It was a grand royal soiree at the court of the princely state of Rewah, in central India. The Maharaja, a great connoisseur of the arts, was enraptured by the music he heard at the wedding party of the royal house. The richness of her voice and the lilting melody of the singer almost instantly caught his attention. But he was rather astonished that the singer had decided to perform from behind a veil. When he made enquiries about her, he was informed that she was one of the most popular courtesans from the north Indian town of Allahabad – Janki Bai.
What coyness did a courtesan have to shut herself from the gaze of her patron, a Maharaja of a princely state at that? An irked king demanded that the artist make herself visible to him. But she refused, saying she would rather face his wrath and terminate the concert. At the end of the performance, Janki Bai finally spoke to the Maharaja from behind her veil to tell him that her face had been scarred by 56 slashes of a knife and she was most embarrassed to show herself to anyone. She was popularly known as “Chhappan chhuri” or the ‘woman with 56 stab wounds’ and the apocryphal tale goes that this was why she hid herself behind the veil. But the magic of her music had cast a spell on the Maharaja. She was handsomely showered with valuable gifts and was told that the power of her music overshadowed anything else that she might deem as her failing.
It was Hindustani vocalist Janki Bai of Allahabad (1880‐1934) who was among The Gramophone Company’s feted artists in the second decade of the twentieth-century. Though she originally started recording for them from March 1907 in Delhi, some say she was recorded by Frederick William Gaisberg in his maiden expedition and that those records were either lost or destroyed.
In this early recording of a kajri ‘Rumjhum Badarva Barse’, Janki Bai demonstrates her ability to emote to the lyrics to bring out the intense longing of the heroine for her lover even as the dark monsoon clouds hang over the summer skies. Notice the subdued ‘Mera naam Janki Bai Allahabad’ at the end, unlike the flamboyant announcement by her contemporary, the diva Gauhar Jaan.
Janki Bai was paid Rs 250 for 20 titles during the recording session in 1907, which went up to Rs 900 for 24 titles the following year. She sang for other recording companies too. By late 1910, The Gramophone Company began recognising her celebrity status and wanted to enter into an ‘exclusive contract’. By 1913 they started releasing violet-colored gramophone concert records of Janki Bai. This was a measure of an artist’s celebrity status that The Gramophone Company bestowed to only select artists.
By the 1920s, Janki Bai was at the peak of her performing career, receiving offers that paid Rs 2,000 for her live performances. Thereafter, she proved to be a tough negotiator with The Gramophone Company, demanding higher fees. She recorded well into the 1920s – initially with the acoustic recording technology, with agents such as George Walter Dillnutt (1916) and Robert Edward Beckett (1923). She later adapted to the new electrical recording technology, in sessions with Beckett and Arthur James Twine in 1928.
One finds the distinct flavor of eastern Uttar Pradesh or purab in her recordings, most of which are in the semi-classical genres of bhajan, kajri, chaiti (sung in the chaitra month of the Hindu calendar, roughly March-April, largely in praise of Lord Rama) and hori (sung during the festival of Holi). Here are one of her chaitis, horis and bhajans, respectively.
Sri Ramchandra Kripalu Bhaj
Janki Bai’s lineage can be traced to Banaras. Her father left her and her mother Manki, forcing the two to flee and become tawaifs in the neighbouring town of Allahabad. In fact, her mother and she were tricked into becoming courtesans by a benefactor who had other plans to monetise their innate talents in music, dance and poetry. Janki Bai not only trained in music and dance, but also learnt English, Sanskrit and Persian, and wrote a Divan or collection of Urdu poetry called Divan‐i‐Janki.
Her Urdu knowledge is also displayed in the several ghazals she recorded for the gramophone.
There are several anecdotes regarding the famous incident related to her scarred face. One attributes it to a man who decided to seek revenge on her because she had rebuffed him. Another story claims it was her stepmother Laxmi and her boyfriend, whom Janki had caught in the act. Whatever might be the real reason, Janki was among the few courtesans of her times who broke the stereotype surrounding ‘good-looking’ courtesan and made her name on the sheer power of her musical prowess. It is said that several of her records sold over 25,000 copies, something unheard of even for her most accomplished contemporaries.
The success that recording brought in its wake made Janki Bai a superstar. She, along with her contemporary and lifelong rival Gauhar Jaan, had the rare privilege of being selected to sing for Emperor George V during the famous Delhi Durbar of 1911 in the presence of all the royal families of India. Among other songs, they sang one specifically composed for the Emperor: ‘Yeh Jalsa Taajposhi ka Mumbaarak ho, Mubaarak ho’ (Congratulations to His Majesty on this grand coronation ceremony).
Janki Bai was married to a lawyer in Allahabad, Sheikh Abdul Haq, but the association ended after a few years after he was found to be cheating on her. Thereafter, her materialistic pursuits came to an end and she established a charitable trust in her name, which still exists in Allahabad, now Prayagraj. She willed away all her property and the immense wealth she had earned through her records and performances to the trust for the objective of providing financial help to needy students, distributing blankets to the poor, donations to temples and mosques, and running free kitchens. She died on 18 May 1934 in Allahabad and was cremated there.
The well that supplied Janki Bai with the water that she drank and which was famously believed to be the reason for her sweet voice has long dried. But in her hometown Allahabad, people love to believe and recount tales of how even now, in the stillness of the night, they sometimes hear sounds of anklets and wafting melodies of a woman’s voice near the place she lived. Her extant records speak to us eloquently and provide a glimpse of her true musical talents. But in and around Allahabad, she still continues to haunt the collective memory of people, old-timers and music connoisseurs.
The author is a historian, political analyst and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, with an upcoming biography of Savarkar. The music clips are from the ‘Archive of Indian Music’ that he has established to digitise and preserve vintage recordings of India. Views are personal.