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Why Manna Dey refused to sing with Bhimsen Joshi – Birth anniversary special

On the classical musician's 96th birth anniversary (4 February), we recall the incident when Dey refused to sing with him for Basant Bahar (1956).

Keyur Seta

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is a big name in Hindustani classical music, so much so that no discussion on the subject is possible without mentioning him.

The artist was best known for his renditions of bhajans (devotional songs), abhangas (devotional poetry in praise of the god Vitthala) and khayal form of music. Born on 4 February 1922 in what is today Karnataka, Joshi was active for almost 60 years and performed at thousands of concerts besides singing hundreds of songs.

Joshi also won several awards and titles in his lifetime. He was awarded the Padma Shri (1972), Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Hindustani Music – Vocal (1975), Padma Bhushan (1985), National award for Best Playback Singer (1985), Padma Vibhushan (1999), Maharashtra Bhushan (2002), and Karnataka Ratna (2005), among others.

While classical music has been used now and then in mainstream Hindi cinema, most famously in Baiju Bawra (1952), it is hardly a staple. But Joshi has given his voice to quite a few Hindi film songs. ‘Ketaki Gulab Juhi’, from Raja Nawathe’s Basant Bahar (1956), remains one of his most celebrated tracks. And thereby hangs a tale.

Basant Bahar had a jugalbandi, or musical contest, in a king's court. For this, Nawathe required two singers to compete with one of them losing. Joshi was selected to sing for the court musician while playback singer Manna Dey was asked to sing for the film’s hero Gopal, played by Bharat Bhushan.

Dey refused the offer. According to a documentary film on the singer, he even disappeared for few days with his wife to avoid singing the song.

Dey's reluctance was on the grounds of musical principle: “I should sing with Bhimsen Joshi, compete with him, and defeat him too? I can’t do this,” the legendary singer recalled later in an interview with the Films Division. "Panditji said, ‘Why not? You sing classical well. I have heard you sing and you are very good. Let us sing. We will do it together'."

It took a lot of persuasion from Joshi for Dey to agree. “Manna Dey got scared," Joshi recalled in the same interview. "He said, 'How can I sing classical with such a classical musician?' I told him, ‘There is nothing like that and we can both do riyaaz [practice] together.”

The legend went on to pull Dey's leg in the interview, saying, "I lost in the jugalbandi. He won.”

Dey retorted, “What won? I was made to win as I was singing for the hero. I had told him while [recoding] to excuse me if I falter here or there. He encouraged me and then patted my back.”

Dey also admitted there were times when he copied Joshi’s style. “He used to go step-by-step on a high pitch. When he used to come down I used to think he would now catch the opening lines. But he used to go up again. How does he do that? I could never understand. I think this is god’s gift. Nobody can do that. I tried a lot to imitate him. He used to tell others, you too can sing [this way]. But how can one?” he wondered. 

Dey sang three more songs in the film — ‘Bhay Bhajana Vandana Sun’, ‘Nain Mile Chain Kahan’ and ‘Sur Na Saje.’ 

Watch the Bhimsen Joshi and Manna Dey interview here: