She gave us music and she gave us laughter. Her career, first as precocious crooner and then as Tun Tun, the comedienne is her undeniable legacy, one too short-lived, the other enduring but 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, 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 courage 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, Uma Devi ran away from home and boarded the train to Bombay to seek her future, to challenge the voices she had imitated for years. She wanted to sing for Naushad, with his distinctly refined brand of music. For she believed firmly that he was the greatest composer. 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 one of Noor Jehan’s classics. Uma Devi was on her way to success. Talk about impressive debuts, Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon from Dard (1947) became a runaway hit. But the success did not last too long.
The partition of India threw the country into bloody chaos, and 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 put on an enormous amount of weight. 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 avatar. 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 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 Hindi film industry.