Manna Dey: The man who defied norms
Manna Dey’s knack for singing classical songs may have been disadvantageous for his career in filmdom, but the singer honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award will be remembered for his versatility and masculine style of rendering love songs. He proved his flexibility and versatility by going behind the mike for a range of songs like Aaja sanam madhur chandani main hum, Chunari sambhal gori udi chali jaye re, Zindagi kaisi hai paheli and Chalat musafir moh liya re. All thanks to composer duo Shankar-Jaikishan.
Labelled as a classical singer, the music genius did not get due recognition compared to others, but he managed to sing over 3,500 songs in his decades-long career, and won some of the highest honours in the field of art and culture. In his memoir Jiboner Jolshaghorey (Memories Come Alive), he thanked Shankar-Jaikishan, who closely worked with Raj Kapoor in films like Awara and Shree 420, for sensing “that my masculine style of rendering love songs would appeal to the public”. “I am especially indebted to Shankarji, for had it not been for his patronage, I would certainly not have attained the heights of success I enjoyed in my career. Here was one man who knew how to bring out the best in me,” Manna Dey mentioned in his memoir.
If he was thankful to Shankar-Jaikishan for tapping his versatility, he also credited actor-filmmaker Raj Kapoor for seeing the potential in his singing.
“I used to consider Raj Kapoor one of the icons in this line. Nobody but him gave me songs like Pyaar hua ikraar hua and Yeh raat bheegi bheegi...,” Manna Dey has been quoted as saying in one of his interviews. “People would say Manna Dey and singing love songs? Impossible. But I proved it,” he said.
The Shankar-Jaikishan, Raj Kapoor and Manna Dey team gave many hits, including Tere bina aag yeh chandni, Mudh mudh ke na dekh and Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo.
Born as Prabodh Chandra Dey May 1, 1919, to Purna Chandra and Mahamaya Dey, Manna Dey’s singing talent was noticed in his salad years and his uncle KC Dey, who was visually impaired, took him under his wing. Manna Dey learnt the art from his uncle, a singer with mastery over many Indian musical genres.Manna Dey also took lessons from Ustad Dabir Khan. Very few would know that legendary composer SD Burman was KC Dey’s student and as a youngster Manna Dey used to idolize him.
At the age of 23, Manna Dey came to Mumbai with his uncle. As luck would have it, he got his first assignment when his uncle refused to sing for composer Shankar Rao Vyas. The song fell into Manna’s lap, and thus with Gayi tu gayi from Ram Rajya (1943) he embarked on his journey as a playback singer in Hindi filmdom. Although the first break came to him easily and in the same year he even got a chance to sing a duet with Suraiya, one of the reigning queens of the era, in Tamanna, his career didn’t take off in a big way until his first solo Upar gagan vishal, composed by SD Burman for 1950 film Mashal.
Upar gagan vishal turned a new corner in his singing career, though the top spot those days was reserved for Mohammad Rafi and Mukesh. During his struggling days he assisted composers like SD Burman and Khemchand Prakash, and composed music for several mythological films at the age of 25.
Later, Manna Dey worked with several celebrated peers and went behind the mike to sing classical masterpieces like Poochho na kaise maine rain bitayee and Laga chunari main daag.
He also crooned romantic numbers like Aaja sanam madhur chandani main hum and Yeh raat bheegi bheegi with the same elan. Music lovers were moved when he rendered the patriotic song Ae mere pyare vatan and the wistful Tu pyaar ka sagar hai. He also struck the right chord with fun numbers Ek chatur naar and Ae meri zohra jabeen.
Manna Dey sang in 14 Indian languages, and received many honours. He was decorated with Padma Shri in 1971, Padma Bhushan in 2005, and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the country’s highest honour in cinematic arts, was conferred on the veteran singer in 2007. He also won the National Award for best male playback singer for the film Mere Huzoor in 1969 and in 1971 he won it for two films Nishi Padma (Bengali) and Mera Naam Joker (Hindi).
His oeuvre includes lending his voice to legendary poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala. Manna Dey wanted to be as versatile as his uncle, who taught him to become a full-fledged good singer, an all-India singer, and he achieved it with aplomb. “That’s how I am what I am,” he said in one of his interviews.
Singers remember Manna-da
Anuradha Paudwal: Mannaji was very down-to-earth. He was a legendary singer but had no airs. He was humorous and jovial, and that showed in his music -- though he was a great classical artiste, he sang lighter numbers with equal flair and ease. He was a rare artiste who excelled in all, be it comedy, romantic or classical numbers. I had the good fortune of singing a couple of songs with him. He was very easy to work with and put his co-singers at ease immediately. Anu Malik: I got the chance to meet Mannaji when I was hardly 14 or 15 years old. He used to live in Juhu. It was a Sunday morning and I arrived 25 minutes early. I remember him wearing a fur cap with a nice kurti and trousers. He was quite hep! He asked me what I want. I told him I’m a budding composer and he asked me to play a song. I sang a really funky number and he agreed to sing for me, and he did. He was a person who never accepted accolades. I remember telling him that it was his voice and Kalyanji-Anandji’s music that turned Pran into a hero from a villain, with Yaari hai imaan in Zanjeer. But he never showed off. There have been many singers created by God, but there was no magical singer like him. I would call him the first learned singer. He learnt music, he knew his raagas and knew which taal he was singing in. To reach his stature and to remain so humble, I think commands a lot of respect. He might have gone physically, but his music is so strong and his voice so omnipresent, that it will linger in our hearts forever. He was, simply put, music personified.
Azmi Shabana @ AzmiShabana
Manna Dey had a unique voice. He will live on through his songs Ae meri zohra jabeen/ Dil ka haal suney dilwala/ Poochho na kaise maine. RIP.
Amitabh Bachchan @ SrBachchan
At work but shall keep a minutes silence, in Manna Dey’s memory on set before we start. Flooded with memories and his songs. In particular his rendition of Madhushala.
Amit Khanna @ amitkhanna
Virtuoso singer Manna Dey passes away. Fortunate you sang a few of my lyrics. Your voice shall linger forever. RIP.
Jaaved Jaaferi @ jaavedjaaferi
One of the greatest singers of our times, a man who didn’t get his due, passed away today... the great MANNA DEY. RIP dada.