Kanan Devi, the Evergreen Movie Queen
Towards the end of the great war, feature film production started in Bengal. The female roles were played by men to start with and later, women joined the stage and films. These women were either Anglo-Indians, who took up the profession willingly or else they were brought from the red light areas of Calcutta. Film acting being considered undignified, womenfolk from respectable families would not dream of acting in public (although plays were staged by advanced families for selected audiences, notably the Tagore family). Film makers depended heavily on the nautch girls to do the female roles. Men like Dhirendranath Ganguly (D.G. as he was better known ) and Dada Saheb Phalke of course got their wives and daughters to act in films). KANAN’s roots were also outside the society. It is now proved that her first record was published from HMV. Who exactly groomed her in those days is something that we will probably never know, but some researchers have named Ascharmoyee Dassi for her earliest songs. There was also one Bholada –a well wisher who taught KANAN many songs. KANAN’s training from Allah Rakha happened at a later date when she was capable of appoining a teacher at her own expense. However, contrary to popular belief this Allah Rakha was not any famous ustaad from Lucknow, but an unknown music teacher from Calcutta. KANAN was brought to films by Shri Tulsi Banerjee, her first film being JOYDEB (1926) as a child artiste. She next appeared in SHANKARACHARYA (1927), but in such a small role that she went uncredited. Her next film appearance was in the talkie JORE BARAT (1931). She could not afford to be idle for all these four or five years.
Her musical talents were discovered from the notorious Gholadanga area of Howrah by someone whose exact identity can never be known today, but Hiren Bose can perhaps be credited as her first real trainer. After shifting between HMV, Columbia and Megaphone for a while, she was finally given shelter at Megaphone by Shri J.N. Ghosh, the only person in the film and music world whom she called BABA (meaning father). She was given a separate room for living and singing and here maestros like Kaji Najrul Islam, Vishmabeb Chattopadhyay, Gyan Datta and Binode Behari Ganguly became her regular trainers. Music lessons apart, Shri J.N.Ghosh engaged a teacher, Mrs Gabbey for KANAN to learn English. She started recording discs right from the beginning of Megaphone Company and in fact the fifth record (JNG 5) published by the company had KANAN’S songs.
In 1931, she played the lead in JORE BARAT, and A STAR WAS BORN, a star who came to dominate over the Indian screen for the next three decades. Success trickled in gradually and the indifference of the industry –after all she was merely a film actress – gave way to delight, surprise ,astonishment and respect as her value was established beyond doubt. KANAN was the first of all our screen ladies to be addressed as MADAM by fellow workers in the studio. Yet, it was not easy for her to be part of mainstream of the society. People would admire her acting, would sing her songs, would follow the fashion trends set by her but would never dream of inviting her at social meets . No “respectable man” would dream of having her as life partner. Through hard labour, confidence and determination to overcome the odds at all costs she earned for herself a position in society where even the governor of a state (Mr Dharma Vira of West Bengal) rose from his seat to welcome her at a function……