Remembering Kanan Devi on her 102nd birth anniversary.
Kanan Devi (22 April 1916–17 July 1992) was an Indian actress and singer. She was among the early singing stars of Indian cinema, and is credited popularly as the first star of Bengali cinema. Her singing style, usually in rapid tempo, was used instrumentally in some of the biggest hits of New Theatres, Kolkata.
A well wisher Tulsi Banerji whom she called Kaka babu introduced Kanan when she was only ten to Madan Theatres/Jyoti Studios where she was cast in a small role in Jaidev (1926), followed by Shankaracharya in 1927. She was known as Kanan Bala.
Kanan did at least five films with Madan Theatres productions, (1926–1932) Rishir Prem (1931), Jorebarat (1931), Vishnu Maya (1932) and Prahlad, playing even male leads in the last two.
She then worked with Radha Films from 1933 to 1936, then with New Theatres from 1937–1941, with MP Productions 1942–1948 and finally set up her own label Shrimati Pictures 1949–1965.
From silent film roles as a child artist Kanan made the successful transition into talkie films and was noticed with Jorebarat (1931), Manomoyee Girls School, Khooni Kaun and Maa (1934).
Her films with Jyotish Banerjee included Joydev (1926), Rishir Prem (1931), Jorebarat (1931), Vishnumaya (1932), Kantahaar (1935) and Manomoyee Girls School (1935). Her films with Prafulla Ghosh were Sree Gouranga (1933), Char Darvesh (1933), Maa (1934) and Hari Bhakti. Others with Radha Film Company were Kanthahar (1935), Krishna Sudama (1936), Bishabriksha (1936) and Char Darvesh (1933).
New Theatres’s P.C. Barua wanted her to play the lead in his Devdas (1935), but, due to contractual reasons with Radha, she could not act in the film, a factor she regretted all her life.
The films of New Theatres owned by Biren Sircar established her as a superhit singer and her films ran to packed audiences. She had to travel under constant protection given her huge fan following. During her years with New Theatres, Calcutta from 1937, she played the lead in Barua’s Mukti (1937), which was perhaps her finest performance, making her the studio’s top star. Apart from Mukti, she did Vidyapati, Saathi (1938), Street Singer (1938), Sapera (1939), Jawani Ki Reet (1939), Parajay (1939), Abhinetri (1940), Lagan (1941), Parichay (1941) and Jawab (1942). She became known as Kanan Devi from this point.
She came in contact with the music maestro Rai Chand Boral who not only coached and familiarized her in the Hindi accent but experimented with many classical Western and Indian forms in his music. She received her initial musical training under Alla Rakha. She was employed as a singer at the Megaphone Gramaphone Company, receiving further training under Bhishmadev Chatterjee. She later learnt Rabindra Sangeet under Anadi Dastidar. Kanan remained the top star of New Theatres until she resigned her contract in 1941 and began to freelance in Bengali and Hindi films.
She worked with the biggest names in Indian cinema from K. L. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Pramathesh Barua, Pahari Sanyal, Chabi Biswas and Ashok Kumar.
M.P. Productions’s Jawaab, was perhaps her biggest hit. Her song Duniya Yeh Duniya, Hai Toofan Mail was well received. She repeated the same feast in Hospital (1943), Banphool (1945), and Rajlakshmi (1946). Kanan Devi’s last Hindi film was Chandrashekhar (1948) with Ashok Kumar.
Kanan turned producer with Shrimati Pictures in 1949 and later launched the Sabyasachi Collective with the film Ananya (1949). Her own productions were mainly based on the stories of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay.
Kanan married Ashok Maitra in December 1940. He was the son of the staunch Brahmo Samaj educationist Heramba Chandra Maitra. Despite their best intentions, the marriage could not withstand the severe condemnation by the then conservative society. Even the poet Rabindra Nath Tagore who sent a token gift to the married couple received scathing criticism for blessing the couple. The main issue was Kanan was not expected to be working in films after her marriage. She filed for divorce in 1945. Despite the pain of the divorce, Kanan expressed her immense gratitude towards her first husband for giving her social recognition through marriage for the first time in her life. To Kanan’s credit she maintained excellent relations with Rani Mahanalobis, sister to Ashok Maitra and her husband the famous social scientist P.C. Mahanalobis and with Kusumkumari Devi, Ashok Maitra’s mother, even after the marriage was severed.
Kanan married Haridas Bhattacharjee around 1949. Haridas Bhattacharjee was then ADC to the Governor of Bengal. He eventually left the naval service to join Kanan in her filmmaking venture and became a competent director. While raising their son Siddharth in Calcutta, she also formed and worked as the president of Mahila Shilpi Mahal, an organization to help senior female artists and other charitable and community causes including those for the upliftment of Bengali cinema.
Kanan Devi, as the first lady of the Bengali screen, received many honours for her contribution to Indian cinema. An honorary degree from Vishwabharati, the Padma Shree in 1968 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1976.
She died on 17 July 1992 in Belle View Clinic, Calcutta when she was around seventy-six years of age.