Article Hindi

The transnational stardom of the 'lark of India', Jahanara Kajjan

Continuing our special series on some of the women in early Indian cinema, a look at the dazzling but short-lived career of Jahanara Kajjan, celebrated singer, actress, poet whose fame transcended India's borders.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Jahanara means 'empress of the world' and with her magnetic looks, star quality and sheer talent, Jahanara Kajjan conquered many a heart as her fame travelled far and wide beyond India's shores. A multi-faceted personality, Kajjan was a trained singer, poet and actress who began her career in Parsi theatre and, like many stars of the time, moved from the stage to the silver screen.

As the story goes, when women performers were allowed on stage, they became immensely popular and started drawing in the crowds. During one of her performances, Jahanara Kajjan was spotted by Jamshed Madan of Madan Theatres, who offered her a role in Shirin Farhad (1931), the film that lost out by a hair's breadth to Alam Ara in the race to become the first Indian talkie. Being an educated woman well versed in Urdu literature, Kajjan, besides singing and acting in the film, worked with playwright and lyricist Agha Hashar Kashmiri on the lyrics.

After a string of films, her next big project was Indra Sabha (1932), which featured no fewer than 69 songs and had a runtime of three-and-a-half hours! It featured the singing duo of Nissar and Kajjan from Shirin Farhad with Kajjan playing a pari, or fairy, who falls in love with a mortal prince.

One of the early blockbusters of Hindi cinema, the film was an adaptation of a stage play. Kajjan’s pairing with Nissar in these films became a hit and she began to command a huge salary, more than some of her male counterparts at the time.

Talking about her immense fame, film historian Iqbal Rizvi says, “Kajjan was a star before she entered the world of films. She began her career acting and singing in Parsi theatre and her popularity transcended the country's borders. Shaukat Rizvi, the director of Zeenat (1945) and husband of the singing star Noorjehan, wrote about Kajjan’s fame in his autobiography, stating that some relatives of his had returned from Egypt and noted that cigarette packets there carried her picture! No one could imagine this degree of stardom of any Indian actor at that time!"

Credited as Jahanara Begum or Miss Kajjan, she acted in several Madan Theatres films like Pati Bhakti (1932), Aankh Ka Nashaa (1933), Anokha Prem (1934), Rasheeda or Turki Hoor (1935) and Mera Pyara (1935). Some of the other films she starred in were Raaj Dulari (1936) and Shaitan Ka Paash or Devil’s Dice (1936).

Madan Theatres closed down in the late 1930s and Kajjan took a brief break in 1940, when she retired to the outskirts of Calcutta and wrote books of Urdu poetry under her pen name, Ada. Several accounts state that she was very fond of animals and, during this time of solitude, she was surrounded by her pet tigers!

She later moved to Bombay and acted in a few films like Ghar Sansar (1942), Prarthana (1943) and Sohrab Modi’s Prithvi Vallabh (1943).

Her contemporaries were other remarkable women like Devika Rani, Fatma Begum, Durga Khote, Ruby Myers aka Sulochana, Jaddanbai and Kanan Devi, who were all navigating uncharted territory as some of the first women in Indian cinema.

In The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, Priti Ramamurthy discusses Kajjan’s personality, seeing her as the Indian Modern Girl: 'The actress wore makeup, mascara, finely shaped lips, and bobbed hair but even though she wore no bindi (her name reveals she is Muslim), her sari and nose ring signified her aesthetic hybridity, neither purely Western nor purely Indian' (p157).

This 'hybridity' was very much part of Kajjan's personality as she was recording Hindustani music but was equally drawn to Western dance and music. She would perform at the elite Calcutta Club along with fellow artiste Mahjabeen and was open about her relationships.

A dazzlingly talented woman, Jahanara Kajjan had a short-lived but luminous career. She died in 1945 at the age of 30 and despite blazing a trail in Hindi cinema remains largely forgotten today. Here is a popular song, 'Aaya Saawan', from the film Prarthana (1943) in her voice:

Film historian Iqbal Rizvi contributed to this article with research material and insights.

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