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Manna Dey: A many-splendoured Songster

From Indian classical rhythm to western beats, Manna Dey had aced each genre with inimitable ease. This master musician, was among the best gifts that Bollywood had offered its viewers, writes Sharad Dutt.

The most cherished playback singers of the 1950s were Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and Manna Dey. Anil Biswas was the only composer who didn't use Rafi's voice for his compositions in the films. Anilda told me that he held no prejudice against Rafi but it created a hot controversy in film circles. He also confessed that he had to invite Rafi specially to sing in the film Heer, as nobody else could have sung the lyrics of legendary Heer better than Rafi, since he hailed from Punjab and made it come alive.
Anilda was, indeed, responsible for shaping up the careers of Mukesh and Talat Mahmood. As did Manna Dey sing his best songs under his baton! And, I was introduced to this triumvirate by Anilda.
It so happened that he came to Delhi Doordarshan for a recording in the 70s. I was very fond of Manna Dey's private songs and told him, "Dada we listen to your film songs quite often on AIR and Doordarshan but barely get a chance to listen to your private numbers." This is when he recorded his famous songs, Sajni nathli se toota moti de, Ye awara raatein and Meri bhi ek Mumtaz thi. He also revealed in the program that he had composed the music of these numbers.
In 2004, we again invited Manna Dey. He was to participate in a programme on the first death anniversary of Anilda. He gave an emotional and glowing tribute to the maestro and commenced with Anilda's composition, Buddham Sharnam Gacchammi, from film Angulimal. He also sang some of the popular filmy numbers at the behest of the audience and concluded the program with the classical number of Anilda, Ritu aaye ritu Jaaye sakhi re.
Born on May 1, 1919, in Calcutta as Prabodh Chandra Dey, he was brought up in a joint family, that impressed upon him to become a lawyer. But, he was born to be a singer. One of his uncles, Krishna Chandra Dey, a blind singer, actor and composer, was the sole supporter who encouraged him to pursue his singing. It was he who rechristened him as Manna Dey, trained him, and also ensured that he learnt music from Ustad Dabir Khan. Later, during his stay in Bombay, he imbibed the classical strains under the tutelage of Ustad Abdul Rehman and Ustad Aman Ali.
While graduating from Vidya Sagar College, Calcutta, he would often sing English songs of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Interestingly, Manna Dey was keen to participate in a music competition in his college, even though his uncle Krishna Chandra Dey advised him not to. He participated in ten categories of the competition and won the first prize in nine segments. He was second in his own mother tongue Bangla. In 1941, many artistes moved to Bombay from New Theatres of Calcutta. Krishna Chandra Dey was one of them and Manna Dey accompanied his uncle, thus getting the opportunity to sing his first song in film Tamanna in 1943. The song, Jaago aayee usha panchhi, was composed by his uncle and Manna Dey assisted him. But soon he realised that composing music for films was not his cup of tea.
In the same year, producer Shankar Bhatt approached Krishna Chandra Dey to sing a bhajan for his film Ram Rajya. He declined the offer not willing to lend his voice for someone else and recommended Manna Dey. After singing in Ram Rajya the latter was flooded with offers to sing for mythological films. But he continued to assist composers like Khemchandra Prakash and SD Burman. Khemchand Prakash had signed the film Ganesh Janam for producer-director Jayant Desai. He fell seriously ill and told the producer that Manna Dey would complete the film. After Ganesh Janam, he was again approached to compose for religious films, and gave music for Maha Puja, Jai Maha Dev and Gauri Puja. He was beginning to feel that he was being typecast as singer-composer and now wished to bid adieu to music direction and focus on playback singing.
In 1950, after Manna Dey gave a terrific playback for a Bombay Talkies film Mashal, and sang for SD Burman, Oopar gagan vishal, he was sought after by the luminary composers. Manna Dey had tremendous regard for Anilda as he used Manna Dey's voice frequently. And, he also remained grateful to Shankar (of Shankar-Jaikishan duo) who gave him a terrific break in the famous dream sequence song, Ghar aaya mera pardesi, from Awara. He further preferred Manna Dey to Mukesh in Shri 420 to sing Dil ka haal sune dilwala, Pyaar hua iqraar hua and Mud mud ke na dekh. Shankar had to fight with the producers of Chori Chori and Basant Bahar. In Chori Chori, Manna Dey gave playback for Raj Kapoor – Yeh raat bheegi bheegi and Jahan mein jaati hun with Lata. According to Manna Dey, he was at his creative peak when singing Sur na saje kya gaoon main and a classical competition song, Ketatki gulab juhi champak with ace vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, besides a beautiful romantic duet with Lata, Nain mile chain kahan.
Mohammad Rafi was an all-time favourite of Naushad but he made an exception calling upon Manna Dey to sing in Mother India. He also sang a bhajan for Naushad, Bhagat ke bas mein hain Bhagwan in film Shabab, and a title track in Palki, Mere ghar se pyaar ki palki chali gayi.
Madan Mohan was renowned as a 'ghazal king'. When he composed a ghazal for Hindustan Ki Kasam, he chose Manna Dey for Har taraf ab yehi afsaane hain. Manna Dey's solo, Aye meri zohra jabeen, in qawwali style was an instant chartbuster.
Even when the 1970s came to be dominated by a new generation of composers, Kalyanji Anandji, RD Burman and Laxmikant Pyaarelal, Manna Dey remained the first choice. RD Burman was a very talented composer who had mastery over Indian classical and Western music. He asked Manna Dey to sing Aao twist karein in a Western style in the film Bhoot Bangla. Like his father, RD Burman also made him sing a variety of songs - Chunri sambhal gori in Baharon Ke Sapne; Aayo kahan se ghanshyam in Buddha Mil Gaya; Ek chatur naar with Kishore Kumar-Mehmood in Padosan; and, of course, the evergreen hit, Ye dosti hum nahin chhodein ge in Sholay.
Manna Dey also sang very popular numbers for Kalyanji Anandji. One of those was a qawwali style number, Yaari hai imaan mera in Zanjeer; and a boatman song, Nadiya chale chale re dhara, in Safar. But what Manna Dey appreciated the most among Kalyanji Anandji's compositions was Kasme Vaade Pyaar Wafa in Upkar. He also performed at numerous live shows with Kalyanji Anandji in India and abroad.
This inimitable singer loved two things in his life – music and his family. He married his beloved Sulochna, a Keralite, and was blessed with two daughters Shuroma and Shumita, settled in California and Bangalore. Both are accomplished singers. Manna Dey left Bombay after an untoward incident when he was stabbed by some goons while on his way to the airport. He shifted to Bangalore and spent the rest of his life there, until his last in 2013.
Manna Dey had a sole regret – he never got a chance to sing for the big heroes in the later years of his career. But had he become a voice of any particular hero, we would have missed out on the kaleidoscopic versatility of his songs. Besides recording some private albums, his memorable contribution was rendering of Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan's Madhushala. Given his enormous contribution to the music world, he was conferredwith the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest national honour in Indian cinema. On this occasion, he stated that he was quite fortunate to be part of the 'Golden Era of Film Music'.
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