Kanan Devi (Kanan Bala) – Interview
Toofan mail… duniya yeh duniya… toofan mail… Kanan Devi, whose voice mesmerized listeners for years, brings back memories of a golden era. Whatever she sang — be it Rabindra Sangeet or a Hindi film song — her voice carried you to the gossamer world of fairies. She and K.L. Saigal were perhaps the only two singers who did not need any kind of musical accompaniment.
It was Kanan Devi who, along with K.L. Saigal and Pankaj Mullick, was responsible for making Tagore’s songs astonishingly popular not only in Bengal but all over the country.
Kanan Devi, who was popularly called Kanan Bala, was not just a talented singer but a great beauty in her time. But one tends to forget the radiance of her beauty when her magnificent voice assaults the senses. She worked with all the top actors of the country like K.L. Saigal, Pramathesh Barua, Pahari Sanyal, Chabi Biswas, Ashok Kumar and Uttam Kumar. However, even in her heyday she came in for her share of flak. She was linked with her co-stars Pramathesh Barua and Jahar Ganguly and much was made of her hold over R.C. Boral, a famous music director of the ’30s and her vendetta with Sadhana Bose.
Kanan Devi has often been accused of being ruthless by her contemporaries but having seen dire poverty she single-mindedly pursued her dream of making it big. Hers is a typical rags-to-riches story. Her father, Ratan Chandra Das, died when she was very young leaving behind many debts with his wife and daughter at the mercy of relatives. “We wore rags and worked without complaining in return for food and shelter. We were treated like animals. Then one day something happened which, as far as I was concerned was the last straw. My mother was bitterly humiliated for breaking a saucer and I couldn’t bear it. I was only seven years old at the time but I dragged her out of the house. We had nowhere to go,” the veteran star had flash- backed in an interview.
Young Kanan and her mother began living in a slum. At the age of ten she started working in films and missed out on childhood. She was helped by Tulsi Bannerji to get a film role. This was in 1926 in Madan Theatres’ Jaidev. She was hired on a salary of Rs 25 but received only Rs 5. So young and naive was she that she didn’t know what to do with the princely amount. She was more interested in climbing the trees in the studio than acting.
It was later in 1935, in her first full- fledged role with Jahar Ganguli in Manmayee Girls School, that she hit big time. People fought to touch her image on the screen. After that there was no looking back. Her first talkie, Jarborat, had the first kiss in Bengali cinema. In no time Kanan became the highest paid actress and became more selective in choosing her roles. Her popular films which are raved about even today are Vidyapati, Mukti, Saathi, Abhinetri, Parichay, Maa and Parajay.
Overnight, she had become a household name. The days of the silent film were over and with the talkies a new era had begun. Kanan Devi was Bengal’s first singing actress. She started studying music under an Ustad. She did everything that would assure her the security of not having to return to the slums.
When she finally acted in a New Theatres production she became a gold- mine for Biren Sircar — the man who owned New Theatres. Her films ran to packed houses and her fan following was phenomenal. She had to travel to the studio in a curtained car and under constant protection. “I can never forget my first days at New Theatres. It was the dream of every artiste to work under this prestigious banner and there I was — a chit of a girl — standing breathlessly under its impressive portals. But I was in for a shock. In the early days I was treated with much disdain. Actresses like Sadhna Bose refused to talk to me for days. How could the grand-daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen speak to Kanan Bala from the slums?” she reminisced.
But Kanan Devi managed to hold on to her traditional values and beliefs both in her films as well as in her personal life. Despite two marriages. Her first marriage to Ashok Moitra, a nephew of Professor P.C. Mahalanobis was a disaster. “I remember the great poet Tagore sending my husband and me his blessings and a token gift on the occasion. But people can be so vicious. Overnight cheap pamphlets were printed asking the people of Calcutta if a poet of his magnitude should send gifts to people like me. They did not realize that I was human as well — open to as much hurt as others,” she sighed sadly. “I wanted to make my life rich and beautiful but I encountered a lot of pain on the way. My marriage failed. When I married the second time people laughed and said it would collapse within 15 days. It lasted over 90 years and I can still inhale the fragrance of love.”
Her second husband Haridas Bhattacharya left the naval defense service to become a competent film director. He directed nine of the 11 films Kanan Devi made under her own production, Srimati Pictures. New Theatres had groomed her but the studio system brought a lot of restrictions by way of exclusive contracts. Dedication gave way to slipshod conditions and when she realised that things would never be the same again she decided it was time to quit. “I visited Hollywood and was appalled by the state of Tollygunge. I gave up films the moment I realised that things were changing and I did not want to compromise,” she confessed quietly. But such was her hold over fans both as an actress and a singer that even people who never had the opportunity to work praise her unhesitatingly. “Misri mein ghuli hui awaaz hai,” raved composer O.P. Nayyar. “Aisi awaaz hazaro saalon mein na hui hai our na hogi,” was Jaidev’s opinion. Pankaj Mullick, one of her ustads and a composer who trained her very effectively commented that nature went overboard when endowing her voice with such sweetness. Kanan Devi herself acknowledges her debt to Pankaj Mullick: “I studied music from several ustads but what Pankajdada taught me was unique — the inner meaning of the words opened to me, like the morning dawn, and the words and the music became one.”
When he passed away Kanan Devi lamented, “Tagore has passed away a second time.” In the later years of her life she turned to social work. She knew that the world of films was an insecure one and formed the Mahila Shilpi Mahal to assist women artistes in need. In 1976 she was honored with the Dadasaheb Phalke award — a recognition which was long overdue.
Even today, her voice can touch the deepest chords of our hearts and set in motion emotions kept padlocked while we go about the mundane business of life. As she sings Prabhuji, prabhuji, tum rakho laaj hamari with utter devotion, there is a sense of spirituality which may be lacking in a temple but which predominates in her voice.
Kanan Devi passed away in 1992. She’s gone but those dulcet tones will continue to live forever… Toofan mail… duniya yeh duniya (As told to Lata Khubchandani)