Saraswati Devi, first female music director of Indian cinema
Lucknow: Born in a Parsi family, she was a trained classical singer and rose to become India’s first woman music director of Bollywood. Sadly, she died unsung as not a single condolence meeting was held to mourn her loss.
This is the story of Saraswati Devi, who was born Khurshid Mankesha in a Persian family in 1912.
Saraswati Devi fell in love with Hindustani classical music at a very tender age. Seeing her inclination towards music, her father Khurshid Mankesha took Saraswati Devi to Acharya Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, who was known for his mastery over Dhrupad and Dhamaarsinging genres.
She was later admitted to the then Morris College, now Bhatkhande Deemed Music University, in Lucknow, to continue her musical journey.
In 1920, when she was barely eight-year-old, Saraswati Devi and her sister Manek Homi, started singing at the All India Radio, Mumbai. The sisters even managed to attract a sizeable community of listeners.
The mellifluous and mesmerising voices of the two siblings slowly reached Himanshu Rai, the director, producer and founder of Bombay Talkies, who invited them for music direction and also for acting in films.
But there was a problem in their accepting the offer.
This was an era when watching movies by the fairer sex through bioscope was discouraged and women working in the film industry were looked down upon.
Their coming from a Parsi family precluded all possibility of their joining the film world.
A solution emerged after a long discussion. They decided to change their names to hide their Parsi identity. Maneshar Homi was christened Saraswati Devi while her sister was named Chandraprabha.
As the first woman music director, Saraswati Devi’s task was not an easy one. For her first filmJawani Ki Hawa (1935) she had to train actors Devika Rani and Najmul Hussain for several months as the lead pair was untrained in singing.
She faced a similar situation in the super hit Achhoot Kanya (1936), her second film, in which legendary actor Ashok Kumar, who was working as a lab technician in Bombay Talkies, was chosen against his wish. The actress in the movie was again Devika Rani, wife of Himanshu Rai.
The long rehearsals and Saraswati Devi’s efforts resulted in the super hit song, ’Mai van kee chidiya ban ke sang sang dolu re’.
this was time when legendary actors like A K Sehgal and Pankaj Mallik, who were very well trained in singing and acting were available for the acting.
Two more movies Janmbhoomi and Jeevan Naiyaa with musical score by Saraswati Devi were released the same year, but they could not match the success of Achhoot Kanya.
Achhoot Kanya created history for one more reason. Playback singing was tried for the first time in Indian film industry.
It so happened that Saraswati Devi’s sister Chandraprabha was to sing the song Kit gaye ho khevanhaar but during the shoot she developed a sore throat. As a way out, Himanshu Rai asked Sarawasti Devi to sing from the backdrop while Chandraprabha was asked to lip sync as she faced the camera.
The experiment worked very well and a fact that Saraswati Devi was a good singer was also highlighted. Till 1949, Saraswati Devi did more than 20 movies and her name came to be regarded as guarantee for a film’s success. But she never compromised with her love for classical music.
Saraswati Devi received the biggest tribute from the film industry when new composers started composing music using her tunes. Legendary singer actors like Ashok Kumar, Kishore Kumar and R D Burman took forward the legacy of Saraswati Devi.
After parting ways from Himanshu Rai, Saraswati Devi teamed up with Sohrab Modi and touched the zenith of her career. During this period she also recorded two ghazals of Habib Wali Mohammad for HMV.
But during the later years of her life, the bad and selfish film world turned apathetic towards the doyenne. Not even a single person visited her when she fractured her hip bone after falling from a private bus. The legendary singer and India’s first female music director left for a better world in 1980 with no one to mourn her death. Even the media did not find her worthy of an obituary.
The writer is a senior Media and Film commentator.