My Name is Jaan was recently staged as a solo performance by actress Arpita Chatterjee in Kolkata. Produced by Tumbaga Media, presented by Lotus Make-Up and directed by Abanti Chakraborty, the play is a two-hour-long recreation of the life and times of Gauhar Jaan ((26 June 1873 – 17 January 1930) who cut the first gramophone record in 1902 and went on to cut around 600 records over six months in 20 Indian languages.

She is a significant part of India’s recording history during the British rule and though she initially felt that recording one’s voice on a machine and then playing it back to be listened to was committing blasphemy on music, she relented later going on to keep her voice on record for all time.

Arpita Chatterjee is basically from films and has made a name as an extraordinary actress though her film appearances have been few and far between. She has performed in theatre before but rarely so it comes as a surprise that she took up the challenge of performing My Name is Jaan solo, complete with the songs and dances that had made the courtesan one of the most successful and highly paid tawaifs of her time.

The very decision to portray Gauhar Jaan’s life solo is a very tough upward climb even for a veteran stage actress. But Arpita takes on the cudgels and dances, sings, prances, weeps, laughs on stage, offering a first-person narration of the life and times of Gauhar Jaan that ended very tragically.

There are too frequent changes in costumes (Poulami Gupta) but, appropriate to the character and lifestyle of the protagonist and perhaps these fulfill the demand this kind of play places on the visuals and the vibrant colours used. At the same time, so many changes in glittering costumes tend to detract from the main story filled with so much drama that one wonders why it did not occur to any Bollywood filmmaker to make a feature film on this gutsy woman.

Gauhar Jaan was not Muslim by birth. She was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew, an engineer in Azamgarh and Allen Victoria Hemming, a Jewish Armenian lady. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance. The marriage ended in 1879 when Angelina was six. Trapped in a no-exit situation of social ostracism and financial distress, mother and daughter migrated to Banaras in 1881 with Khursheed, a Muslim nobleman who loved Victoria's music. Later, Victoria converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan.'

In 1902, Gauhar Jaan was asked by the "Gramophone Company" to record a series of songs for them. Gauhaar was paid Rs.3000 per recording, an exorbitant price at that time. But she also spent huge sums such as Rs.1000 as fine every day for insisting on breaking the law on riding on a carriage drawn by six horses that was against the law not for everyone but for her as she was a tawaif but she flouted it by paying the hefty fine every day she rode on it. She keeps repeating in the play how she had spent Rs.20,000 once on the marriage of her pet cat!

Gauhar Jaan popularized light Hindustani classical music with her thumris, dadras, kairis, bhajans and tarana renditions that offer a glimpse of the talent of this very unconventional tawaif who redefined the very term tawaif which means prostitute through her talent and her uncompromising lifestyle that includes her music.

With her experience in recording songs where she introduced the novel style of announcing her name at the end of every song, she mastered the technique of condensing each song sung in Hindustani classical style to three and a half minutes that the recording technique demanded. All this is both narrated, enacted, sung and danced by Arpita Chatterjee.

The dance performances are somewhat amateurish but the songs are amazingly masterful, enriched by the music of Joy Sarkar. Choreographer Raktim Goswami may have been handicapped by Arpita’s clear lack of command over Kathak as a dance form and this needs to be improved upon for subsequent performances.

But her singing takes one’s breath away and though she is known for being a talented and trained singer, one could not imagine this kind of command over different styles of Indian music like Arpita gifts us with. The credit for her expertise in singing goes also to Rajyasree Ghosh who has trained her through the long preparation the actress put in for the role.

The props in the setting are symbolic and simple and lack the grandeur and glamour the play on such a colourful and historical personality demands. She travels through the country singing songs in the language of the region – Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali and so on but we neither hear nor see the audience cheering even through the soundtrack.

The time and place markers are delineated imaginatively through screen shots in the backdrop mentioning the year and the place and we get to know where she has been, opening with a suggestion of the great role played by Calcutta and ending in Calcutta.

The problem of presenting such a grand epic of a larger-than-life woman who lived ahead of her times as a solo performance is that the total performance becomes a one-dimensional narration by the main character herself, eliminating shades and different dimensions of her personality through the other “voices” who played significant roles – mostly negative - in her life.

Gauhar Jaan narrating her own story somehow dilutes the objective distance other characters could have invested the play with. But this does not happen because there is no other actor on the stage except this beautiful woman who makes optimum use of the space on stage.

The other demerit of this performance is that the dramatic elements of Gauhar’s life such as love, betrayal, success and tragedy are not fleshed out except being touched upon because it is only Gauhar we see singing, dancing, emoting, fainting, crying and laughing without other characters which could not only have added situations of romance between Gauhar and her male companions who loved her and her music but never married her, but also place Gauhar Jaan in relief and thus invest her character with more depth and perspective. The third drawback lies in the play’s length that stretches to around two hours which is a bit too much for a solo performance.

In the end, Gauhar reveals how she was left all alone, coping with the loss of her beautiful and spacious home in Calcutta through a man she ostensibly married and who cheated her and another young man who claimed he was her half-brother!

This brings us to another play Gauhar, directed by Lilette Dubey, performed right across the country in 2016. Vikram Sampath, a young researcher in music history wrote an entire book titled – My Name is Gauhar Jaan – Life and Times of a Musician some years ago. Taking this as his root source, Bangalore-based playwright Mahesh Dattani wrote Gauhar as a play and the performance was based on this play.

Dubey’s play had a definite edge over this solo act because she had used two different actors to portray Gauhar, one, the younger Gauhar and the other the older Gauhar. This offered a multi-layered perspective on both the musical success and personal tragedy of Gauhar’s life. She chose Rajeshwari Sachdev, a familiar face on television and large screen to portray the younger Gauhar and Zila Khan, a trained classical singer who has never acted in her entire life to portray the older version.

One is not trying to draw comparisons but one is only trying to point out the demerits of a solo performance when it revolves around a single character who never existed in a vacuum – socially, historically and emotionally.