Sunday, July 21, 2024

The courtesan who sparked India’s influencer revolution: Gauhar Jaan’s smoky legacy

In August 2018, Projit Bihari Mukharji, professor at the University of Penn and Head of the Department, Professor of History, Ashoka University wrote a fascinating piece on the Ellahie family which migrated to Calcutta from Delhi in the 1880s and started what became a hugely successful business of importing tobacco to make cigarettes.

The piece included an advertisement and though it appeared to be a depiction rather than the original black & white one, it had all the ingredients of a gripping story. The vintage advertisement portrays a woman in a sensual and languid pose while smoking a cigarette. 

Lying on a chaise lounge, with her arms raised and dress slightly disheveled, there’s a sexual undertone and a challenge to traditional expectations of feminine modesty during that era. In the context of 19th century India, such an audacious and public depiction of a woman smoking would have been highly controversial and even scandalous.

But that would have made little difference to Gauhar Jaan, the woman featured in the ad. A celebrated singer and dancer from Kolkata, she was a courtesan in the true sense of the term. With a courtly and wealthy clientele who paid in thousands to watch her sing and dance, she needed little social sanction. That though isn’t Gauhar Jaan’s only claim to fame. 

Influencer, model and singer

She is considered a pioneer of the recording industry and was one of the first performers to record music on 78 rpm gramophone records in India. Her recordings, made in 1902-1903, were later released by the Gramophone Company of India, when it opened its first factory in Calcutta in 1908. Her thumris, dadras and kajris, are among the earliest surviving records of Hindustani classical vocal music.

She was also an influencer before the term had been conceived and a model before Lisa Fonssagrives kicked off the profession of supermodels in the 1930s. While there are no known recordings or photographs of Gauhar Jaan appearing in traditional advertisements, there is enough evidence to suggest her image and name were featured on calendars, cigarette cards, and matchboxes. While not exactly commercials in the modern sense, these were a form of product endorsement and helped raise her public profile. It also marked the first hesitant start to today’s multi-million dollar business of product endorsements.

Gauhar Jaan’s exploits coincided with the start of the idea of endorsements in the UK. In the 18th century, English potter and entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood’s exquisite tea set for Queen Charlotte not only graced royal tables but also launched a global phenomenon, establishing ‘Queen’s Ware’ as the epitome of sophistication. It was also the first recorded instance of celebrity endorsement.

As a trend, it caught on and soon none other than the great poet, playwright, composer, social reformer and painter, Rabindranath Tagore emerged as a trailblazing endorser. Beginning with the promotion of his own musical compositions, Tagore’s powerful persona lent credibility to a myriad of homegrown brands. His endorsement of what were then called Godrej Vegetable Toilet Soaps, declaring them superior to any foreign alternative, exemplifies his influential role in shaping consumer preferences and championing local products. He was followed by Dr Annie Besant and C Rajagopalachari, both of who endorsed the Swadeshi soap. By the 1940s, the business had become more glamorous and in 1941, Leela Chitnis, then at the peak of her popularity, created history of sorts by becoming the first Indian film star to endorse the popular Lux soap.

But for her pioneering role, Gauhar Jaan deserves the importance she has got over the years with books and movies being made on her life. These celebrate her bold and flamboyant personality, her love for expensive jewelry and clothes, and her alleged romantic relationships with members of the Nawab families. Born Angelina Yeoward, on 26 June, 1873 in Azamgarh, some historians claim she was of Armenian descent though the fact has been disputed by Liz Chater, an Armenian family history researcher and Armenian Heritage Project coordinator for the Armenian Church Dhaka. Her was a rags to riches to rags story since she ended her life in near penury despite having charged a whopping 6000 for each performance.

Gauhar Jaan’s legacy, however, extends beyond her artistic accomplishments and scandalous allure. Her bold embrace of self-promotion foreshadowed the later idea of celebrity endorsement. Her story reminds us that the roots of influencer marketing run deep, intertwined with the very fabric of human ambition and the timeless allure of celebrity.

 

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