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The first female singing star of India’s cine world, Kanan Bala led a tumultuous, eventful life, that inspired an entire generation of playback singers.
She was a paragon of beauty. A harmonious blend of charm, glamour, and feminine grace. Her voice, as sweet as that of a nightingale, enthralled millions of listeners. The first female singing star of India’s tinsel world she became a legend for her contribution to Indian cinema as a singer-actress-producer and secondly for displaying fortitude and perseverance in course of her life’s arduous journey.
She was Kanan Bala (a.k.a Kanan Devi) who enjoyed pride of place during the era of transition from silent films to the talkies in undivided India. She was active in an age when society condemned women in entertainment arena. Many of her peers i.e Devika Rani, Kamla Jharia, Sadhona Bose and Uma Shashi had strong lineages and privileged backgrounds, or godfathers to fall back upon. Though Kanan had none of these, yet she fiercely fought against all odds and ultimately triumphed!
Hers is the proverbial rags-to-riches story. She was born on 22 April 1916 in Howrah, near Kolkata. Her parentage is clouded in ambiguity. Yet in her memoirs titled Sabare Ami Nami (My homage to all) Kanan candidly mentions that she claimed to be an offspring of Ratan Chandra Das and Rajobala, who were in a live-in relationship. She goes ahead to make a bold statement. “I do not wish to invite heartache over the matter of my parentage; it is sufficient that I am introduced as Kanan.” Kanan attended St Agnes School, Howrah, but had to quit owing to financial constraints. Following Das’s sudden death, the family faced abject poverty and hardship. Rajobala was forced to work as domestic help in various households. Moved by their penury a family acquaintance Tulsi Banerji whom Kanan called Kakababu (uncle) introduced the ten year-old to the world of cinema. Though her mother and siblings were tooth and nail opposed to the idea, yet Kanan moved ahead undaunted, determined to end the family’s misery.
On her first day at the sets, it was Jyotish Bandopadhyay, a noted director who put her at ease, assuring her that one day she would attain fame. How right he was! Kanan’s debut film was Madan Theatres’ Jaydev (1926), wherein her portrayal of Radha was lauded. Following her role in Jaydev Kanan was signed on for a contract at Rs 5 a month in Madan Theatres! As Sengupta puts it, “Her achievements speak volumes for the tenacity, determination and will power of a young girl.”
Kanan appeared for Indian Cinema Arts Productions’ Shankaracharya (1927) and in Rishir Prem (1931) by Madan Theatres. Meanwhile Madan Theatres had introduced the “talkie” to Calcutta, and soon after Kanan appeared in her first talkie Jore Barat (1931). Interestingly in her subsequent films Vishnu Maya (1932) and Prahlad she played male leads. The arrival of talkies, and the technology wave of the 1930s, catapulted Kanan into the public eye. She smoothly moved from lip-synching to naturally articulated speech alongside the enchanting numbers.
The talkies exposed Kanan’s latent singing talent. She trained under eminent musicians and singers e.g Raichand Boral, Pankaj Mullick, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Bhismadeb Chatterjee. In 1932 she left Madan Theatres and joined Radha Films.She played the role of Bishnupriya in Sreegouranga (1933).However it was her superb performance in the Company’s Bengali flick Manmayee Girls School that catapulted her to fame. The contemporary media hailed her as the loveliest and most attractive singing star of the times. She was invited to cut a record with the Gramophone Company, who owned the His Master’s Voice (HMV) brand.
Her next destination was the prestigious New Theatres which she joined in 1935. She rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Durgadas Banerjee, Pramathesh Barua, KL Saigal, and Pahari Sanyal. They worked under noted directors as Debaki Bose, JN Ghosh and Nitin Bose. She played the lead role in Pramathesh Barua’s magnum opus Mukti (1937). Till date this film is considered her most scintillating performance, ever.
Did you know Barua had wanted her to play the lead in his Devdas (1935)? However owing to her still valid contract with Radha Films, she refused, but reportedly regretted this decision for the rest of her life. Debaki Bose cast her in his “Vidyapati” (1937). She dominated the film, essaying the character of Anuradha with élan. Her haunting, soulful lyrics e.g “More angna mein aaye aali” not forgetting melodious duets with K.C. Dey (Manna Dey’s uncle) helped her achieve unprecedented success. Her other landmark films include Street Singer (1938), Jawani ki Reet(1939), Parajay (1939), Abhinetri (1940) and Parichay (1941).
In those days films were made in Bangla as well as Hindi (to cater to countrywide audience), Kanan’s popularity began to soar to such an extent that her name became synonymous with New Theatres.
Her first husband Ashok Maitra belonged to an elite, Kolkata-based Brahmo family. Educated abroad and a brilliant scholar he taught at Vishwa Bharati, Shantiniketan. Ashok was a great fan of the screen Diva. Their first meeting was dramatic. One night after mad revelry and bouts of drunkenness, Ashok’s friends, instead of escorting him home, quietly dumped him at Kananbala’s residence. The lady of the house treated the handsome young man with utmost cordiality and affection.
Upon regaining normalcy, Ashok was mesmerized to find himself face to face with his heartthrob! Thereby began a romantic tale and they decided to tie the knot. However the Senior Maitra became livid with rage! The very idea of his accomplished son marrying a woman of ignominious antecedents was preposterous! So he could not be swayed. Eventually they married in December 1940, only after his demise. He was 36, she was 25. As the story goes, poet Tagore blessed their union; as a token of affection and blessings he sent Kanan an autographed photo of himself! The glitterati of Kolkata were scandalized! They couldn’t reconcile to the idea of Tagore associating with someone from the lowest rung of society. Self proclaimed moral guardians and press reporters frequently demonstrated before Kanan’s residence; she was hounded whenever she made public appearences.
At her workplace too, the booing and jeering continued unabated. An incensed Ashok Maitra ordered her hang up her boots. For Kanan it was the proverbial last straw! Their wedlock ended in an acrimonious divorce. Ashok’s mother however remained in touch with her bouma, in whose loving arms she breathed her last.
The enigmatic Kanan now joined MP Productions. Under this banner her film she acted in films like Jawab (1942) Phool (1945) and Raj Laxmi (1945). Her captivating song “Ye dunia toofan mail” in Jawab was a chartbuster! In 1947, Kanan Devi went abroad to get a feel of the Western world of cinema and met Hollywood giants like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Robert Taylor. In 1949, she set up her own production house Shrimati Productions. The time she chose was crucial because directors were being dominated by the stars.
In 1949, she married Haridas Bhattacharya, who left his naval officer’s job and plunged into direction. Their collaboration brought them recognition, including the President’s award and second rank at the National film awards for Andhare Alo (1957). The duo also impacted the career of future directors like Ajay Kar and Tarun Majumder. After acting in her home production Mejdidi (1950), Kanan Devi became increasingly involved in social service and quest of the spiritual. She founded the Mahila Shilpi Mahal as a platform for aspiring female artistes. Kananbala received many awards & accolades for her contribution to Indian cinema.
In 1942 she won the Bengal Film Journalists’Association (BFJA)’s Best Actress Award for her role in Parichaya. The following year she bagged the same award for the film Shesh Uttor. A Padma Shree came in1968, and finally in 1976 she recived the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award. Vishwabharati, Shantiniketan bestowed an honorary degree on her.
Kananbala spent her last days in her Kolkata home. Far removed from the glamour and glitz of the tinsel world she devoted herself to the worship of Lord Krishna and reading the Bhagwad Geeta. On 7th July 1992, the Venus of Tollywood, aged 76, passed away in a city hospital. The Toofan Mail had quietly chugged away ….
Departed but Not Forgotten
The Government of India released a postage stamp, bearing the actresses facsimile in February 2011. Kananbala inspired an entire generation (that includes melody queen Lata Mangeshkar) of later day playback singers.
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