Uma Devi/Tun Tun
She gave us music and she gave us mirth. Her career first as precocious crooner and then as Tun Tun, the comedienne is her undeniable legacy, one too short-lived, the other enduring and both immortal.
Born Uma Devi Khatri in an obscure village in Uttar Pradesh, she lost both her parents at an early age. Raised by her uncle in a conservative Punjabi family, Uma was a tomboy much to the chagrin of her family. But her one enduring passion remained singing. With no formal training, she like many little children, picked up film songs from the radio. In a place and time when educating girls was a luxury and ambition in them was unheard of, Uma Devi showed remarkable spunk teaching herself to read and write Hindi along with a smattering of Urdu and English to help her singing career.
At the age of 13, she boarded the train to Bombay to seek her future, challenge the voices she had imitated for years. Her first singing assignment came in Nazir's Wamag Azra in '47. But even earning a princely 200 rupees for a single number didn't cloud her focus. She wanted to sing for Naushad Ali, with his distinctly refined brand of music. Nobody else mattered. For she believed and still does firmly that he was and remains the greatest composer.
Break and Success
After repeated requests to sing for the maestro, she was finally granted an audience. This intrepid 13 year old charmed the renowned composer with a rendition of Noorjehan's classic, 'Andhiyan Gham Ki Yun Chali, Bagh Ujar Ke Reh Gaye', 'He made me stop midway. I knew I had made ití.
She immediately signed a contract with A.R. Kardar whose films Naushad scored for, earning 500 rupees. Talk about impressive debuts. 'Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon' from Dard became a runaway hit. Uma Devi was on her way. 'Yeh Kaun Chala' a duet with Suraiya, the leading songstress of the time, saw critics sniggering about her inexperience but she undeniably held her own. With little formal training, her voice had the distinct nasal quality made popular by Zohrabai Ambalewali, Noorjehan and Shamshad Begum.
After Dard, she was to become Naushad's favourite performers. He usually reserved a couple of songs per film for Uma Devi. In '48, 'Kahin Jiya Dole' and 'Dil Ko Lagake Kuch Bhi Na Paya' from Anokhi Ada cemented her fame.
Uma Devi continued to make her mark with scores like Dillagi, Chandni ('Chandni Raat Hai, Dekhi Kya Raat Hai'), Raat and Naatak. However, many speculate her contract with Kardar as a strategic career mistake what with the likes of Khemchand Prakash still making waves at the marquee with their scores. She lost out on plum assignments like Mahal as a result of it.
The turning point in her life came in the form of S.S.Vasan's Chandralekha for Gemini Studios, Madras. She was clearly intimidated by the seven songs with a classical base including 'Saajan Re Aaja Re', 'Mairi Main To', 'Man Bhavan Saawan Aaya Rang Jamane'. But the composer firmly believed in her ability to carry it off and not without reason. The results speak for themselves. The Chandralekha score remains Uma Devi's most impressive work. But success came with a price.
A.R.Kardar, angered at the breach of contract, broke off the association. Uma Devi never recovered. Times were turbulent, the Partition threw the country into bloody chaos, and on the professional front, work was dwindling as the Mangeshkar sisters entered the fray. Uma Devi knew her inability to handle higher scales would compare unfavourably against the well-honed voices of these promising newcomers. Personally, she had settled down, putting on an enormous amount of weight.
The Second Innings
Once again Naushad, her rakhi brother saved the day. Knowing her gift of comic timing, he suggested she take up acting. This was her second more popular avtaar. Debuting in Babul, produced by Naushad himself, she was cast with Dilip Kumar and Nargis. In it she was christened Tun Tun, a name that has stayed with her to date. Her career as the first true blue comedienne of Indian cinema saw her entertain in films like Aar Paar, Pyaasa, Mr. and Mrs. 55 and Mom Ki Gudiya.
Tun Tun is one of the few artists, who could make a shift of profession worth remembering in the industry, notorious for pinning into categories any talent no matter how expansive. Tun Tun shall just laugh it away!