It was the spring of 1987. I was in my first year of college when I enrolled in an amateur singing contest. My choice of Kit Gaye Ho Khevanhaar from the 1936 film Achhut Kanya was met with surprise by my fellow contestants as well as the event organiser.

The organiser suggested that I pick a crowd-pleaser instead. I stuck to my guns. I had recently watched Achhut Kanya and was obsessed with Devika Rani and the poignant melody composed and sung by Saraswati Devi. The audacious teenager in me won. I bagged the consolation prize – a personal victory as well as my humble tribute to Saraswati Devi.

The first prize went to a rendition of Ayega Aane Wala, composed by Khemchand Prakash for Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949). Both Achhut Kanya and Mahal were produced by Bombay Talkies, the landmark studio that was founded by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani in 1934. Apart from having a reputation for high-quality productions and a knack for spotting talent, Bombay Talkies was where Saraswati Devi was introduced as a film music composer – thereby becoming one of the first women in her field.

Saraswati Devi’s peers included Ishrat Sultana, the actor-composer who performed as Bibbo, and Jaddanbai Hussain, the movie star Nargis’s mother and one of Hindi cinema’s earliest female filmmakers. But the Hindi film industry had to wait for decades for women to emerge as composers. Names such as Usha Khanna, Sneha Khanwalkar, Jasleen Royal, Alokananda Dasgupta, Rachita Arora and Parampara Thakur are still few and far between.

Kit Gaye Ho Khevanhaar, Achhut Kanya (1936).

Bombay Talkies gave Saraswati Devi a platform to explore her talents. “A whole generation of film industry wallahs ‘graduated’ from Bombay Talkies, which became a veritable film school with experienced practitioners as well as newbie recruiters amongst its ranks,” Debashree Mukherjee writes in her introduction to Bombay Talkies An Unseen History of Indian Cinema (Mapin Publishing).

The anthology, based on the photography archive of the studio’s renowned cinematographer Josef Wirsching, includes a portrait of the singer and actor Chandraprabha, Saraswati Devi’s sister. (An exhibition of Wirsching’s photographs is currently on at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai.)

Chandraprabha’s real name was Manek Homji, just like Saraswati Devi was actually Khorshed Minocher-Homji. Born into a Parsi family in 1912 in Mumbai, the siblings were trained in Hindustani classical music by renowned musicologist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande. The sisters adopted Hindu names after a furore erupted in the Parsi community against their decision to work in Hindi films.

Saraswati Devi composed the music for the first Bombay Talkies production in 1935. Jawani Ki Hawa, a crime thriller, had several love songs filmed on the lead couple Devika Rani and Najmul Hassan, such as Sakhi Ri Mohe and Main Mil Jaoon Tujhse Yehi Justaji Hai.

Saraswati Devi also composed the popular tunes for Achhut Kanya, about the romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman and starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani. The most famous song from that film is Main Ban Ki Chidiya.

The song, written by JC Kashyap, is sung in a conversational style between the protagonists, who yearn to be as free as birds in a jungle. The other song is the poignant lament Kit Gaye Ho Khevanhaar, which appears towards the climax.This is a semi-classical song sung by Saraswati Devi herself.

Main Ban Ke Chidiya, Achhut Kanya (1936).

One of Saraswati Devi’s favourite raags was Maand, filmmaker Sharad Dutt observed in a 2018 tribute to the composer. Saraswati Devi gave Ashok Kumar such hit tunes as Koi Humdum Na Raha in Jeevan Naiya (1936) and Ek Chatur Naar Kar Ke Shringaar in Jhoola (1941). Both these songs were reprised by Ashok Kumar’s younger brother Kishore Kumar to great acclaim in Jhumroo (1961) and Padosan (1968) respectively.

Ashok Kumar revealed in an interview that Kishore Kumar took up Koi Humdum Na Raha as a challenge. Kishore Kumar was told that he shouldn’t even attempt singing the tough, 14-beat song that took Ashok Kumar numerous rehearsals to get right. Kishore Kumar re-arranged the music for Jhumroo and sang it beautifully.

On the other hand, Ik Chatur Naar is a light-hearted ode to Leela Chitnis, the heroine of Jhoola. Kishore Kumar requested lyricist Rajinder Kishen to extend Kavi Pradeep’s original lyrics for a musical parody in the comedy Padosan.

Ek Chatur Naar Kar Ke Shringaar, Jhoola (1941).

Saraswati Devi worked exclusively with Bombay Talkies until 1939. The studio went through upheaval following Himanshu Rai’s death in 1940, eventually shutting down in 1954. Bombay Talkies alumni Shashadhar Mukerjee and Ashok Kumar, who later got involved with running the studio, picked Anil Biswas for the music of Kismet (1943).

In the 1940s, Saraswati Devi worked as a freelancer, including for Sohrab Modi’s Prithvi Vallabh (1943) and Parakh (1944). Dheere Dheere Beet Samay Tu from Parakh, which uses a musical clock as an interlude, is a memorable, refreshing song. Hawa Ne Baandha Hai Kya Rang, sung by Amirbai Karnataki in the historical drama Prithvi Vallabh, warns of the destruction likely to be caused by an army on the march.

Hawa Ne Baandha Hai Kya Rang, Prithvi Vallabh (1943).

Meel Patthar (Milestones), cultural theorist Vijay Verma’s study of Hindi film music, situates Saraswati Devi’s compositions within the context of the influence of the Marathi school of classical music on Hindi cinema – what Verma terms “lyrical classicism-classical lyricism”.

Verma observed that Saraswati Devi’s tunes had a classical base but also accessible lyrics. Saraswati Devi worked in the movies at a time when actors were expected to sing their own songs, rather than have playback singers do the job for them.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Bengali sensibilities dominated Hindi films, with composer RC Boral mentoring and promoting singers such KL Saigal, Pankaj Mullick and KC Dey for BR Sircar’s New Theatre. As as Bombay Talkies’s in-house composer, Saraswati Devi resisted the Saigal onslaught, creating evergreen tunes for the films featuring Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis.

Besides the popular songs of Achhut Kanya and Jawani Ki Hawa, Saraswati Devi gave Bombay Talkies Manbhavan Sawan Aaya Re in Bandhan (1940) and Na Jaane Aaj Kidhar in Jhoola (1941). Her tunes were based on Hindustani classical ragas, but she kept the compositions simple so that her actor-singers could do justice to them. What also worked was crisp, uplifting lyrics written by Kavi Pradeep, for example Chal Chal Re Naujawan in Bandhan.

Chal Chal Re Naujawan, Bandhan (1940).

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Saraswati Devi to work in filmsy despite protests from her community and sexist references to her work. The well-known editor Baburao Patel declared in a Filmindia review (Sep-Oct 1935) of Jawani ki Hawa that he “watched the film only to get a glimpse of the Parsee girls” [Khorsheed and Manek].

Patel’s tasteless remarks, quoted in Kishwar Desai’s Devika Rani biography The Longest Kiss, are typical of the reductive male attitude towards women in cinema: “I had gone there thinking probably there was something to look at, but when I saw them, by God, I won’t tell you what I said. It’s not worth expressing in good company.”

Koi Humdum Na Raha, Jeevan Naiya (1936).

As female composers scale new heights, they would do well to remember that they stand on the shoulders of such trailblazers as Saraswati Devi. Never mind ignorant men such as the organiser who asked me that balmy spring day in 1987: “Saraswati Devi, who?”

(Nirupama Kotru is a senior civil servant. The views are her own.)

Also read:

Behind a new Josef Wirsching photography tribute: ‘The vision to recognise historical value’

Boss of Bombay Talkies: How Devika Rani fought innuendo and personal tragedy to get back on her feet

How the Bombay Talkies studio became Hindi cinema’s original dream factory