A master's voice

Print edition : June 29, 2007

Manna Dey's autobiography is as much about his involvement with Bengali film as it is about his career in Hindi film music.

MANNA DEY, the ebullient singer of Hindi and Bengali film songs through the 1950s to the 1980s, wrote his autobiography, Jeebonir Jalsa Ghare, in 2005. An English translation, Memories Come Alive, has just come out. Those who love and admire the singer will welcome this volume but may be slightly disappointed by its tone, which is a compromise between the intimate and the formal.

As a singer Dey was in his prime from 1945 to 1980 or a year or two later. His voice was known for its clarity of tone and steadiness of pitch. It became "silvery" as it soared higher and higher, for instance, in his duet with Lata Mangeshkar, "Aa ja sanam madhur chandni me hum", from Chori Chori (1956) when he floats into the antara with the words "bheegi bheegi chandni... ".

It is indeed a bit strange and even bizarre that despite the quality of his voice and his ability to sing a wide variety of songs - he could render with ease romantic numbers, melodies based on classical ragas, folk forms, comic ballads and even adaptations from Latin American music and rock `n' roll - he never shared the number one spot, which he so richly deserved, with another marvellous singer, Mohammad Rafi. It is an unspoken regret that has stayed with him through his life.

As a singer he was a late starter. While at Scottish Church College and a little later at Banga Bashi in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he was much in demand for intercollegiate cultural meets and won many prizes, singing a variety of songs. His uncle, the legendary blind singer-actor of Bengali and Hindi films of the 1930s and 1940s, Krishna Chandra (K.C.) Dey, however, was not impressed. Young Manna was then better known as a wrestler! Wrestling certainly added to his natural robustness and possibly gave him the stamina to acquire quite amazing breath control when he took to singing seriously.

Incidentally, the nickname Mana, meaning "darling", was given to him by his mother, Mahamaya Devi, and got corrupted to Manna. He was actually named Prabodh Chandra Dey, but having such a long name would not do for a singer in those changing times. The Second World War was on, and even countries like undivided India could not help but be affected by the new technology that the Armageddon-like situation in the world had created. Traditional cultures the world over revealed cracks. The quality of film music in India was changing like rapid underwater currents though nothing much was revealed on the surface. The old style, the highly melodious music of New Theatres, Calcutta, with the incomparable K.L. Saigal as its king and the great K.C. Dey as its prince regent, was still reigning supreme.

The short-wave radio service from Britain and America brought popular music to our shores, and the free availability of Western classical and pop music in certain metropolitan stations of All India Radio slowly began to affect a very small band of listeners, which included composers and arrangers of film songs, particularly in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta.

However, when Manna Dey arrived in Bombay in 1942 as a 23-year-old, his mind was full of the traditional melodies - khayals, thumris, dadras, bhatiyalis and kirtans - his uncle had taught him. He had come to train as an assistant to K.C. Dey, who was composing the music for Tamanna. He sang his first duet with a beautiful young girl, who would soon make her mark as the singer-actress Suraiya.

A year later, in 1943, an eccentric genius called Sajjad Husain set a raga-based melody to a waltz rhythm in the song "Badnam mohobat kaun kare", rendered superbly in the film Dost by the classically trained Noorjehan. In the same year, Manna Dey rendered four songs for composer Shankar Rao Vyas in the film Ram Rajya directed by Vijay Bhatt.

Manna Dey, in later life, wondered why, despite having successfully rendered many hits for the top male stars of Hindi cinema, he was invariably saddled with songs for comedians and old men. He answered the question himself by saying that he had begun singing for Valmiki in Rama Rajya! During that time he was also given the sad responsibility of teaching a romantic song to his soon-to-be colleague Mohammad Rafi.

MANNA DEY DURING a performance in Bhopal in October 2006.-A.M. FARUQUI

Two songs immortalised Manna Dey in Bombay in the short span of three years and, ironically, put him in the role of the commentator rather than the leading participant in the story in a number of Hindi films. The first, "Upar gagan vishal" (composer: S.D. Burman, lyrics: Pradip) for Nitin Bose's Mashal in 1950 and, the second, "Chale radhe rani" (composer: Arun Kumar Mukherjee, lyrics: Bharat Vyas) for Bimal Roy's production of Parinita.

"Upar gagan vishal" is a soaring eagle of a composition that tests the mettle of any singer, calling for range, malleability of voice, gravity and sweetness, and a subtle understanding of the lyrics, which describe the creation of the universe poetically but not inaccurately. If one single song brought lasting glory to a lyricist, it was this one.

"Chale radhe rani", on the other hand, is a poignant Vaishnav kirtan-like composition sung by a wandering old mendicant to project the dilemmas of the heroine, Lalita, an orphan. For one so young, Manna Dey in both these songs revealed an astonishing maturity in understanding the nature of the fundamental ideas and emotions that govern everyday life. But it was this very quality that prevented him from regularly singing romantic numbers for living stars such as Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Bharat Bhushan and Raj Kapoor. He was always considered the perfect voice for a buzurg, or an elder, but not a young dashing romantic hero.

It was Shankar of the Shankar-Jaikishan duo who saw in Manna Dey an exceptional singer of romantic songs as well. In Raj Kapoor's Awaara (1951), Shankar got him to render with Lata Mangeshkar the memorable duet "Tere bina aag yeh chandni". After that, he sang in all of Raj Kapoor's home productions but played a curious role to aid the actor-director's schizophrenic screen persona. Manna was always at hand to render exquisite duets with Lata Mangeshkar and bolster the actor's great lover image. However, it was Mukesh who almost always sang those songs of have-nots that bolstered Kapoor's socialist image and helped him earn millions from the erstwhile Soviet Union. The songs from his films were immensely popular there, not in the least "Aawara hun" (singer: Mukesh) and the duet "Pyaar hua iqrar hua" (Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey), because they were based on Byloru ssian folk melodies.

Shankar-Jaikishan's best songs were raga-based and had both lilt and sonority. For a period of 10 years, from 1951 to 1961, they had an ecstatic run of success in the golden age of Hindi film music, and Manna Dey, in no small measure, contributed to it. Listening to him render Shankar-Jaikishan's compositions in Basant Bahar (1956), one understands why.

Songs like "Sur na saje", "Nain mile chaen kahan" with Lata Mangeshkar, "Bhaya bhanjana" and "Ketaki ghulab" with Bhimsen Joshi have become evergreen as much for their singers as for their composers. But how much credit must the composer get for these raga pradhan offerings? After all, it is the singers who are classically trained and have sculpted out the contours of these melodies in the act of singing. The composers, at best, offered a clear sketch of what was to be recorded.

This interpretation gains credence when Manna Dey says that S.D. Burman only gave him "a brief" for the composition in Aheer Bhairav in the film Meri Soorat Teri Ankhen (1963) and it was he who worked at it until it became "Poocho na kaise maine raen bitayi", a truly memorable composition. The story does not look like a settling of scores between two highly creative people who, despite their best intentions, could not really become friends.

Manna Babu is full of admiration for colleagues such as Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, but it is Asha Bhonsle he singles out for praise: "In her voice modulation, she excels even her elder sister Lata Mangeshkar". Of Mohammad Rafi, he says, "Rafi's renditions were like an early spring morning with its varied hues and shades and appealed to me immensely."

He is not so kind to Talat Mehmood and Mukesh. He feels Talat's leaving the film industry was a mystery and that he perhaps lacked perseverance. The truth is that although Talat was a pioneer of ghazals and geets in films, his kind of music was sidelined by the early 1960s. His Urdu diction was impeccable and his silken, soft voice was more suited to the gentle melodies of another era.

NARGIS AND RAJ Kapoor in "Chori Chori". For this movie, Manna Dey sang 'Aa ja sanam madhur chandni me hum' with Lata Mangeshkar.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Mukesh had some training from Pandit Jagannath Prasad but was mainly self-taught, modelling himself on his idol K.L. Saigal. It is true that it took two hours to get him into tune, but once that happened he was unbeatable. Like Talat, Mukesh too was essentially a singer of geets and ghazals. He got into trouble when he had to prove his versatility and sing all kinds of songs beyond his natural pitch, which he had to do in order to stay employed.

Manna Dey, for some inexplicable reason, is unusually kind to G.M. Durani whose voice he found mellifluous but whom he thought lacked staying power. Durani never really was a front runner as a playback singer except for a brief while before his more gifted colleagues made their presence felt.

In Bengali films, Manna Dey finally found the fulfilment of singing for leading men. He sang quite regularly for the then topmost star Uttam Kumar, who starred with Tanuja in Anthony Firingee. The songs of that film were composed by Anil Bagchi, and Manna Dey's rendering of "Ami Jamini tumi shashi hey" and "Ami jay jalsa ghare" are as haunting as any sung by him. His autobiography is as much about his involvement with Bengali film songs and other forms of sugam sangeet as it is about his career in Hindi film music. He is full of praise for colleagues such as Sudhin Das Gupta, Anil Bagchi, Nachiketa Ghosh and composer-singer Hemanta Mukherjee. He shows great affection and respect for Gauri Prasanna Majumdar, a sensitive and versatile lyricist. He is equally caring about another gifted lyricist, Pulak Bandopadhyay, whose suicide left him bewildered.

Today at 87, Manna Dey, after a long and arduous journey through life and music, has found happiness, most of all in the company of his Malayali wife, Sulochana, whom he fell in love with and married more than 50 years ago. His two daughters, Sumita and Suroma, have grown children. Life now offers another kind of pleasure. Zindagi kaisi hey paheli haye kabhi yeh hasaye kabhi yeh rulaye (Life! What a riddle it is! Sometimes a laugh; sometimes a cry).

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