MANNA DEY – The Last Singer of an Era

A Music event was organised in Trivandrum as a function to felicitate Manna Dey on his being selected for the Yesudas Award of that year. Manna Dey began singing his famous hit songs from Hindi films. Many of the songs were unknown to the audience. After a few songs, the disquieted and tasteless audience got noisy and uncontrollable. Manna Dey stopped singing and after pronouncing them to be incapable of appreciating good songs and being without the culture to respect the singers, he stomped off in great anger from the stage. Nor did he accept the award.

In another incident, in a music event organised by the Government of Kerala, when Manna Dey saw the musicians struggling to properly provide the background music to his Hindi songs, right on the stage he condemned them for their indifference to the great songs of the bygone golden era.

Manna Dey! He is pushing ninety today. He is one of the greatest singers India has seen and a Music Great sitting on a volcano of emotions. The last star in a line of great singers of a bygone era with a nation-wide fame. He has sung around 3500 songs. He has been awarded Padma Shree and Padma Vibhushan and the National Award, twice. He has been awarded Filmfare Award. Yet, all said and done, he has not received his due.

In a line-up of popular singers like Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, Mukesh and Talat Mehmood, it can be said that Manna Dey was the most talented singer. In this line-up, it can be said, he is the most versatile singer. For over forty years Manna Dey has been winning his music fans by singing his songs with a cultured voice, touching heights unheard before his time. His great successes in music did not win the heights of blind fame; but he always stood apart with his inimitable singing style. His great voice, his deep and emotional singing style and the broad canvas his songs painted were one of a kind.

His ever-green hits like ‘Lagaa Chunri Me Daag’, ‘Yeh Mere Zohra Jabin’, ‘Na Tho Karwan Ki Talash Hai’ and ‘Chunri Sambhal Gori’ have become parts and moments of the Indian mind. Who can forget the gems like ‘Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ke Dware’ and ‘Aayo Kahan Se Ganshyam’? His song sung in the company of Kishore Kumar for Sholay ‘Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Chodenge’ and the song ‘Ek Chathur Naar’ sung for Padosan depict dramatic emotions that are undying.

Manna Dey has touched the heights of classical singing in film music. But the diverse bases from which he has sung is something which even the versatile Mohammad Rafi has been unable to touch. Manna Dey is a flawless singer. He could sing anything with effortless ease. Qawwali songs like ‘Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai’, Duets like ‘Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua’, songs with fast beat like ‘Aao Twist Karein’ and ‘Jhoomtha Mausam Mast Mahina’, songs evoking patriotism like ‘Yeh Mere Pyare Vatan’, devotionals like ‘Tu Pyar ka Sagar Hai’ and a song simulating a drunk’s turn of tongue like ‘Phir Wohi Dard Hai Phir Wohi Jigar’ all leave us with that unique Manna Dey touch of distinction.

Mohammad Rafi once told the magazine reporters: “You say you love to listen to my songs. But I listen to Manna Dey’s songs.” Composers like S.D. Burman and Anil Biswas have observed that Manna Dey could sing any song Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and other singers could sing but the reverse could never happen.

If we compare the songs sung by Manna Dey and his contemporaries, the truth of this difference will stand out. Just compare the songs in films like Seema, Basant Bahaar, Talash, Anand and Shree 420!

But Manna Dey, who is humility personified, will not accept this. Talking about today’s re-mix trend he asked, “How do these people dream of singing like great singers like Rafi and Kishore? Even I cannot sing at their levels!” Manna Dey had high regards for Rafi. “Rafi and Lata are my favourite singers. I think of all the world’s film music singers Rafi is the best. Many may not accept this. I know that Rafi did not have training in classical music. Many do not know that when I was an assistant music composer he worked under me as a chorus singer. Like Lata Mangeshkar, his voice, too, was God’s gift to man. It is impossible for others to sing like them....”

Manna Dey did not achieve the fame that Rafi and Kishore Kumar or even Mukesh achieved. But he continued to sing many unforgettable songs showcasing his versatility. He won a Filmfare award for his western music-based song, that got every pair of feet that listened to it dancing, ‘Yeh Bhai Zara Dekh Ke Chalo’ in the film ‘Mera Naam Joker’. His first National Award was for the classical-based ‘Janak Janak Thore Baaje Payaliya’ in the film ‘Mere Huzoor’. He won his second National Award for a light love song ‘Ja Khushi Ora Bole’ for the Bengali film ‘Nishipadma’.

Connoisseurs among lovers of good Hindi film music are well aware of the achievements of Manna Dey. They are most likely to acknowledge his uncommon singing ability and the wealth of his singing voice. They should have no hesitancy in acknowledging that in many ways he was a better singer than his contemporaries, especially in classical singing. However, in their list of favourite singers he comes either second or third. I think an important reason for this is that his voice was very flexible and that he has sung so many different types of songs that no one type of song comes to our mind when we think of Manna Dey. Unlike a Mukesh known for his sad songs or a Talat Mahmood know for his ghazals, Manna Dey does not have a particular genre identity.

Manna Dey did not identify himself with any particular brand or icon nor did he create an image for himself. Any statistician, computing the percentage of successes to the total number of songs Manna Dey has sung begins to compare his record with that of his contemporaries, will be surprised to find that Manna Dey is the more successful singer in terms of the ratio of hit songs. Yet he is the most underestimated singer. The only reason for this is that he has not sung much for the important celluloid heroes of his time.

Those were the days when those with voices that did not suit the big name heroes, however talented, could not shine as playback singers. The Big Three stars of the time, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand chose Rafi,Talat Mahmood, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Hemant Kumar. Even though Manna Dey’s voice was as suited to Raj Kapoor as Mukesh’s, Raj Kapoor continued to choose Mukesh. The reason is that along with Shankar Jaikishen, Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri, Mukesh was part of the R.K. Studio group. Even though Manna Dey has sung super hit songs for Shankar Jaikishen in films like Shree 420, Chori Chori and Mera Naam Joker, his was mostly lent to second-line artistes like Balraj Sahni, Pran, Bharat Bhushan, Pradeep Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and comedian Mehmood.

In Bimal Roy’s ‘Do Bhiga Zamin’ Manna Dey sang the famous song ‘Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke’ to Salil Chowdhury’s score as the voice of Balraj Sahni. In this film, Balraj Sahni was a failed farmer. Another hit song ‘Chali Radhe Rani’ sung for ‘Parineeta’ was picturised on a mendicant. Another popular hit song ‘Lapak Japak Tu Aare Bhadarwa’ in ‘Boot Polish’ was the voice of bit parts player David playing a handicapped street-dweller. Unfortunately, this became Manna Dey’s identity in film music for the most. Most of the music composers invited him to sing for mature characters of ripe age. Naturally this robbed his songs of the springiness of youth. Barring Raj Kapoor, the occasions when he sang for big heroes were rare.

Manna Dey’s great voice was performing acrobatics for comedian Mehmood even as the not so young Talat Mehmood and Mukesh sang for young heroes. ‘Khaali Dappa Khali Bothal’ is a good example. Once Manna Dey openly admitted that he accepted unworthy singing assignments for his livelihood. Yet it must be remembered that it was his remarkable voice and singing prowess that converted many an ordinary tune and lyric to a great musical expression.

Manna Dey alias Probodha Chandra Dey was born in Calcutta to Purna Chandra Dey and Mahamaya in 1920. His ancestral house was in Shimla Road. It was a mansion with 12 bed rooms. Even after 2 centuries it presents a majestic sight today. His maternal uncle, ‘Sangeethacharya’ Krishna Chandra Dey, a famous singer and composer in Manna Dey’s younger days, encouraged his interest in music. K.C. Dey was blind. In a dark world, he lived by the light of his music. It was he who nicknamed his nephew Probodh Chandra as ‘Manna’.

Manna Dey grew up with his uncle’s music from his childhood. His upbringing was soaked in Bahuls, a type of folk devotionals, Robindra Sangeeth and Khayals. He frequented New Theatre Studios in the company of his uncle. Manna Dey, in his later days recalled how he watched from close quarters with love and reverence the pioneers like K.L. Saigal, Kanan Devi, Prithviraj Kapoor, Pahari Sanyal, Pankaj Mallick and Timir Baran. His uncle taught Manna to listen, appreciate the finer points of and sing classical music as well. Later, Manna Dey learnt Hindustani Music from Ustad Tabir Khan in traditional manner.

In the beginning of 1940s, as New Theatres disintegrated, the artistes, technicians and Musicians migrated to Bombay. Manna Dey came to Bombay with his uncle in 1942. He joined as assistant to composer H.B.Das. Later he became assistant to S.D. Burman. He had worked as assistant to Anil Biswas, too. All the while, he was also continuing his riyaz under senior musicians like Ustad Aman Ali Khan and Ustad Abdul Rahman Khan.

His uncle again came to the rescue of Manna Dey who was working his assistant music arranger. In 1943, when asked to sing for the film ‘Ramrajya’, K.C. Dey recommended his nephew. Composer Shankar Rao Vyas had his doubts about the boy’s ability. But after a few rehearsals, 23 year old Manna Dey sang the single number ‘Thyagamayee Gayee Tu Sita’ for the character of aged Valmiki.

Manna Dey, once said with a wry smile, ‘My very first song was for an aged character.’ He received Rs.150/- as a remuneration for that song. In 1944 Manna Dey sang a duet with the star of those days, Suraiya, for the film Tamanna under his uncle’s baton. But in those alien surroundings his disappointments and setbacks continued. His Bengali-accented Hindi was a big block. He learnt Hindi after a hard training and relentless effort, but his Bengali accent continued to dog him.

Doubts assailed him about the appropriateness of the field he had chosen for himself. He had even thought of returning to Calcutta to study Law. After continued struggle, in 1950 the marching song ‘Ooper Gagan Vishal’ for the film Mashal sung by Manna Dey under S.D Burman’s music direction was a big hit that ensured his continued stay in Bombay. The hit parade continued and he became a regular playback singer. ‘Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi’, ‘Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Me Hum’, ‘Dil Ka Haal Sune Dilwala’, ‘Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua’, ‘Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh Mud Mud Ke’, ‘Tu Hai Meri Prem Devata’ and ‘Sur Na Saje Kya Gaoon Mein’ were songs that stood him in the frontline of playback singers.

Manna Dey married a Malayalee woman, Sulochana Kumaran. ‘Manasa Mynae Varoo’ was his first Malayalam film song, sung for ‘Chemmeen’ under Salil Chowdhury’s music direction. This song which created for itself an unyielding place in Kerala’s music history, also created great waves in Tamilnadu. After all these years, I still see most of music lovers in Tamilnadu remembering it with an emotional tenderness. Salil Chowdhury was absolutely certain that nobody but Manna Dey could sing it. The sea as the metaphor for Manna Dey’s intense voice reflecting a deep sadness and loneliness of longing love is accepted in Kerala’s tradition of expressions for generations now. Manna Dey as he sings ‘Kadalile Ollavum Karalile Mohavum Adangugillomanae Adangugilla’, we see in that voice the intensity and relentlessness of the waves of the sea as it retreats after every assault on the shore.

Afterwards, Salil Chowdhury made Manna Dey sing ‘Kaiyodu Kai, Meiyodu Mei’ for the film ‘Nellu’. The song with the tribal beat and lyrics was a big hit. This is a dance number, he sang with Jayachandran. Its tune is quite different in emotion from the sad and moving ‘Manasa Mynae Varoo’. Malayalees loved Manna Dey’s singing with all its flaws in Malayalam pronunciation.

Manna Dey has worked with all his contemporary music composers from Anil Biswas to R.D. Burman. He was close to composers like S.D. Burman, Shankar Jaikishen, R.D. Burman and Salil Chowdhury. He has sung immortal songs like ‘Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ki Dware’ and 'Tum Bin Jeevan Kaisa Jeevan' for Madan Mohan. But there were some star directors who were against his singing for heroes. They banned him with their full force. They could not overcome their impression that his was a voice of the elderly.

He won the Filmfare award 25 years after he began singing, only in 1972. Recognitions refused to come. Business was always dull. But these did not affect him much. He said in an interview: “I have neither regrets nor any complaints.” But on another occasion Manna Dey said “In the beginning I was unhappy. Later, I just consoled myself. It is a great thing, just being a contemporary singer along with Talat Mahmood, Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar.” “I have sung as the voice in the background, for heroes, villains and comedians.”

Manna Dey was not the person to run after anything. His New Theatre cultural upbringing did not equip him to cope with Bombay’s glitterous world. Even in his own mother Bengal recognition came only in the 1960s. It was then that he placed his stamp on the Bengali film industry. Distributors started insisting that Manna Dey should sing at least one song to ensure good business.

Manna Dey was a perfectionist from the beginning. In his music career, he had always fought for wholesome completeness in his songs. He is terribly disappointed with the trends current in the world of film music. “Music that should be an expression of the strength of our cultural traditions is being maimed today. Composers who love good music are few and getting fewer today. True and natural music moments are getting rarer in our films. Today’s music is an amalgam of loud beat and noise composed for bone-crushing dances. I am unable to accept what passes for music today, having worked with great composers like Anil Biswas, Roshan and Salil Chowdhury. This generation does not know how to create good music. Today music is totally computerized. Even songs that go out of Shruti alignment is corrected with devices/programmes that computer provides.” Manna Dey sincerely believes that artificial sounds and electronic devices have killed music. His last song was in 1991, sung for the film Prahaar.

The emotional bonding between the song and the singer is gone, says Manna Dey. “Today the male and female singers are able to sing a duet without meeting each other. Computer enabled track recording and the ready to use music bits are the reason.” To understand his comment, it is essential to understand the recording procedures of those days. To sing the song ‘Rithu Aaye Rithu Jaaye’ to Anil Biswas’ composition Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar rehearsed for three weeks. According to Manna Dey the Golden Age of Hindi film music was created by the combined hard work of Composers, Singers and Lyricists.

“The composers of those days were dedicated and hard working. Every line and every music bit was taken to recording after delicate sculpting and repeated polishing. Lata, Rafi, Geeta Dutt, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Asha and I, all of us went to great lengths to bring out the nuanced expressions in the songs. It is not for nothing that the songs of the 50s and 60s are avidly listened to even today and stand as immortal hits”.

Today, Manna Dey lives in Bangalore. He said in a TV interview: “The only thing I can do is to sing. I will continue to sing till my last breath. As said in my song ‘Sur Ke Bina Jeevan Soona’, there is no life without music.” When asked how his life was, Manna Dey expressed complete satisfaction with his life and career in music. But I could not see that sense of satisfaction in his eyes. At the end of the interview when he finished singing his immortal song ‘Poocho Na Kaise Mein ne Rein Bitayee’ (Ask me not how I whiled away my life…), I saw tears welling from his aged eyes and dropping on his harmonium.