Manna Dey

Golden voice falls silent

Print edition : November 15, 2013

Manna Dey and his wife with the scroll and the medal of Dadasaheb Phalke Award at the 55th National Film Awards 2007 in New Delhi in October 2009. Photo: R_V_Moorthy

Manna Dey in his prime. Though Dey bowed out of playback singing in 1992, he continued to give live performances until 2012. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Considered one of the greatest singers in the country, Manna Dey (1919–2013) represented what is widely known as the ‘golden period’ of popular music and cinema.

THERE are very few artistes who, on the strength of their genius, have transcended their art to become its very symbol; fewer still achieve this status in their lifetime. Prabodh Chandra Dey, better known as Manna Dey, was as much a symbol of music as he was its most devoted exponent. For around seven decades, his voice and unparalleled musical talent kept a whole nation enthralled; his death in Bangalore, in the early hours of October 24, has left a silence and a void that can never be filled. He is survived by two daughters, Shuroma and Sumita. His wife, Kerala-born Sulochana Kumaran, whom he had married in 1953 in Mumbai, passed away in 2012.

President Pranab Mukherjee in his condolence message described Manna Dey as a “versatile artist of extraordinary ability and a creative genius who mesmerised listeners with his enchanting voice”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was in China when the news of Dey’s death reached him, hailed him as “the king of melody” and expressed sorrow at his demise. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wanted Dey’s body to be brought to Kolkata for the people of the State to pay their respects. “I know he does not belong only to Bengal, but to the whole world, but he is very dear to our hearts and we are very emotional about him,” she said. However, Dey’s family members did not accept Mamata’s proposal.

Considered one of the greatest singers in the country, Manna Dey represented what is widely known as the “golden period” of Bengali and Indian popular music and cinema.

Playback singing

He was the last surviving artiste of that group of immortal playback singers—with Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi and Mukesh—who gave shape to Indian popular music. In his long career beginning in the early 1940s, Dey had given his voice to more than 3,500 songs in different Indian languages including Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam and Kannada.

His unique style and unforgettable voice was what marked him out among his great peers. His versatility was unparalleled; his singing could convey the vast gamut of human emotions and he could effortlessly switch from serious songs to musical comedy. He could belt out a jiving “Jibone ki pabo na” (Bengali: Teen Bhubaner Paare, 1969), and in the same film sing the poignantly beautiful “Jodi tomar”—both as popular today as when the movie came out 43 years ago. Dey had also lent his voice to the mellifluous verses of Madhushala, the great Hindi masterpiece by the late Harivansh Rai Bachchan.

It was as a playback singer that Dey’s ability to individuate stands out. Behind the voices he would lend to the various characters singing in a film, his own voice could still be easily identified; yet magically, it would also adapt and be completely congruous with the voice of the character on the screen. According to Madhuja Mukherjee, Associate Professor of Film Studies in Jadavpur University, in spite of his success, Dey was perhaps not as well suited for playback singing as his illustrious peers were. “From the singing voice of the leading man in the early years of his career, we see him slowly shifting to singing songs that were extremely challenging, but for character actors. The unique tonal quality of his voice overpowered the image of the Hindi film heroes of the 1960s. But that was not the case in Bengali films in general. Anand [1971], in which he did playback for Rajesh Khanna, was an exceptional example for Hindi cinema,” Madhuja Mukherjee told Frontline.

Steeped in the tradition of classical music, Dey was a master of a diverse range of genres, from khayal and thumris to popular Hindi music with a Western tilt to traditional folk songs and Vaishnav kirtans and even Rabindrasangeet. But it was in his rendition of popular songs with a classical tinge that Dey stood unmatched. The greatest confirmation of his genius is that the songs that he gave voice remain as vibrant and relevant today as they were decades ago. “Coffee houser sei adda”, the nostalgic song of lost but ever-renewing youth, which he recorded more than three decades ago, keeps finding a new generation of listeners in Bengal.

“Manna Dey’s biggest contribution to music was the picturisation of lyrics. He could express what was in the mind of the lyricist when the words were written. That is the sign of a true artist. There are so many singers but so very few artistes. Manna Dey was one of the all-time great artistes. Mannababu will never die,” the great Hindustani classical vocalist Ajoy Chakraborty told Frontline.

Born on May 1, 1919, in Kolkata to Purna Chandra Dey and Mahamaya, Manna Dey had music around him right from the start. His paternal uncle was the legendary blind singer and composer Krishna Chandra Dey, who was not only young Manna’s inspiration but also his mentor. After graduating from Vidyasagar College, Manna headed for Mumbai with his uncle in 1942. The same year he began his career as a playback singer in Tamanna, a movie for which his uncle had composed the music. It was here that he tasted his first success with the song “Jago aayee usha panchhi boley jago”—a duet with another legend, Suraiya. Interestingly, this was the first recorded song of both the icons.

The 1940s saw Dey consolidating his position in the music industry and honing his craft. Alongside playback singing, he worked as an assistant music director to both his uncle and Sachin Dev Burman.

At the same time he continued with his lessons in Hindustani classical music. It was not until he sang S.D. Burman’s composition “Upar gagan vishal” for the film Mashal in the 1950s that the music and the film industry sat up and took notice of the blazing new talent. This success marked the beginning of a legendary partnership with Burman. His work in Do Bigha Zamin (1953) on the compositions of Salil Choudhury was a landmark both in Indian cinema and in his own career. It also marked the beginning of a lasting association with Choudhury, which continued until the latter’s death.

The 1950s and 1960s are seen to be the most productive period for Manna Dey. He delivered timeless classics in diverse styles in films such as Shri 420, Chori Chori, Waqt, Do Aankhen Barah Haat, Kabuliwala, Mere Huzur and many others, and worked with some of the finest music directors of the era, including Burman, Choudhury, Anil Biswas, Shankar-Jaikishan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Rahul Dev Burman. His classics ranged from solo performances to duets with some of the greatest names in the industry, including Lata Mangeshkar, Rafi, Kishore, Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt.

All through the 1970s and 1980s Dey continued churning out unforgettable hits both in Hindi and Bengali movies such as Nishi Padma (Bengali), Mera Naam Joker and Zanjeer and his appeal remained as strong as ever with every succeeding generation of music and film lovers. Though it is strange that he received his first National Award only in 1969, subsequently Manna Dey won all recognitions that there were to receive, including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, and the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award in Indian cinema conferred by the Government of India. Though he bowed out of playback singing in 1992, Dey continued giving live performances all over the country until 2012. However, he did return to playback singing once in 1997 for Goutam Ghose’s Gudia and again in 2006 for the film Umar. After spending around 50 years in Mumbai, Dey spent the last years of his life in Bangalore.

What is often forgotten in the face of genius is the dedication and hard work behind the talent. Manna Dey was completely dedicated to his music. Though known to be amiable and affectionate, he could be impatient and moody if he felt dissatisfied with his music and his musicians. Ajoy Chakraborty, who had been a close friend of his for the last 38 years, remembers him to be always involved in rehearsals and practice. For the song “Ek Chatur naar” in which there is the legendary singing duel between Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey in the film Padosan (1968), Dey and Kishore apparently practised with the whole band for seven days before the final recording. “The immortality of the song is a result of the hard work that Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar had put in, and it should serve as a lesson to all aspiring artists,” said Chakraborty.

For all his success and enormous stature in the world of arts, Manna Dey never lost his endearing humility. He would always encourage upcoming artistes and never stinted in his praise for excellence wherever he found it. Ajoy Chakraborty recalls how during the inauguration of a book written on Dey, Chakraborty had sung a song that moved Dey to tears. “He got on the stage and said, ‘I wish I could sing just one song like that.’ That was the greatness of the man. That day I was humbled,” Chakraborty told Frontline. It was also on that very day that Chakraborty had turned down an invitation to perform at Rashtrapati Bhavan in order to be with Manna Dey. “Mannababu was upset that I did not play for the President. But I told him Presidents and Prime Ministers come every five years, but Manna Dey comes only once in one’s life.”

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