MOHAMMED RAFI, Manna Dey, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar formed a quintet of male playback singers who dominated Hindi film music of an era. Among them Manna Dey is the only one to receive the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke award, the highest national award for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema.
Prabodh Chandra Dey, or Manna Dey, began playback singing way back in 1943, in a duet with Suraiya for Tamanna. Upar gagan vishal in Mashaal gave him a solid footing as a playback singer and Dharti kahe pukar ke made him an icon in the true sense of the term.
Nephew of the legendary singer-composer K.C. Dey, Manna Dey is the only singer to have rendered a duet with the maestro Bhimsen Joshi and earned his appreciation. He has rendered hundreds of songs in Hindi, his mother tongue Bengali and also other regional languages. Excerpts from an exclusive interview the legendary singer gave after his return from a tour of the United States:Do you like being branded a classical singer?
I dont. I am not a full-fledged classical singer like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi or Amir Khan. I did have my training in classical music and still practise my riwaz daily for three hours. My uncle [K.C. Dey] wanted me to be involved fully in classical music. I was really not interested. Classical music appeals to only a class of audience and it is very difficult to reach out to the masses. Music based on pure ragas and bandishes has limitations.
The Dada Saheb Phalke Award must mean a lot to you.
Not exactly. I feel honoured but am in no mood to go overboard as I passed that period of my life long ago. Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh or Kishore Kumar never received the Phalke Award. It does not lower their status as singers in any way. My real award is when I hear a man on the streets of Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore humming Laga chunri mein daag or Aye meri zohra zabin. Nothing can beat that recognition. A singer should be identified on the basis of his songs, and a listener should be able to figure out the name of the crooner of a number even with his eyes closed.
You have rendered a wide variety of songs in your illustrious career spanning seven decades.
If I was monochromatic as a singer, I would have been nowhere. Just as I was at ease with raga-oriented songs, I could equally sing pop, sentimental songs and numbers with rhythm. Right from the beginning, it was my nature to experiment with different melodies.
Take the number Gori tore banke from Adhe Din Adhe Raat. I rendered it in pure Bhairavi but composer Chitragupta conducted a pure Western musical background to the song with the Spanish guitar, the bongo and snare drums. It was a unique experiment. He requested me to render the lines Gore gore mukhde pe with a rock-and-roll punch. The song was a super hit.
Who is the best music director you have worked with?
Shanker-Jaikishan, obviously. The duo, the most versatile in the nation, composed the maximum number of hits in the maximum number of films possible. Shanker-Jaikishan understood my full depth as a singer and used me brilliantly to sing for Raj Kapoor, Raaj Kumar and Shammi Kapoor. I rendered the majority of my memorable songs for Raj Kapoor, whom I consider a genius. The other music directors I have worked very well with include S.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Ravi [Ravi Shankar Sharma alias Bombay Ravi] and R.D. Burman.You forgot to mention C. Ramchandra.
Thank you for reminding me. In his days, Annasaab was the greatest music director and I owe a lot of my success to him. A uncompromising music director, he had a perfect sense of melody. I still fondly remember the number Dil ka gulzar jhuta in Amardeep, which he tuned and which I sang jointly with Rafi, Lata [Mangeshkar] and Asha [Bhonsle]. It was a marvellous tune based on the beats of the dholak something which only C. Ramchandra could compose. He could not adjust with the Hindi film world later.
What sort of rapport did you share with your colleagues?
We were healthy competitors and never rivals. Rafi was undoubtedly the greatest playback singer, Mukesh was nonpareil in his nasal tone, Hemant Kumar had a golden voice, and Kishore was a self-trained genius. I sang the maximum of my duet numbers with Rafi and we shared a deep silent regard for each other. The competition I had with Kishore whilst singing Ek chatur naar is something unknown to todays singers. Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle are versatile and powerful. Sandhya Mukherjee has a tremendous range in classical music, and Geeta Dutts voice seeped with emotion.
What was the difference in singing for Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee in Bengali films?
Uttam was a trained musician and his sense of music was more than that of Soumitra. Though Uttams voice suited Hemanta Mukherjee the best, he adapted very well to my singing and never had any problems. Uttam Kumar and Raj Kapoor were two actors who were lip masters. Soumitra Chatterjee is a method actor who accommodated himself well to each song situation and delivered what was required of him well.
Which are your most favourite Bengali numbers?
Raat jaga duti chokh, Tumi aar deko na and Aami tar thikana rakhini. I tuned a number of Bengali songs and sang them too. Music directors who worked very successfully with me include Nachiketa Ghosh and Sudhin Das Gupta. Bengali lyrics in those days were at their peak by virtue of their words, feelings and depth. Even a popular number like Aami shri shri had some lyrical essence.How did you adjust to South Indian songs?
I did sing a number of them confidently. My wife [a Malayalee] and daughter helped me with the right pronunciation and I rehearsed thoroughly before the recording of each number. South Indian pronunciation requires a special sort of accent without stylisation, and needs to appeal at once.What are your immediate plans?
Currently, I am recording [Rabindranath] Tagore songs, a non-filmy Hindi album and a Bengali album in the blues style. At 90, I still love to accept challenges, experiment and want to carry on singing as long as I am alive.