fact that the match box manufacturers from Austria, Sweden and Japan used their photographs to sell their products. Till 1910, these match boxes were imported from Germany or England which were quite costly while those from Japan, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Sweden were relatively cheaper.

A connoisseur of antique objects, Parimal Roy has in his collection 45 match box labels and 18 such leaflets. Since it was a taboo to keep photographs of the professional singers, people often threw them away after use. Thus, significant part of social history has gone missing.

The photographs were taken by English photographers in their studios and then the photographs were sent to Austria or Sweden where local artists made their portrait which were later printed in lithograph or chromolithograph as labels of match boxes. Since common people had no opportunity to watch the tawaifs perform they were keen to buy the match boxes which had pictures of these beautiful professional singers and dancers. It was a marketing strategy of the manufacturers which proved to be very successful, Roy pointed out. 

Gauhar Jaan, was undoubtedly the most popular to feature on the matchboxes. She almost enjoyed a diva status and even performed in the Delhi Durbar before the king. She was followed by Oomrao Jan, Begum Jaan , Bachu Jaan and Sunder Jaan in the popularity list. Roy also has in his possession 18 such leaflets featuring Mughal Jaan of Deli and Acchin Bai of Lucknow who were quite famous. The leaflets were printed in Urdu and contained a photograph of the tawaif while mentioning her age as well.

Though the tawaifs had played an important role in social history and even funded the freedom movement considering they were the first working women they are often mistaken to be prostitutes due to such portrayals in movies. It is most unfortunate since they had to lead a disciplined life while being tutored by trained musicians. They had to practice for hours together and were actually top performers said Roy. The basic difference between the Pots of Kalighat and the labels featuring the tawaifs in matchboxes is that the women in the Pots were imaginary while those on the match boxes were real.

 Roy along with a fellow collector Kazi Anirban has proposed holding an exhibition on his collection next year which will be the first of its kind in the city. The match box photographs have been enlarged and altogether 45 photographs will be displayed. "The portraits were in bright colours and look marvelous after being enlarged." Though illustrious performers like Gauhar Jaan were based in Kolkata, not many people know about them the exhibition would serve to spread awareness about their distinct role in evolving Indian Classical music. 


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