About 77 years ago, iconic actor-singer Ashok Kumar made his screen debut opposite Devika Rani in the 1936 Hindi film Jeevan Naiya. Produced by Himanshu Rai for the Bombay Talkies banner, the film was directed by Franz Osten, a German who had previously made a series of silent films on Indian themes, including stories from the Mahabharat and the life of Buddha. Among the songs that Ashok Kumar sang for Jeevan Naiya was Koi humdum na raha, koi sahara na raha, composed by Saraswati Devi with lyrics by J.S. Kashyap.

Music direction in Indian films has largely been an almost all-male bastion, and Saraswati Devi’s name figures as one of the earliest among the few women composers of the Hindi film industry. Born Khorshed Minocher-Homji, she and her actor sister Manek Homji adopted the screen names of Saraswati Devi and Chandraprabha, respectively, to counter the protests in the Parsi community against their involvement with the film industry, perceived then to be disreputable. Saraswati Devi had received training in Hindustani classical music from the pioneer Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, and later worked with the Bombay Talkies studio as a music composer.

A good 25 years later, in 1961, Ashok Kumar’s equally iconic younger brother Kishore Kumar sang the same song in Jhumroo, the film that marked his debut as a music director. The lyrics of the first two lines remained as they did in the original, but the rest of the song was penned by Majrooh Sultanpuri. Considered a Kishore Kumar classic, it is the Jhumroo version of the song that remains entrenched in the minds of most film music buffs, and the singer-composer himself considered it to be one of his 10 best songs. Yet, there can be no doubt that the song is, in fact, a copy of the Saraswati Devi composition for Jeevan Naiya.

If Kishore Kumar’s masterful appropriation of her composition caused Saraswati Devi any distress, she chose not to mention it. Around 1969, she is reported to have presented some of her hit songs for Bombay Talkies at an event where noted film critic and scholar Raju Bharatan was present. He reports that she presented it as a solo song composed for Ashok Kumar without any mention of Kishore Kumar’s more recent recording of the song in Jhumroo.

If one could set aside for a moment the legal and ethical implications associated with the two renderings of the song, there is much that could be gained from studying its journey between the batons of Saraswati Devi and Kishore Kumar. The two renditions clearly reveal how film music evolved and developed in the 25 years that elapsed between Jeevan Naiya and Jhumroo. The original is clearly a song firmly anchored in Raga Jhinjhoti with the tabla providing a steady and conventional rhythmic accompaniment. The orchestration faithfully repeats tutti, the main song melody. Given Saraswati Devi’s training in Hindustani classical music, this is by no means surprising. In contrast, Kishore Kumar’s exquisite and expressive rendering frees the song from its raag–taal casing even while the original melody is retained faithfully, and gives it the hybrid form and structure of the quintessential Hindi film song. This too is not surprising given Kishore Kumar’s lack of formal training.

In public memory, Koi humdum na raha is a Kishore Kumar song from Jhumroo. But as a record of the work of one of India’s earliest music directors for films, and one of the rare women composers in Hindi films, due acknowledgement and credit must be given to Saraswati Devi who braved unimaginable odds to be able to work in Hindi films.

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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