Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Saraswati Devi: India’s Maiden Female Composer

Saraswati Devi was a Parsi, born as Khursheed Minocher Homji, in 1912.

India’s first female composer, Saraswati Devi had a sonorous legacy which met an abrupt end as she was swiftly erased from memory and compelled to live a reclusive life, writes Sharad Dutt.

Towards the end of 1933, a young couple arrived in Bombay carrying two highly acclaimed silent feature films, The Light of Asia and Shiraz, which had earlier been screened across several cities in Europe. This celebrity couple was Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, who together laid the foundation of the prestigious Bombay Talkies Limited, in 1934. Himanshu Rai had brought with him, Franz Osten, the director of these films and other technicians including cameraman Josef Wirsching from Germany. Soon, he prepared a strong team of producer S Mukherjee, director Gyan Mukherjee, Amiya Chakravarty, actors Devika Rani, Najam-ul-Hasan, Ashok Kumar,and the legendary Saraswati Devi, India’s very first female music composer.

Saraswati Devi was a Parsi, born as Khursheed Minocher Homji, in 1912.

She was trained along with her younger sister Manek by Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in Lucknow. With the advent of broadcasting in India, in 1927, Homji sisters started singing in the Bombay studio and subsequently, formed their own orchestra. While Khursheed played the organ her sister excelled at sitar, dilruba and mandolin. Himanshu Rai was introduced to them by poet-actor Harindranath Chattopadhyay (brother of Sarojini Naidu). He was mightily impressed by their singing and offered them to join Bombay Talkies. After stiff resistance from the Parsi community, they finally conceded, and Himanshu Rai rechristened them as Saraswati Devi and Chandra Prabha respectively.

Saraswati Devi made her debut with Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), directed by Franz Osten, starring Devika Rani and Najam-ul-Hasan. There were strong protests by the conservative Parsi community that a Parsi woman had joined the film industry as a music director; but due to intervention of Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, a renowned philanthropist-industrialist, the community was pacified.

Legendary actor Ashok Kumar made his debut with Jeevan Naiyya. Saraswati Devi had to work very hard to compose the tunes keeping in mind the range of Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani. Jamuna Swaroop Kashyap was the lyricist of Bombay Talkies.

The film which stormed the nation with the music of Saraswati Devi was Achhut Kanya. Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani paired once again. Its numbers were sung everywhere in the country. Kaahe karta pyaar sung by Ashok Kumar in Raag Maand was heart-rending. The film was a great success that made Saraswati Devi and Devika Rani popular overnight.

In films Mamta and Miyan Bibi, Devika Rani was seen playing a gramophone record in a scene. Saraswati Devi calculated the running time of the record and recorded the song in her voice. Maand was Saraswati Devi’s favourite raga. She composed several compositions in Maand. Janam Bhoomi (1936) was a patriotic film with several songs of nationalistic fervour, Jai jai janini janambhoomi (Chandra Prabha) being one of them.

Saraswati Devi was the backbone of Bombay Talkies’ films. She created soulful compositions in Bhabhi. Vachan, too, had a popular number and poignant duets in Devika Rani-Ashok Kumar’s voice. After hearing these songs, the chief of All India Radio Bukhari Saheb brought Balwant Singh on the staff of AIR.

Saraswati Devi composed songs in Kangan starring Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis. There were several hit songs. Kavi Pradeep had a long association with Bombay Talkies and he wrote Hawa dheere baho in half an hour. Ashok Kumar was impressed, indeed!

Bombay Talkies introduced the maverick Marathi actor Hansa Wadkar in Nav Jeevan. This was the last film directed by Franz Osten (being a German, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he was arrested by the British, and kept in Deolali Camp). Saraswati Devi recorded four songs in Hansa Wadkar’s voice including a very popular number, Pyaari ke pran Bharati ki shaan and Chandra kiran se poochha maine.

Soon Bombay Talkies gave a hit film Bandhan directed by NR Acharya. Once again, Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis were in the lead. Saraswati Devi composed a memorable number in Bandhan, Chalchal re naujawan (Ashok Kumar), which attained a cult status. Rukna sako to aao was sung by Arun Kumar (cousin of Ashok Kumar), a talented singer in Bombay Talkies who sang very popular numbers under the baton of Saraswati Devi. His song, Chana jor garam babu main laya mazedaar became the refrain of gram vendors for years in the streets.

Ramchandra Pal and Saraswati Devi were teamed together in Punar Milan starring Kishore Sahu and Sneh Prabha Pradhan. The film is remembered even today for its dance number, Naacho nacho pyaare man kemoh (Sneh Prabha), composed by Saraswati Devi.

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Another Ashok Kumar-Leela Chitnis starrer Jhoola was directed by Gyan Mukherjee. Saraswati Devi yet again composed several hit numbers.

After the untimely demise of Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani took charge of Bombay Talkies. Soon differences cropped up between S Mukherjee, Rai Bahadur Chunnilal and Devika Rani. Two teams were formed, one led by S Mukherjee and another by Devika Rani. It was decided that they would produce films alternatively. S Mukherjee produced Naya Sansaar directed by NR Acharya with Ashoka-Renuka Devi. S Mukherjee continued to work with Saraswati Devi but Amiya Chakraborty preferred to work with composer Anil Biswas of National Studios. S Mukherjee produced Kismat, directed by Gyan Mukherjee, became a super duper hit. Anil Biswas composed for Kismat as he had formally joined Bombay Talkies. Soon, the split got wider as S Mukherjee, Rai Bahadur Chunnilal and Ashok Kumar launched their own banner, Filmistan, and brought SD Burman as their music director.

Thereafter, Saraswati Devi became a freelance music director. She worked with Sohrab Modi and gave music in four blockbusters of Modi’s Minerva Movietone – Bhakt Raidas, Prithvi Vallabh, Dr Kumar and Parakh.

The musical trend was changing very fast in the films. Saraswati Devi’s classical-based tunes took a back seat, but she continued as a freelancer. Films like Amarpali and Anarkali directed by Nand Lal Jaswantlal didn’t do well despite Saraswati Devi.

Saraswati Devi derived great satisfaction in recording some songs with Lata Mangeshkar: Lehron pe kabhi nachoon, (Lata), Aangan mein chandni chamke chham (Lata-Rajkumari) in Usha Haran (1949); in 1950, Saraswati Devi bid adieu to filmdom and started teaching music. Both Saraswati Devi and Chandra Prabha remained spinsters and Chandra Prabha took up a job as a librarian. Saraswati Devi spent her last days in Bombay as an unsung hero. When she fell down from a local bus and fractured her leg, she had no money even for her treatment. Her neighbours and friends donated money for her recuperation. What a sad reflection that S Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar, her associates in Bombay Talkies, didn’t extend any financial assistance!

Saraswati Devi passed away in 1980 at 68. One sincerely hopes that whenever the history of Bombay Talkies is documented, this inimitable path-breaking composer’s contribution would be given her deserving due.