My tumblr avatar is usually that of the actress Kanan Devi, a star of the 1930s and 1940s.
Though the silents had a number of famous actresses, it is with the talkies and the 1930s that you find stars and fans, albeit nowhere near as pervasive as Hollywood (as to why and a discussion on the making of an “Indian” stardom see Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s-1950s, Neepa Majumdar).
While the silents had a number of Anglo Indian and Jewish actresses, in the 1930s there was a bit of a shift. One because of language since the talkies took over. To a lesser extent there was the nationalist movement and an increasing emphasis on “Indianised” cinema. Still, Sulochana aka Ruby Myers remained one of the biggest stars of the 1930s. On the other hand, “respectable” women joined the films. The most well known of these were Devika Rani and Durga Khote. Lastly, the films were a natural choice for women who were in the business of entertainment aka nautch girls and performers. With changes in the way their profession was perceived and the loss of patronage, an actress like Nargis for e.g. was groomed for the films by her mother (Jaddanbai). Regardless of background, collectively the women were probably the first fashion icons in India. Devika Rani’s sleeveless blouses and plucked eyebrows, Miss Gohar’s sunglasses in Miss 1933 and Kanan’s braided updo in Mukti, all suggest the birth of “filmy” fashions in this decade. Though the silents of the 1920s had already set the trend, this is also very much a decade of movies that suggest a cosmopolitan, fashion conscious woman with titles like “Madam Fashion” and “Fashionable Wife”.
Given all this it is possible to write a lot about the 1930s and I will touch on the fashions of the decade in subsequent posts. But for the moment, at the risk of a long post, I wanted to write about Kanan.
Kanan Devi’s background was a far cry from that of a top star like Devika Rani. By all accounts her early years were filled with dire poverty and she started singing at an early age. The transition from Kananbala to Kanan Devi (the Devi being a title of respect) must have been a difficult one. That change probably started with one of her early hits, Manmoyee Girls School (some one needs to do a piece on this as it is the basis for so many plots of pretend marriage in Indian cinema). Kanan was perhaps one of the first superstars of Bengali cinema, an actress equally at home playing upper class women or historical characters. Like many stars of the decade, Kanan Devi was also a singer. Singing both in Hindi and Bengali, many of her songs were all the rage in the 1930s and 1940s. Like with many women who came into films either due to poverty or on the basis of traditional occupations (like the Devadasis), a marriage brought Kanan Devi respectability though it did not last long. Once she stopped acting, she turned to film production. She died in 1992.
The reason for this long post is because while we are familiar with Hollywood icons of the 1930s, few of us are aware of Indian stars of the decade. Partly this is because stardom was in a nascent phase in India in the 1930s, there was no powerful star making system as in Hollywood. Partly this is because the archiving of materials is poor in India. Partly this is because the culture is slightly amnesiac about its past. Still as the links show, there is enough for us to get a sense of the female stars of this decade. And there are the devoted fans, Kanan has an entire site devoted to her professional and personal life which includes rare photographs.