A tribute to Kanan Devi (22 April 1916 to 17 July 1992) on her birth centenary
The most important female pillar of the New Theatres, an enormously popular actor-singer of Bengali and Hindi films at the dawn of the film industry, having received the best actress awards a number of times, Padmashree, Gold Disc from the Gramophone Company of India, and finally Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1977 – Kanan Devi couldn’t have asked for more. Yet her life was one of pain and inner-conflict about her legitimacy and acceptance in the ‘respectable’ Bengali society. Those were the days when cultured ladies from ‘good’ families did not join the film profession. She herself was from the fringes of society. But a time came when at an award function the Governor stood up to greet her. She was now a respected cultural icon of Bengal. Her greatest achievement was earning respectability for women in the film industry.
Her early life is shrouded in mystery. Born on 22 April 1916, she lost her adoptive father Ratanchandra Das when she was ten. After his untimely death, Kanan Devi and her ‘mother’ Rajobala were left to fend for themselves. Who groomed her in her early days would not probably be known. As per kanandevi.com names of Ascharyamoyee Das and one Bholada are mentioned as her earliest mentors. She was brought to films by Tulsi Banerjee, her first film being Jyotish Banerjee’s silent film Joydeb (1926) as a child artiste, followed by Shankaracharya (1927).
This site further says that Hiren Bose can be perhaps credited as her first trainer. After shifting between HMV, Columbia and Megaphone, she was finally given shelter at Megaphone by JN Ghosh, the only person in the film and the music world whom she called Baba. She was given a separate room for living and singing and maestros like Kazi Najrul Islam, Gyan Datta and Binod Bihari Ganguly became her regular trainers. Music lessons apart, JN Ghosh engaged one Mrs. Gabbey to teach her English.
In the very first year of talkies, 1931, she got lead roles in Shishir Prem and Jore Barat, and a star was born. She entered New Theatres with the bilingual Mukti (1937). This was followed by several landmark films such as Vidyapati (1937), Street Singer (1938), Jawani Ki Reet, Sapera (1939), Haar Jeet (1940) and Lagan (1941). After leaving the New Theatres, she figured in several films which became superhits on the strength of her acting and singing, such as Jawab (1942) and Hospital (1943). She acted in
65-70 56 Hindi/Bengali films (per N Venkataraman), and sang about 90 songs in Hindi films.
Her marriage in a respectable family to Ashok Moitra created uproar in the elite society and finally it broke up. His second marriage, too, with Haridas Bhattachrya was none too successful. Her inner conflict at the ‘noble’ class’s prejudices is poignantly brought out in this interview. Her name would forever go down in history as the first lady who sang Rabindrasangeet in films. Yet, when a signed portrait of Gurudeb was presented to her, the uproar was as if he had been defiled by his portrait adorning Kanan Devi’s house. When Gurudeb blessed her at a function she describes her feeling of purging of guilt and redemption in these words, “Witnessing the affectionate glance of the poet and sensing his divine touch I felt as if I was bathing in the ocean of light. After this, I had had no sign of pain in my heart. I felt, Tagore was the sky – so high, that no cloud of narrow-mindedness could reach him. Since then whenever I sang a Rabindra-Sangeet, I felt – I felt as if He was my listener.”
She quit films in 1959 but continued to be associated with the film industry with Mahila Shilpi Mandal, an NGO she formed to help actresses out of work. She passed away on 17 July 1992 at Calcutta.
The name Kanan Devi conjures up two images in my mind: An innocent beauty, and a purest sweet voice. The Vintage Era female singers of Bombay were known for their full-throated, theatrical, courtesan style singing. Kanan Devi’s voice was as sweet as her as name. There was none other than her in her generation who could be called a Swar Kokila. I pay my tribute to one of my greatest favourite actors-singers on her birth centenary with a selection of my favourite songs.
1. Ami bono phool go from Sesh Uttar (Bengali, 1942), Nazrul Geeti, music Kamal Dasgupta
We greeted the New Year with birds, courtesy Shalan Lal. Here is Kanan Devi, a flower from the wild, spreading joy all around. The fairies of the sky come to play with her, the birds sing when they see her, the bee is amazed by her and asks her what is her name. At nights she talks to the moon, and spends hours staring at him, and time passes by without anyone knowing it. Let us go to this fairy land with the Kokil Kanthi Kanan Devi. I start my centenary tribute to her with this absolutely mesmerizing song from Sesh Uttar which is the Bengali version of Jawab made in the same year. Kamal Dasgupta achieved greater fame as composer of the famous geets and ghazals of Jagmohan and Talat Mahmood. He married the singer Firoza Begum, converted to Islam adopting the name Kamal Ali and settled in Bangladesh.
2. Tum manmohan tum sakhiyan sang from Haar Jeet (1940), music RC Boral
You don’t get a song any sweeter than this. This is quintessential New Theatres with the Master RC Boral composing for the Swar Kokila.
3. Zara nainon se naina milaye jao re from Hospital (1943), lyrics Pt Bhushan, music Kamal Dasgupta
This is the closest Kanan Devi gets to the familiar vintage female singing style. Probably a mujra song, it was enormously popular on the radio which became kind of her signature song for most of us.
4. Prabhuji prabhuji tum raakho laaj hamari from Hospital
But this one from the same film is more in her sweet, soft and mellifluous style.
5. More angana mein aye aali from Vidyapati (1937), lyrics Kidar Sharma, music RC Boral
Vidyapati was a showcase of Kanan Devi’s pristine beauty, innocence and wonderful singing. When it was telecast on Doordarshan long back, even poor quality video did not come in the way of my falling absolutely in love with the film, Kanan Devi and KC Dey.
6. Dole hriday ki naiya from Vidyapati
It is difficult to resist another beautiful song from Vidyapati. I don’t remember the scene now, but you can imagine a beautiful lady swinging on a swing by the poolside by herself.
7. Sanwariya prem ki bansi sunaye from Street Singer (1938), lyrics Arzoo Lakhanavi, music RC Boral
Street Singer was the first of the two films in which she acted with KL Saigal. This film was far ahead of its times, Rangeela (1995) was loosely based on this film. It had the iconic Babul mora naihar chhutal jaye. A ‘musical’ throughout it had a good number of Kanan Devi’s full songs and songlets.
8. Sanwariya man bhaya from Mukti (1937), music Pankaj Mullick
In her first film for the New Theatres, she gives a soft, melodious song – a style which would become her identity.
9. Loot liyo mandheer from Jawani Ki Reet (1939), lyrics Arzoo Lakhanavi, music RC Boral
She shows diversity in this song which also became quite popular.
10. Madbhari madbhari matwari from Lagan (1941), lyrics Arzoo Lakhanavi, music RC Boral
Before parting with the New Theatres, she gives an outstanding song in her second and last film with KL Saigal. Saigal fans would know this film also had his Kaahe ko raar machayi.
11. Lachhmi moorat daras dikhaye from Street Singer (1938), lyrics Arzoo Lakhanavi, music RC Boral
Since I have posted two songs from Vidyapati, I felt compelled to post another from Street Singer. These two films had cast a spell on me.
12. Ae chaand chhup na jana from Jawab (1942), lyrics Pt Madhur, music Kamal Dasgupta
Toofan Mail ye duniyaToofan Mail from this film has acquired an iconic status as a train song. Since everyone knows that song, I end my tribute with a comparatively less known song from the film, but which has all the charm of Kanan Devi.