Armenian Star of the Indian Films

By Artsvi Bakhchinyan, Yerevan, 14 December 2023

In 1954, American-Armenian journalist Levon Keshishian reported that five Indian cinema actresses are of Armenian origin, but bear Indian surnames. Unfortunately, he did not mention their names. I have been successful in revealing the names of two. One of the early superstars Patience Cooper (1902-1993), was one quarter Armenian, having a maternal Armenian grandmother and who acted in over 40 films from 1920 to 1944. The other is Sabita Devi (1914–1965), who is considered to be one of the most Indian cinema’s prominent leading ladies of the “pioneering era” of Indian cinema. (There was also a film leading actress named Gohar; there are no facts about her being Armenian as this name was common among other cultures).

In 1943 Asbarez Armenian newspaper of California (May 14 issue) told readers about Sabita Devi. Its source was William McGuffin’s correspondence from Pune (India), entitled “India’s Version of Movies is Very Straight Laced” (The Birmingham News, May 2, 1943, page 63), which states:

One of the most popular actresses is not an Indian at all, but an Armenian girl born in India. She is Sabita Devi and she lives with her mother in Bombay, where two-thirds of the Indian pictures are turned out. She had to learn Hindustani before entering pictures, but now speaks it so well that few of her fans knew she is not Indian, ….She writes poetry in her spare time and has enormous black eyes which she says she uses to suggest kisses on the screen (in India kisses are not allowed….). She wears the Hindu red dot on her forehead and the usual sleek-draped saris in her pictures, but favors Western clothes off the set.

There are a lot of references to Sabita Devi’s Armenian heritage in American newspapers, but the Wikipedia page of the actress mentions that she was of Jewish origin and her real name was Iris Maude Gasper.

I have consulted Liz Chater, nowadays the best specialist of Indo-Armenian genealogies, whether she is aware about this actress and her possible Armenian origin. Chater’s first answer (October 29, 2023) was the following:

Personally, I had not heard of Sabita Devi. However, I have just taken a look at the wiki page for her and also other sites and publications and I looked up her birth name. If she really was called Iris Maude Gasper, then I can tell you that I am aware of her father, Percy Gasper and his family and heritage. Looking at my records, although his family were Armenian, he was not baptized in the Armenian Church of Calcutta, but rather in the Old Church in Fort William. His father WAS baptized in the Armenian Church of Calcutta. So, my conclusion is this. If Iris Maude Gasper was indeed Sabita Devi, she did not have Jewish ancestry, she had Armenian ancestry.

Soon after, Liz Chater wrote me the following:

I have found her birth/baptism record. She was born 20 November 1912 in Calcutta to Percy Gasper and his wife Maud. Percy was a printer. Iris was baptized at the Thoburn Methodist Episcopal Church, Calcutta on 1st December 1912. I have crossed matched the birth date against the death index and found it matches exactly, so I know I have the right entry.

When I asked Chater that perhaps her mother was Jewish as the Jews consider their ethnicity according to their mothers, she wrote me back:

I don’t know about her mother, that will take some time. But I think it very unlikely the mother was Jewish. If Percy married her in Calcutta (and I don’t see why it would be anywhere else) then the mother is likely to be perhaps English or a native Calcutta woman. Very unlikely to be Jewish. I have seen instances in the past where Armenians from India have been labelled Jewish, mainly by Indian people, who usually don’t know or recognize there was an Armenian community in India, and simply change it to Jewish, because that’s what they know.

In addition, we should add that Sabita Devi’s father, Percy Osborne Gasper, died in November 1938, in Bombay, after which her mother remained as her manager-cum-companion. Sabita had two siblings, a brother and a sister. Initially she worked with British Dominion Films Ltd. in Calcutta, after she shifted to Bombay and performed mainly in films produced by Sagar Movietone with her co-star in most films being famous Indian actor Motilal Rajvansh. Some of the popular films with Motilal were “Dr. Madhurika” (1935), “Silver King” (1935) and “Kulvadhu” (1937). Sabita Devi was the third highest paid actress after Sulochana (Ruby Myers) and Gohar, drawing a salary of 3000 Rupees per month. Classic writers like K. M. Munshi and Ramanlal Vasantlal were commissioned to write stories for her films, and one of the top directors of the time she worked with doing social genre films was Sarvottam Badami. From 1935–1943 Sabita acted in fifteen films, all directed by Badami. Perhaps due to her Armenian entrepreneurial spirit, Sabita also formed her own production company, “Sudama Pictures,” in partnership with Sarvottam Badami.

In 1951 Iris Maude Gasper-Sabita Devi married chemist David Trefor Lewis in Bombay and moved to United Kingdom, where she spent the rest of her life. According to Liz Chater’s personal evidence

Sabita Devi’s death was REGISTERED in January 1999, but she died on 31st December 1998 at Silverwood Nursing Home, Beeston, Nottingham. She was cremated on 6th January 1999 at Wilford Hill Crematorium, Nottingham.

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