Saraswati Devi : The First Ever Female Composer of India

Saraswati Devi

Saraswati Devi

Saraswati Devi¬† was a noted music composer who started her career during the 1930s. The period in India was socially not progressive. Women weren’t granted permission to work openly for films. It was truly a brave act by Saraswati Devi to enter into the music industry during the extreme orthodox social conditions prevailing in the country.

Saraswati Devi was born as Khorshed Minocher-Homji in 1912 in a Parsi family. She belonged to a business family but took interest in music from a very early age. She took lessons of ‘Dhrupad’ and ‘Dhaman’ from the respected classical maestro Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande. She also joined the Bhatkhade Music Institute, which was then known as the Morris College of music and was founded by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in Lucknow.

In the year of 1933-34, Saraswati Devi visited Lucknow in order to attend a music concert where she met Himanshu Roy (Founder of Bombay Talkies). He gave her the proposal to come over to Mumbai and compose music for Bombay Talkies. She also used to sing for All India Radio quite often during that time. Saraswati Devi expressed her doubts about being able to compose for films as she had only classical base in music. Himanshu Roy dismissed her doubts cordially and invited her to join him in Mumbai. After his assurance, Saraswati Devi very soon appeared at the Bombay Talkies.

Social Obstacles and a Resultant Name-Change:

While Saraswati Devi chose to compose music, her younger sister Manek Homji chose to be an actress. A huge uproar took place within the Parsi social arena about two women composing music and acting in films. Protests were organised demanding their exit from the industry. It was then that, Khorshed Minocher became Saraswati Devi and Manek became Chandraprabha. Himanshu Roy played a major role to protect the sisters from the orthodox charges.

The Era of No-Playback:

The first movie assigned to Saraswati Devi was ‘Jawani Ki Hawa’ produced by Himanshu Roy under the banner of Bombay Talkies and starring his wife Devika Rani in 1935. Saraswati Devi had a tough time while teaching music to Devika Rani as she was a complete musical novice. That was an era of ‘No-Playback’ and only simplified tunes with filling music at the deficient points helped the composition.

A scene from Achut Kanya starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani

A scene from Achut Kanya starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani

In 1936, ‘Achut Kanya’ starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani released. In the absence of any playback, Saraswati Devi had to train both the leading actors for hours before filming. The duet song of Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani, ‘Main ban ki chidhiya’ became a chart buster hit after its release.

However, in the movie ‘Jawani Ki Hawa’, a song was to be filmed on Saraswati Devi’s younger sibling Chandraprabha. On the day of the filming, the actress complained of a sore throat. In order to continue filming without any halt, Himanshu Roy proposed Saraswati Devi to playback for Chandraprabha. This is was the first time playback singing was introduced in Mumbai. Although, India’s first playback song was recorded by Rai Chandra Boral in Kolkata for the film ‘Dhoop Chaaon’.

The Original Composer:
Very few people are aware that Kishore Kumar’s two popular tracks ‘Koi hum dum naa rahaa’ and ‘Ek chatur naar karke singaar’ are originally composed by Saraswati Devi. ‘Koi hum dum na raha’ was originally sung by Ashok Kumar in the movie ‘Jeevan Naiya’ in 1936. However, Kishore Kumar re-recorded the song again for his movie ‘Jhumroo’ in 1961.

The famous ‘Ek chatur naar karke singaar’ from the movie ‘Padosan’, composed by R. D. Burman and sung by Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey was originally composed by Saraswati Devi and sung by Ashok Kumar in the movie ‘Jhoola’.

British Broadcasting Corporation also adopted the tune of ‘Jai Jai Pyari Janmabhoomi Maata’ for their Indian wing which was originally composed by Saraswati Devi for the film ‘Janmabhoomi’.

The Unforgettable Tunes:

Bandhan (Poster)

Bandhan (Poster)

Her music for ‘Bandhan’ became quite popular. ‘Piyu piyu bol praan papihe’ is one of the hit scores from the movie. The song was sung by Kavi Pradeep, who also started his career as a lyricist with Saraswati Devi only. Kavi Pradeep also sang the song ‘Mere bichde hue saathi’ for Saraswati Devi for the movie ‘Jhoola’. The era was habituated with Urdu lyrics. However, Saraswati Chandra and Kavi Pradeep’s partnership can be credited for the inception of pure Hindi in the lyrical world.

The most surprising dance number during that age was also composed by Saraswati Devi. ‘Main delhi se dulhan laaya re babu ji’ was in instant hit among masses. Mumtaz Ali, famous actor Mahmood’s father, was seen dancing on the tunes of the song on screen.

‘Ruk na sako to jao tum’, ‘Lagta nahi hai jee mera’ are some of the noted compositions by Saraswati Devi.

The songs from ‘Naya Sansaar’ also became popular in the undivided India.

Soon after the death of Himanshu Ray in 1940, Saraswati Devi moved on from Bombay Talkies and started composing music for Minerva Movietone only to move on to independent composition later. Prarthna (1943), Aamrapali (1945), Naqli Heera (1948), Khandani (1947), Bachelor Husband (1950) are some of the noted films she composed for.

Front Row from Left to Right- Balsara, Saraswati Devi, C Ramchandra, Anil Biswas, Naushad, Lata Mangeshkar & Madan Mohan  Back Row from Left to Right- Jaikishan, Pandit Govindram, Hansraj Behl, Roshan, Mohd. Shafi, Hemant Kumar, Ghulam Mohammad.

Front Row from Left to Right- Balsara, Saraswati Devi, C Ramchandra, Anil Biswas, Naushad, Lata Mangeshkar & Madan Mohan
Back Row from Left to Right- Jaikishan, Pandit Govindram, Hansraj Behl, Roshan, Mohd. Shafi, Hemant Kumar, Ghulam Mohammad.

Famous ghazal singer Habib Wali Muhammed also recorded his first song with Saraswati Devi for an album of HMV. Saraswati Devi composed two songs for him in the album and he became an overnight popular ghazal singer in India.

In 1955, she composed only one song for the movie ‘Inaam’ with her long time student S. N. Tripathi. Her last composition had been for the 1961 release ‘Babasa Ri Laadi’.

The Life of A Loner:
Saraswati Devi spent her life alone. She didn’t get married but adopted six children to take care of. She lived a solitary life and faced an accident when she fell down from a bus and suffered a ‘hip-bone’ fracture. The film industry didn’t come for her help and only her neighbours took care of her. She died at the age of 68 in the year of 1980.

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