In 1980, while commuting in Mumbai, a lady fell down from a bus and fractured her hip bone. Being a lonely person and living alone in a flat in Mumbai, the only help she got was from one of the neighbors. She got no assistance and no sympathy from the glitzy world of Bollywood music. She passed away in anonymity at the age of sixty eight. The lady was Saraswati Devi – the first female music director in Bollywood and one of the pioneers of playback singing and the usage of a title music score for films in Mumbai.
Saraswati Devi was born in 1912 into a Parsi family as Khorshed Minocher-Homji.
Parsis in India have been known for their pioneering work in many fields – films and music being one those. The Parsi theatre flourish in the 19th and early 20th century and personalities like Ardeshir Irani and the Wadia set the very foundations of cinema in Mumbai. In the field of music, Kaikhasroo Navroji kabraji established the first music school in Mumbai (1871) that set the trend away from music education in “gharanas” of classical music. Khorshed’s mother was a secretary at this institute (called the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali) and at the behest of her husband the gifted Khorshed was admitted to this institute of her initial education in music.
In passing, it needs to be mentioned that a personality no less than V.N. Bhatkhande, learnt music at this institute during 1884 to 1891.Given the openness of Parsis to Western culture, Bhatkhande was exposed to the Western music at the institute which then inspired him to develop the Bhatkhande’s system of Indian notation that is used widely today. It was on Bhatkhande’s advice that Khorshed was then sent to Lucknow’s Marris Music College from where she graduated as a proficient musician.
After All India Radio was established in the late 20’s, Khorshed and her sister Manek began a singing career at the radio station under the name of Homji sisters. Their broadcasts gained enormous popularity and they were spotted by Himanshu Rai – the founder of Bombay Talkies. He invited khorshed to come and look after his music department within the production house. Her first project was the film “Jawani Ki Hawaa” in 1935. She found it very difficult to make the lead actors to sing since there were no pre-recording and playback singing facilities in those days in Mumbai! Khorshed then decided to bring in the technology and facilities available in Calcutta to provide the first pre-recorded song in this movie. The song in question was “Kit Gaye Ko Kewan Haar”.
However there was a big hurdle that needed to be crossed. The film industry had a disreputable stigma attached to it and the four Parsi gentlemen who sat on the board of Bombay Talkies refused to accept a Parsi lady to be introduced to the industry. It took a lot of effort on Himanshu Rai’s part to make this happen. His impeccable background and the fact that he was married to the legendary actress Devika Rani convinced the Parsi community elders to allow Khorshed to be the music director for the film. However there was one condition. Khorshed and Manek had had to change her names to Saraswati Devi and Chandraprabha.
With the hurdle out of the way, Saraswati Devi established herself into the industry as the first person to introduce and perform playback singing in the film “Jawani Ki Hawaa”. In this film, she was the first person to conceptualize and record a full title music score. Saraswati Devi worked for Bombay Talkies from 1934 up to 1941. This was the period when Bollywood music was going through a metamorphosis from pure raga based music to more “lighter” compositions. Saraswati Devi was able to delve into this transition with ease and although her songs were simple melodies, they were often based on classical ragas. One of her biggest hits during that period was the song “Mai Ban Ki Chidiya” recorded by the leading actors of the film “Achyut Kanya” – Asok Kumar and Devika Rani. The song was recorded after the actors went through coaching under Saraswati Devi.
Khursheed Manchersher Minocher – Homji in real life was born in 1912 in a well to do Parsi family. Her father was a businessman and a prominent figure of Parsi community of Mumbai.
She had a natural talent and love for music, realizing this her father made her study classical music under Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande who was specialized in Dhrupad and Dhamar style of singing. Later she joined Lord Morris College at Lucknow and studied music as her subject.
With the setting up of a radio station at Mumbai in late 20s she along with her sister Manek gave musical performances regularly once every month, the programme known as the Homji Sisters was very popular with the listeners. The songs were accompanied with few musical instruments sitar, dilruba and organ.
The founder of Bombay Talkies, Himansu Rai who was looking for a good classicalist for his movies, heard them on radio and got in touch with her and invited her to visit the studio where she was shown the music room. He wanted her to take care of the music department and score music for his movies and Saraswati Devi accepted the offer and took it as a challenge . Her sister Manek had taken to acting for the films.
A question often asked whether she was the first female music director of Hindi cinema? Scanning through the history of film music some names as; Mukhtar Begum, Gohar Karnataki who were classicalists and rendered songs for movies during 1932 -33 are to be found, but unfortunately the credits for music of those films are unknown. However, they went on to score music at a later period. Ishrat Sultana is another who scored music for Adal – E – Jehangir – 1934 but no songs were ever recorded for gramophone. The names of Munni Bai and Jaddan Bai are also to be found but again the songs never appeared on gramophone records and so she is considered the first among the female music directors.
Her first assignment was for the movie, “Jawani Ki Hawa” – 1935 starring Himansu Rai’s actress wife Devika Rani and Najmul Husain . She had a tough time making them sing and had to simplify the tunes and cover some areas with music instead of song as they were no singers and play back was still not introduced .Her sister Manek took up a character role. Only one gramophone record consisting of instrumental music from the film was recorded from this movie.
There was a big uproar and a series of protests in the Parsi community. The Bombay Talkies was a public company and had 4 of its board of directors from the Parsi community who wanted the Parsi girls out of the Talkies. It was the brave effort of Himansu Rai who defended them and to conceal their identity, Khursheed was given the name Saraswati Devi and Manek appeared in titles as Chandraprabha.
“Jawani Ki Hawa” was followed by her first hit movie “Achut Kanya” – 1936. Ashok Kumar who was a lab technician at the BT was replaced as hero against his wishes to act and sing under pressure of Himansu Rai . He along with Devika Rani had to spend several hours a day for many days rehearsing for a song before it was picturised. It was something like teaching a nursery rhyme.
The day the song ” Kit gaye ho khewan haar ” was to be shot on Chandraprabha she landed with a sore throat, unable to sing Himansu Rai suggested Saraswati Devi sing from behind the curtain and let Chandraprabha just move her lips. The first playback was thus recorded successfully at Bombay but not before R.C. Boral of New Theaters, Kolkutta succeeded earlier with songs in Dhoop Chaun. The most successful song of the movie ” Mai banki chidiya banke ban ban bolun re” was rendered / picturised on Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani.
Her catchy tunes became popular not only in India but even in London and the BBC chose the tune from the chorus of film Janmabhoomi – JAI JAI PYARI JANMBHOOMI MAATA rendered by her with chorus as a signature tune for its Indian News Service.
“Dekho hamrey raja ki aaj sagai hey”, “Mein tou dilli sey dulhan laya rey” – Film Jhoola
Himansu Rai passed away in 1940 and Devika Rani took the reins but was unable to manage resulting in large exodus of artists and technicians. She continued with BT until Naya Sansar – 1941 scoring music for 20 movies by then. SN Tripathi was a brilliant student of Saraswati Devi, an excellent player of violin. He assisted her in composing and arranging orchestra and he too left BT to become an independent composer. Arun Kumar a cousin of Ashok Kumar who had a voice resembling Ashok Kumar rendered many songs for her compositions including ” Chana jor garam ” and ” Mai to dilli se dulhan ” . He worked as an associate composer for some of her movies and later went on to score music independently, the notable being Parinita – 1953.
She was also closely associated with Kavi Pradeep , Lyricist who penned a large number of her songs and also rendered few songs , prominent being ‘Piyu Piyu Bol ” and “Mere Bichde Hue Saathi”. Her association with Mumtaz Ali , Actor / Dance Director (Father of Mehmood ) for her songs related to dance is note worthy.
Later she scored music for 6 movies of Minerva Movietone – some alone and a couple with other composers .She had the opportunity to score some real classical songs for Miss Jahan Ara Kajjan the famous classicalist in film Prarthana – 1943, another notable film with Minerva was Prithvi Vallabh – 1943 along with Rafiq Ghaznavi .
She later took over independent assignments and the most notable was Aamrapali – 1945 which had some good songs by Amir Bai Karnataki . With the changing trend in music and public taste her popularity diminished although she continued for some more time, Usha Haran -1949 her last popular film with 12 songs and 2 rendered by Lata Mangeshkar.
This was followed by Bachelor Husband – 1950 with Muhammed Ibrahim . After a lull of nearly 5 years she scored another movie with his old time student SN Tripathi for Inaam – 1955 but her contribution was only one song for the movie. Her last movie was Babasa Ri Laadi – 1961 a children movie. She later started teaching music, her sister Manek took up a job as a librarian.
In early fifties Habib Wali Muhammed while a college student participated in a music competition conducted by HMV and won the first prize. The judges for the competition were Saraswati Devi and Naushad Sahib. HMV engaged her to score two ghazals for him and were recorded in his voice. They became very popular and Habib Wali Muhammed earned a big name as a ghazal exponent.
Saraswati Devi and her sister never married, having lost the family members in quick succession they adopted a maharashtrian family of 6 children, educating them and even finding jobs for couple of them. She along with her sister were seen walking on the beach and talking to children.
“Na Janey Kidhar Aaj Meri Nao Chali Rey”, “Aaj mousam Salona Salona Rey”
“Chana jor gram baboo mein laya mazedar chana jor gram”
In later life she was living all alone in an apartment and one day she fell down from a bus and fractured her hip bone. The only help she got was from her neighbours and none of the film personalities ever came for her help. She passed away in 1980 at the age of 68.
“Ruk na sakho to jao tum jao tum jao”, “Mere bichrhe hue saathi teri yaad sataye”,
“Koi hum dum na raha koi sahara na raha” – song from film Jeewan Naiya – 1936 (originally by Ashok Kumar but was rendered many years later by his brother Kishore Kumar.)