Little is known about Jahanara Kajjan, a singer-actress who was active in the 1920s and 1930s, on the stages of the Parsi theatre in Calcutta, and in early cinema. What we do know about her makes one lament the limitations of the Indian film archive, particularly lacking in information about the interiority of the women who were crucial to the making of the film industry – not only in Bombay, but in regional centres such as Calcutta and Madras.
A studio portrait of her, likely taken in the 1920s, shows her wearing dark lipstick, flapper curls and a piercing gaze. The portrait was used to advertise face powder and hair products in the North American magazine The Crisis – the official publication of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), founded in 1910 by writer and civil rights activists W.E.B. DuBois.
According to the Indian Memory Project, this makes her the subcontinent’s first international model – a claim that seems untenable in the face of the popularity of at least one singing superstar who preceded Kajjan – the gramophone sensation, Gauhar Jaan, whose image was reproduced in matchboxes in far-away Austria. Nonetheless, it was an era of firsts, and who came before whom was more a matter of chance than talent – with new technology completely transforming modes of performance, women were at the forefront of the public theatre, the radio, gramophone recordings, as well as silent and talkie cinema.
These were not just any women – many were from traditional performing communities of courtesans. These communities were greatly diverse in terms of social location and access, with more elite or successful courtesans commanding more power – and with less privileged performers being subjected to the whims and fancies of those who controlled feudal patronage. But essentially, by the time Kajjan burst into the scene, women who came from these performance traditions were “greatly stigmatised and their liminal social status was the condition for their entry into the dubious new realm of cinema,” as scholar Debashree Mukherjee writes in an essay about another early cinema pioneer (and courtesan), Jaddan Bai.
As many scholars, including Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita have pointed out, these so-called “public women” were at the forefront of literary and performing arts cultures because of their talents and ability to reinvent themselves with the changing of patronage systems as well as performance avenues. In an interview with the Indian Cultural Forum, Vanita calls courtesans “the first women to actually shape Indian cinema.” This was particularly true of talkies, because the Eurasian, Jewish and Anglo-Indian stars who dominated silent cinema could not successfully transition to the talkie era. For the talkies, the industry needed actresses who could not only speak Hindustani, but could also sing and perform their own songs. Courtesan singer-actresses fit the bill perfectly – and so flooded the industry, even as moral panic about their presence set the stage for far more privileged women (upper caste, upper class) like to subsequently enter the industry.
As Vanita and Mukherjee pointed out, their repertoire was not limited to acting and singing – they also danced, choreographed, wrote songs, composed music, directed, produced, and became screenwriters. Jaddan Bai – daughter of courtesan Daleepabai – was the industry’s first female music composer, while Fatma Begum was its first director-producer. Zubeida, one of Fatma’s three daughters, all of whom were part of the industry, was the heroine of Alam Ara (1931), the industry’s first talkie. Hot on the heels of this film followed Shirin Farhad and Laila Majnun, both starring Jahanara Kajjan alongside Master Nissar, made by Madan Theatres in Calcutta. Miss Kajjan and Master Nissar made a dream team that carried over the elaborate romances of Parsi Theatre from the stage to the screen.
Kajjan was likely only a teenager when she became successful in the film industry – scholars and writers place her date of birth anywhere between 1910 and 1915. She was born to a renowned courtesan called Suggan Bai and Nawab Chammi Saheb of Bhagalpur. As was customary for many daughters born in courtesan households, she was trained in Hindustani classical vocal music and dance from an early age. Her music teacher was Ustad Hussain Khan, and according to writer Veejay Sai, she was trained in dance by Bachwajaan, one of the last court dancers of Wajid Ali Shah’s court. (In a book about the Hindi film song, Ganesh Anantharaman writes that Kajjan later trained the legendary singer Noor Jehan in vocal music.)
During the era of silent films, performers were employed to keep audiences entertained during intervals. Several accounts say that Kajjan became known for her “knife dance” (in which she played with three knives while on stage) during these – and that this is what eventually led her to be employed by the Alfred Company owned by Madan Theatre in Calcutta. She became a huge success in the city, and by all accounts, led an independent professional and personal life as a single woman who learned how to ballroom dance and was a regular at the Calcutta Club.
Eventually, her money and her luck ran out, and she relocated to Bombay in the 1940s, but managed to get mostly minor roles. She died in 1945, terribly young, of an illness. It seems unbelievable that she had played Sabz Pari (the Emerald Fairy) in Indrasabha only 13 years prior to her death, a film which featured over 70 songs, or that in the same year she had been part of Bilwamangal, the first Indian film to be shot in colour.
Urgent archival work is needed to restore Kajjan’s memory – and the memory of dozens of others like her without which early cinema would not have existed. What information currently exists in an easily accessible format in the public domain sketches over the incredible political and social complexity of the positions someone like Kajjan occupied – even as respectability politics swept over the very industry in which she once created history.
Originally published on Firstpost as part of my series, Dastaan-e-Dilrubai, in March 2020. My research has deepened since, and some of my views have changed – I hope to catalogue them in future posts. In the meantime I hope you will find these interesting.