Then and now: How a ’40s movie star dealt with a bad marriage and prying eyes

Kanan Devi broke off her short-lived marriage to Ashok Maitra after he objected to her career, thereby proving herself to be a truly independent spirit.

Singer and actor Kanan Devi (April 22, 1916-July 17, 1992) started acting at the age of 10 and later emerged as one of early Indian cinema’s leading stars in the 1930s and ’40s. An accomplished singer, actress and producer, Kanan Devi was also a proto-feminist who handled unwanted attention and endured unsatisfactory relationships without compromising on her career. An edited excerpt from a biography proves Kanan Devi’s ability to make the best of a messy situation and emerge stronger despite self-doubt, social interference and barbs in the press.

Having settled herself financially and professionally, Kanan now had the luxury to engage in matters of the heart. She writes in her memoir: ‘This period of time in my life was special in that I was able to fulfil the desires of my physical self.’ Kanan candidly states she was attracted to someone who swept into her life at this time like a king in full regalia. Significantly, she does not ever name him.

This was Ashok Maitra whom Kanan met in the mid-1930s. He was the younger son of Heramba Chandra Maitra, a staunch leader of the Brahmo Samaj and principal of City College. Maitra had studied at Hindu School, the Scottish Church College, Calcutta University, and then at Oxford. On his return in 1933–34, he taught at Vishwabharati, Santiniketan.

Kanan and Ashok met in unusual circumstances. Like any fullblooded young man of Bengal, Ashok Maitra was an admirer of Kanan Bala, the singer–actor–star and sex symbol of Calcutta, whose posters would have appeared on the walls of many young men’s hostel rooms and mess halls. Apparently, during a night out, a fairly inebriated Maitra told his friends that what would complete his evening would be to have the lovely Kanan by his side as his companion. Maitra then passed out in an alcoholic stupor. His friends decided to play a prank. They dropped him off in the early hours of the morning at Kanan’s house on Kapalitala Lane with Maitra still comatose.

Their very first interaction was when Kanan found a man in formal evening attire at the doorstep of her house. He was not just prostrate but appeared to be soundly asleep. As she thoughtof ways to wake him up, she no doubt observed and admired his striking looks. But who was he? She knelt down and, gently supporting his neck, lifted his head and placed it on her lap.

As Maitra, still in a drunken haze, slowly drifted out of sleep, he spied a beauteous apparition. She was just the stuff of his dreams – and there she was looking down at him! It was all too much to take. He was probably hallucinating. His first reaction was to promptly close his eyes again.

Kanan Devi and PC Barua in Mukti (1937). Courtesy HarperCollins India.
Kanan Devi and PC Barua in Mukti (1937). Courtesy HarperCollins India.

The problem was Ashok Maitra’s father, Heramba Chandra Maitra. This Brahmo Samajist was known for his idiosyncratic views. Like the majority of the Brahmo Samaj flock, Heramba Maitra was against both theatre and films. He made it clear that he considered Kanan’s profession frivolous and was strongly opposed to this liaison. After several failed attempts, the impasse showed no signs of easing. But the couple found that their attraction for each other continued. They came to an understanding that they could not marry as long as the senior Maitra was around.

And now the big event took place: the wedding of Ashok Maitra and Kanan Bala in December 1940. It was after the death of his father Heramba Maitra that Ashok Maitra, then about thirty-six years old, married Kanan, twenty-five. While the wedding was a simple registry matter without much fanfare, it was a huge occasion in Calcutta. They made a handsome couple. As the news of the marriage broke, couplets were composed and published. Rabindranath Tagore blessed the newly married couple. Her fans were thrilled, but also apprehensive about whether she would continue to act in films after her marriage, especially since the New Theatres star Uma Shashi had cut herself off from music and films after her wedding in 1939.

The wedding also shook up Calcutta society. Much was made of Kanan’s smashing of social barriers: she had aimed high, very high, and she had pulled it off. As a report around the time mentioned, ‘In absolute terms her decision to marry can be seen and is cited as two steps back for women’s liberation from the tyranny of the kitchen. But in the context of her origins and her film and music linkages, this step was regarded as an act of rebellion to gain a rightful place in society.’

Kanan Devi and Reba Bose in Ananya (1949). Courtesy HarperCollins India.
Kanan Devi and Reba Bose in Ananya (1949). Courtesy HarperCollins India.

After her wedding, Kanan continued to act in films. For Kanan, acting was not just a profession. A born entertainer, acting was what she loved, it was what she had dreamed about for herself.

The accolades she had received in the performing arts were part of her creative life force. And it was what allowed her financial freedom and independence, an elusive dream for many other women.

As Kanan continued her work in films, she had no inkling of what was coming. She genuinely felt that an enlightened person like Ashok Maitra would not have issues about her continuing to work after marriage. And in truth he did not have any issues, not initially anyway. But a storm was brewing. As she put it: ‘But with my immense joy and happiness at the time of my marriage, a moment of great personal and professional achievement, a great storm arose which threatened to disrupt it all.’ Among the first signs was the reaction to Tagore sending the happy couple his blessings and a signed photograph as a token gift.

“This piece of news reached the ears of the upper echelons of Calcutta society. That did it. There was no end, no bounds to their concern and disapproval over this. I have heard that there were several trunk calls made and letters and telegrams sent to the poet asking why I had been given the picture: a film actress has no right to possess an autographed picture of the poet.”

She recalled that posters were printed, asking the people of Calcutta at large if Tagore should personally associate with people like Kanan by sending gifts. ‘They did not realize that I was human and that I was as much open to hurt as others were,’ she sighed sadly. For many years after this incident, whenever Kanan was asked to sing Tagore songs, she would be filled with sorrow at the thought of causing so much grief to the great poet, just over the fact that he had sent her an autographed photo as a gift.

Self-appointed guardians of morality wrote in the press about the inappropriateness of the marriage and the audacity of an actress like Kanan in attempting to pull off a marriage to a man from a well-established, aristocratic family, given her humble origins. Some, led by members of the press in the style of intrusive modern-day paparazzi, would make it a point to assemble and demonstrate in front of Kanan’s home every day, raising slogans and placards, and also turn up at events where she was expected.

This almost daily harassment became too much to cope with, and Kanan stopped her social engagements and even going to the verandah of her home on 11A Kabir Road.

Kanan Devi in Parajay (1940). Courtesy HarperCollins India.
Kanan Devi in Parajay (1940). Courtesy HarperCollins India.

She faced harassment even from members of her own film fraternity. One well-known film director wanted to know all the details of the previous night she had spent with her husband. Another director asked her to stop dressing up after she got married, for, he pointed out to her, even applying a bindi on her forehead made her look more beautiful.

She faced severe opposition primarily because she continued her association with music and films. This was a very dark time for Kanan. Clearly, society still viewed an artiste in music and films as a marginal character, to be excluded from genteel society.

The pressure that steadily built up over the opposition of Calcutta society to the marriage, the continuous reminders pointing to her origins, the social disapprobation about her continuing to act in films after her wedding, began to tell on the marriage. Ashok then laid down the condition that Kanan stop all association with music and films.

Ashok’s diktat came as a shock to Kanan. She had never thought an educated and enlightened person like Ashok would have an issue with her carrying on work after marriage. Neither had she anticipated the kind of public outrage generated by her marriage into a revered family. Far from protecting her from public outrage, he was now making the unreasonable demand that she give up music and films. She saw this as his inability to deal with the bad press and opposition. It was a demand she was not prepared to accept as it meant giving up everything she had built up carefully over the years, in essence, her identity. There was also the issue as to who would financially support the many dependents she had had from the age of ten if she, the main breadwinner, gave up her career in films.

Kanan Devi’s hit Bengali songs.

There were heated arguments whenever anyone from the film industry called her on the telephone or visited the house. Sometimes he would wrest away the telephone instrument from her hand. Kanan viewed this behaviour as uncalled-for interference in her work, amounting to cruelty and assault.

Eventually the marriage failed.

Though her tempestuous relationship with Ashok Maitra came to an end, the relationship with Kusumkumari Devi, Ashok’s mother, endured. Kusumkumari Devi continued to treat Kanan as her Bouma (daughter-in-law). Kanan retained her affection and contact with Ashok Maitra’s mother and it was in Kanan’s arms that Kusumkumari breathed her last at Ashok Maitra’s home in Giridih.

Excerpted with permission from Kanan Devi The First Superstar of Indian Cinema, Mekhala Sengupta, HarperCollins India.

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