Kanan Devi was among the early singing stars and her singing style usually in rapid tempo was instrumental in some of the biggest hits of New Theatres. An untrained singer when she entered films, she studied briefly with Ustad Allah Rakha in Lucknow. She was employed as a singer at Megaphone Gramaphone Company receiving further training from Bhishmadev Chatterjee. She later learnt Rabindra Sangeet with Anadi Dastidar.
Born Kananbala in 1916, she made her debut as a child actress with Joydev (1926). She later worked with Radha Films in films mainly directed by Jyotish Banerjee. PC Barua was unable to secure her services for the role of Paro in Devdas (1935) but she did play the lead in his bi-lingual Mukti (1937). Mukti made her a star and led to a fruitful association with New Theatres where she made a number of memorable films, mostly bi-linguals in Hindi and Bengali.
Her most famous film at New Theatres was undoubtedly Bidyapati (Bengali)/ Vidyapati (Hindi) (1937) in which she gave perhaps her finest performance as the faithful follower of the poet Bidyapati/ Vidyapati played by Pahadi Sanyal. Its success made her the studio's top star ahead of even KL Saigal. To quote critic Krishna Chaitanya on her act in Bidyapati/ Vidyapati,
"Kanan Devi has the marvellous gift of smoothly carrying over to the melodic elaboration, the intimate expressiveness of speech - occasional aspiration of vowels, accented speech rhythms, sensitive manipulation of volume."
Her other hits with New Theatres include Street Singer (Hindi)/ Saathi (Bengali) (1938), Sapera (Hindi)/ Sapurey (Bengali) (1939) and Lagan (Hindi)/ Parichay (Bengali) (1941). Kanan Devi remained the top star of New Theatres till she resigned in 1941 and began to freelance in Hindi and Bengali films. Jawab the following year saw perhaps her biggest ever hit song - Toofan Mail.
But even though she was a singing sensation, she recalled music and song were secondary to the primary business of telling a story. In fact, powerful narrative appeal made up for most of the technical and other deficiencies Bengal cinema may have suffered from at the time and was a key to the success of the New Theatres Films.
Kanan Devi turned producer with Shrimati Pics in 1949 and later launched the Sabhyasachi collective with the film Ananya (1949). Her own productions were mainly based on Sarat Chandra stories and were directed by her husband Haridas Bhattacharya.
Kanan Devi's last film as an actress was Indranath Srikanta-o-Annadadidi (1959) though she continued to produce the odd film. She wrote an autobiography Sabare Ami Nomi (1973) and in 1977, Kanan Devi, the first lady of the Bengal screen was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award for her contribution to Indian Cinema. She also worked as President of the Mahila Shilpi Mahal, an organization that helps aged and needy female artistes of yesteryear.
Kanan Devi passed away in 1992.