Haunting melodies

Print edition : November 06, 2009

Manna Dey performing in Bangalore on May 10.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Manna Dey, the 2007 Dada Saheb Phalke Award winner, has enthralled discerning listeners since the 1950s. (Published in the issue dated November 6, 2009.)

THE Dada Saheb Phalke Award for 2007 has gone to Manna Dey, one of the finest singers to have sung for Hindi and Bengali and other regional language films. The honour, in the opinion of many, has come to him rather late in the day. It cannot be truly exhilarating to be recognised for ones contribution to the art of playback singing at the age of 90, especially if the last memorable song one sung was well over 30 years ago.

Manna Dey shot into fame in the early 1950s with his rendering of Chaley Radhey Rani, a kirtan-based song for Bimal Roy's moving cinematic rendering of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's Bengali novel Parinita. His sound training in Hindustani music was amply evident here as was his feeling for an emotive form like the kirtan, which he inherited from his uncle, the legendary Krishna Chandra Dey.

After this song, Manna Dey was recognised as a singer with immense potential. Doors opened for him in the Hindi film industry of Bombay, as Mumbai was known in those days. The legendary actor-director Raj Kapoor invited him to sing for Shree 420, the former's take on socialism; and sing he did. Manna Dey, along with Lata Mangeshkar, sang Pyaar hua iqrar hua, written by the poet of the people, Shailendra, and tuned by the music composer duo Shankar-Jaikishan. Recorded 55 years ago, this romantic duet continues to be aired on the radio to this day. It is amongst the finest in the annals of Hindi film songs.

In his autobiography Memories Come Alive, Manna Dey remembers the composer duo thus: The most interesting feature of Shankar and Jaikishan's melodies was their sheer novelty and, in that respect, they remain unrivalled. He felt particularly indebted to Shankar, who, he felt, brought out the best in him. He does not feel the same way though about another stalwart, Sachin Dev Burman, who, when he engaged Manna Dey to render Upar gagan vishal for Nitin Bose's Mashaal, actually wanted him to resurrect K.C. Dey's style. Of course, it is one of Manna Babu's finest songs and is terribly difficult to sing. But S.D. Burman never asked him to sing regularly for him even after the singer proved his mettle a hundred times over with other noteworthy composers.

The Hindi film industry has always lacked imagination and has therefore toed the line of least resistance and closed the possibility for innovation. Just because Manna Babu was classically trained and could sing raga-based compositions really well, he was considered unsuitable for singing playback on a regular basis for the leading actors of his time, such as Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. This problem, however, did not affect Mohammed Rafi, also classically trained, who was asked to sing very often for Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Guru Dutt, Rajendra Kumar and Shammi Kapoor, not to forget Dharmendra and Jeetendra. Why Manna Babu was not given similar opportunities remains inexplicable.

It is not that he did not sing for major composers. He did, but they thought he was at his mellifluous best only when he sang raga-based melodies or folk melodies. Given half a chance, he always excelled. There are not many romantic duets to equal the four he sang with Lata Mangeshkar for Chori Chori, the 1956 romantic comedy based on the 1934 Hollywood blockbuster It Happened One Night. Panchi banu udti phiru, Ye raat bheegi bheegi, Jahan meye jatee hoon, and Aja sanam madhur chandni meye hum are among Shankar-Jaikishan's loveliest and deceptively intricate melodies. These songs certainly needed the technical expertise, or taiyyari, that Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar could offer. The plaintive quality of Manna Dey's voice perfectly complements the sheer sweetness in Lata's.

It was said of Manna Dey's voice that it acquired a silvery sheen as it went higher. An apt example is Aja sanam madhur chandni meye hum. This skill was hard won. After training under Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan of the Patiala gharana, Manna Dey turned to Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan. Manna Babu told him that he was more comfortable in the lower register than in the upper. Khan Saheb asked him to take a more flexible approach. Normally, I preferred singing in D sharp. Ustadji asked me to change from the fifth key to the sixth before practising my notes. I did so for a couple of days and was delighted with the results. I had actually done it! Travelling down the notes had become child's play for me, Manna Dey said.

Mohammad Rafi, too, had noticed this positive change in his colleague's voice. Manna Babu believes that his ustad's training extended the range of his voice, and for that alone he feels eternally grateful.

Madan Mohan, another great composer from Hindi cinema's Golden Age, while still finding his feet in the film industry, did the music for the film Dekh Kabira Roya. It did only average business, but the songs are still remembered especially Kaun aya mere man ke dwarey sung by Manna Dey. Despite having composed exquisite melody after exquisite melody, Madan Mohan never quite had a hit film to his credit. In his pursuit of success, he opted for well-known playback singers with box-office hits in their kitty, such as Talat Mahmood and later, more consistently, Mohammad Rafi, both artists of exceptional calibre. Manna Dey was every bit their equal and to boot as versatile as Mohammad Rafi, but he was sidelined.

His destiny, it would seem, was to sing haunting melodies either for character actors or to have them used to comment on the onscreen action. His first song to become a nationwide hit was Chaley Radhey Rani, picturised on a wandering mendicant in Parinita. In retrospect, that one example decided the fate of Manna Dey's career as a playback singer in Hindi films. Take for instance the powerfully emotive qawwali Na toh karva ke talash heye from the Golden Jubilee hit Barsaat Ki Raat. Sahir Ludhianvi's lyrics and Roshan's music are brought vividly to life by the singing of Manna Dey in particular.

His heart-rending solo Aye mere pyare watan, from Hemen Gupta's Kabuliwalla, is picturised on an acquaintance of the protagonist. Salil Chaudhury's composition set to Prem Dhawan's lyrics continues to work its magic on music lovers, especially on account of Manna Babu's singing.

In mid-career he sang Kasme vadey pyar wafa sab for Pran, the riveting character actor, in Manoj Kumar's Upkar. It was a difficult song, but Manna Dey rendered it effortlessly. Predictably, the Kalyanji-Anandji composition became a huge hit. Everybody praised the singing. Excellence had, after all, become second nature to the singer.

Manna Babu's career in Bengali films was a different story. The veteran Anil Bagchi, composing the music for the Uttam Kumar-Tanuja starrer Anthony Firangi, which was based on the life of an excellent Bengali poet of Portuguese origin, called for Manna Dey to do the playback for the most enduring hero of Bengali cinema. Manna Babu's rendering of Ami jey jalsha ghaurey and Ami jamini tumi shashi hey sat perfectly on Uttam Kumar's lips. Manna Dey's position in Bengal as a playback singer and as a singer of adhunik or non-film songs remains unchallenged. He did some of his most interesting work in the second phase of his career in Calcutta, now Kolkata.

In the early 1960s, S.D. Burman summoned him to render Poocho na kaise mainey raen bitaee in the raga Ahir Bhairav for Meri Soorat Teri Ankhen, produced by actor Pradip Kumar. It was picturised on Ashok Kumar in blackface. The primitive, not to say distorted, conception of the scene notwithstanding the protagonist was supposed to be ugly and therefore black-complexioned the song sung by Manna Dey is haunting. The poignancy inherent in Shailendra's lyrics is brought out effortlessly. There is a story about the composing of the song. S.D. Burman had only given a cryptic brief that the song was to be in Ahir Bhairav and had asked his singer to do what he could with it. Manna Babu actually chiselled out the form given to the melody, and so he deserves credit as its composer.

Composing was a part of his training under K.C. Dey. When Manna Babu accompanied him to Bombay in 1942, he did not expect to be anything other than his uncle's assistant and an occasional singer in the films carrying his music. It was quite by chance that he sang for composer Shankar Rao Vyas for the film Ram Rajya directed by Vijay Bhatt. The film, made in Hindi and Marathi, had the famous actor Badri Prasad playing the role of the sage Valmiki.

The director was keen that K.C. Dey sing the songs for Valmiki. To Vijay Bhatt's utter consternation, he refused, saying that he [K.C. Dey] sang only for himself in the films he acted in. He suggested that they try his nephew, young Manna. The producers, at first doubtful, decided to give the greenhorn a chance. Manna Dey came good as a singer and also assisted Shankar Rao Vyas with the composing. The year was 1943.

Manna Babu went on to assist Hariprasanna Das, who did the music for Kadambari, a film starring Shanta Apte and Pahari Sanyal. Ironically, his career as a music director did not take off despite his obvious talent. Singing, his subsidiary talent, suddenly became primary. He made steady progress as a singer and, within a short time, carved a niche for himself in the competitive world of playback singing in Bombay. His yen for composing did not go away. Over the years, he composed songs in Hindi and Bengali, and many of them became popular.

He has boundless admiration for Anil Biswas, who composed for him a melody of surpassing beauty, Ritu aye sakhi ree, man ke in four ragas Sarang, Malhar, Jogiya and Basant Bahar to depict the change of seasons, in the film Hamdard. He also has great respect for Salil Choudhury, who made him sing immortal duets such as Hariyala sawan dhol bajata aya and Dharti kahey pukar ke with Lata Mangeshkar for Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen, and then 18 years later, in 1970, Zindagi kaisey ye paheli haye, picturised on the ebullient romantic hero Rajesh Khanna in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand.

Hot favourites for his fans include his songs from the film Basant Bahar under Shankar-Jaikishan's music direction. Think of Sur na saje, Bhay bhanjana vandana, Nain miley chaen kahan (a delectable duet with Lata), and Ketaki gulab (a genuinely fine duet with the Hindustani classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, who was then at the peak of his career). The two songs from Raj Kapoor's Boot Polish composed by Shankar-Jaikishan O raat gayee phir din aya and Lapak jhapak tu aa re badariya are also very popular. There are many more songs that touch the heart.

Manna Dey's career has been rich and varied, despite the ups and downs. Indeed very few singers in popular genres like film music and light vocal music have had such a long and distinguished career. He has given continuous pleasure to discerning listeners since the early 1950s. His contribution to film music in its most fecund period is as great as that of any of his gifted male contemporaries.

His wife, Sulochana, who is a Keralite, sums up his art simply and accurately: He sings from the heart. That indeed is the secret of his enduring popularity.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor