Article Bengali Hindi

Manna Dey, the man who lived for music – Birth anniversary special

Though his older uncles wanted young Manna to become a lawyer, it was the support of his youngest uncle, the blind singer KC Dey, and his consecutive victories in intercollegiate competitions that made him determined to build a career in music.

Roushni Sarkar

Asked whether he was satisfied with his musical career, legendary singer Manna Dey once said, “Oh yes! Thoroughly! There is no important music composer with whom I have not worked and who has not appreciated my renditions. Besides, my listeners have loved me so much! What more could I have asked for?”

The great man also mentioned in an interview with Sharmin Reza Eva for Bangla TV New York in 2013 that he does not feel hurt or disheartened when people rank him after Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar.

“I am not trying to be humble," said the man with the golden voice. "Rafi was indeed a better singer than I was. On the other hand, Kishore’s voice was a treasure. He was extremely versatile. I don’t think I could have ever sung some of his songs in multiple births. I accept the reality and have no regrets.”

Considered one of the top vocalists of Indian cinema, Manna Dey’s career took off in Bombay as he travelled as an assistant with his youngest uncle, the great singing artiste Krishna Chandra Dey. Though he learnt from several maestros, including Ustad Aman Ali Khan, Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan, Tulsidas Sharma and Ustad Golam Mustafa Khan, according to Manna Dey, the seed of music was sown in him by his blind uncle, whom he fondly called Babu Kaka.

As he wrote in his autobiography, Memories Come Alive: An Autobiography, “It was my uncle’s determination to master Hindustani classical music that would serve to establish musical trends in our family.

“Before Uncle took the initiative to do so, none of the Deys had taken music seriously. And who knows whether I myself would have become your much admired Manna Dey today had it not been for Krishna Chandra — our favourite Babu Kaka — who would not only set a glowing example for me to follow, but would guide me in every possible way towards my ultimate goal of becoming a singer of repute,” he recalled.

Though his other uncles wanted the young Prabodh Chandra to become a lawyer, it was his consecutive victories in intercollegiate competitions, as a student of Scottish Church college, for three years in various categories, including khayal, thumri, ghazal, bhajan, tappa, bhatiali, and baul, that made him determined to build a career in music.

“I loved the music culture in Bombay," said Dey. "I never wanted to stay confined to the genres of Rabindra Sangeet or Nazrul Geeti. I wanted national recognition. As I learnt from ustads belonging to different gharanas, my horizons widened, and my artistic sense evolved. I felt that there should be an openness in practising and performing music. My aim was to sing all kinds of songs, starting from songs of the dhrupad style to very naughty songs.”

Around 1956, when the artiste was done with recording the song 'Ketaki Gulab Juhi' with co-vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for the film Basant Bahar (1956), the latter, then a rising star of Hindustani classical, advised him to take up classical music seriously. However, in another interview with India Forums, Dey admitted, “While I was happy with his words, I never wanted to take up classical music seriously.”

Though Dey did not relish the idea of sitting for hours and singing the same raga and found it repetitive, even boring, he emphasized the importance of proper training under a guru. “When Babu Kaka first introduced me to Ustad Aman Ali Khan saheb, he was not keen to teach me. After Uncle insisted, he asked me to sing. As I began reciting raga Multani, he immediately ordered me to ‘stop this nonsense'!

“By then I had learnt a little music and was good at sports. Therefore, I found Ustadji’s comment a little insulting. But he said, “We can understand one’s background by the first note he hits while singing. This is not how you are supposed to hit the first note (sa).” And thus my training began.

"I sincerely believe singing is not a joke, one must know which direction one’s musical journey is taking, and a guru or ustad leads you in that direction,” Dey said.

Elaborating on the elements he had borrowed from Hindustani classical music, he said, “What I learnt from my uncle was the way notes were used in classical ragas keeping in mind the hour of the day. This understanding was important for film songs too. I can't use notes from raga Yaman for a song meant to be sung in the morning.”

Dey continued working as assistant to his uncle and to noted music composer Sachin Dev Burman, whom he considered the second most influential figure in building his musical career, for five years. “I was Sachinda’s assistant in every sense," he recalled. "I used to buy things for him, carry luggage for him, and wrote the notations of his songs. His unique sense of humour had a lot of effect on me.”

Manna Dey first lent his voice for playback under his uncle's direction in Tamanna (1942). The debut duet, ‘Jago Jago Jago Aayee Usha' sung with the newcomer Suraiya, was an instant hit.

His first solo song was 'Tyagmayi Tu Gayi' for the Shobhana Samarth-Prem Adib-starrer Ram Rajya (1943). The film's music director, Shankarrao Vyas, had actually approached KC Dey to sing the song. But when Krishna Chandra refused to lend his voice for another music director, the song went to his nephew Manna. And thus began a career that spanned six decades.

Manna Dey went on to sing for music composers such as Anil Biswas, Jaffar Khurshid, Pandit Indra, SD Burman, Khemchand Prakash, Vasant Desai, Pannalal Ghosh, Shankar-Jaikishan and RD Burman. He also delivered superhit Hindi songs singing with Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar.

In that period, Dey’s mother, whom he considered the most important person in his life, pulled his leg once for not singing in Bengali films. “But I had no choice as till then no Bengali music director had offered me a song,” Dey explained.

In 1966, however, he got his first proposal from Sudhin Dasgupta to sing for Uttam Kumar in the Bengali film Sankyabela. “I am eternally indebted to Sudhinda for the song 'Ke Prothom Kachhe Esechhi' which started my career in Bengali films,” said Dey.

The song was a major hit and from then on Manna Dey continued to lend his voice for important Bengali composers such as Nachiketa Ghosh and Hemant Kumar, while he kept working with RD Burman, Salil Chowdhury, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal in Bombay.

Dey is also known for his collaborations with lyricist Pulak Bandyopadhyay with whom he worked on films such as Duti Mon (1970), Dhanyi Meye (1971), and Bagh Bandi Khela (1975). He expressed a great sense of loss when the latter died in 1999.

Dey withdrew from singing for Hindi films in 1992. Till 2012, he had recorded over 4,000 songs and travelled around the world, performing in live shows.

“I think, unlike many artistes of my time, I have been a very practical singer," he said. "I not only used to feel the context of the song and internalize the lyrics with my heart but also with my brain, and that is what distinguished my singing from that of other singers.” No wonder some of his songs like 'Laaga Chunri Mein Daag', 'Ami Je Jalsaghore', 'Jibone Ki Pabona', and 'Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli' remain immortal.