Divya Solgamawrote on Aug 11 2008 7:11PM
Tuntun was the screen name of singer and comedienne Uma Devi Khatri in an obscure village near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Born on 11th July 1923, Tuntun lost her parents at an early age, and was brought up by her uncle. With no formal training, she picked up film songs from the radio. Ramlila and film songs were her source of inspiration. Luckily for Uma, her friend from Delhi came to her village. She was educated and had connections in the Bombay film industry. She wrote to her director friend in the tinsel-town to help Uma. In a place and time when educating girls was a luxury and ambition in them was unheard of, Uma Devi taught herself to read and write Hindi and later picked up a smattering of Urdu and English to get by in showbiz.
At the age of 13, she left Uttar Pradesh, without telling her uncle and came to Bombay to pursue her own career. In Bombay she struck up an instant friendship with actor-director Arun Ahuja and his singer-wife Nirmala Devi (Govinda's parents). They introduced her to various music directors. One of them was Allah Rakha who agreed to give her one song in the film Wamaq Azro, the others being sung by Mallika Pukhraj. Thus, Uma Devi sang ‘Hai do dil milte milte reh gaye...’ and got paid Rs 200, a princely sum those days. But she had a single-minded obsession to sing for Naushad Ali, ONLY. For her, he was the greatest composer ever. After repeated requests to sing for the maestro, luck favoured her in the form of AR Kardar who was looking for a fresh voice. She told him if he did not give her a chance, she would jump into the sea, which happened to be right across the bungalow where they were. The great music director asked the chubby Uma what was the "sur" she sang in. Uma was blank. She asked him to listen to her and decide. After listening to her rendition of Noorjehan's classic, 'Andhiyan Gham Ki Yun Chali, Bagh Ujar Ke Reh Gaye…' for 10 minutes, Naushad gave the nod. She immediately signed a contrat 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. After Dard, she was to become Naushad's favourite performers. He usually reserved a couple of songs per film for Uma Devi. 'Yeh kaun chala…' a duet with Suraiya, was one more claim to fame for her. In '48, 'Kahin jiya dole…' and 'Dil ko lagake kuch bhi na paya…' from Anokhi Ada cemented her fame. As a singer, she reached her peak as a vocalist in SS Vasan’s classic movie, "Chandralekha" where she sang seven classical songs for music director S.S. Rajeshwar Rao which included 'Saajan re aaja re…’, 'Mairi main to…', 'Man bhavan saawan aaya rang jamane…'.
Uma sang ‘Afsana likh rahi hoon, dil-e-baqarar ka...’ for Suraiya which floored the nation and established her as a front-ranker in the era of Noor Jahan Shamshad Begum and Mallika Pukhraj. She continued to consolidate her position with scores like Dillagi, Chandni ('Chandni Raat Hai, Dekhi Kya Raat Hai'), Raat and Naatak. However, her career as a singer was short lived. Another incident which cased the untimely death of her singing career was her altercation with AR Kardar. By singing for SS Vasan in Chandralekha, she broke her contract with Kardar which angered him and he severed all ties with her. She even lost out on plum assignments like Mahal as a result of it. Uma Devi had limited range in singing and when competing with the likes of Lata and Asha became tough, Naushad again came to her rescue and gave her a comedienne's role in the movie produced by him, Babul, and the comical screen name, Tuntun (given by Dilip Kumar), reflecting her physique and the belligerent tone which she adopted for her comedienne's role in that movie. Once again, Uma wanted the best. She now wanted a role opposite Dilip Kumar. Naushad couldn't stop laughing, but he talked to Dilip. A role was created for Uma and she got her first film Babul in 1950. Tun Tun did many films later. She had a fan in Guru Dutt and acted in almost all his films. Her favourite role too was from Guru Dutt's Mr and Mrs 55 in which she played a Christian lady. She went on to act in over 180 movies, including Aar Paar, Pyaasa, Mr and Mrs 55 and Mom Ki Gudiya. She was indeed Hindi cinema's first-ever comedienne and roles were specially written for her. She did not make a special pair with any one comedian but she was paired with everyone from Bhagwan Dada, Agha, Sunder, Mukri, Dhumal, Johnny Walker to Keshto Mukherji. This great comedienne passed away on 24 Nov. 2003.