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Memories of Manna Dey: Birth centenary special

Manna Dey never became the 'voice' of any star, but that gave him the opportunity to lend his voice to almost all the top actors of his era under the baton of almost all leading music directors.

Shoma A Chatterji

Yesterday marked the centenary of the birth of one of the most outstanding singers in the history of Indian film music, who flourished in the face of severe competition, among great peers like Mohammed Rafi, also trained in Hindustani classical music; Kishore Kumar, completely untrained but extremely gifted; Mukesh, who became the undisputed voice of Raj Kapoor; and Hemant Kumar (Mukhopadhyay), forever in demand for his soft and romantic voice.

Though Manna Dey sometimes felt bad that his inimitable voice was never identified with a particular actor as was the practice then, with time, he also realized that this gave him an edge over his peers in that he got to sing for all of them at different times under every leading music director of the day.

Though music director Sachin Dev Burman was his mentor, whom he also assisted on some films, Manna Dey was very scared of Burman-da and yet seemed to worship the very ground the composer walked upon, both as a human being and also as one who had mastered music in his own style.

I met Manna Dey several times, but each time it was in the green room behind the stage at some function or the other where he was invited as the special guest singer.

In those days, famous singers were invited to sing at public functions like the Durga Pooja, specially the one held at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, and they came willingly and sang without charging a paisa.

Among the more frequent singers were Hemant Kumar and Manna Dey, probably because this was a Bengali festival and was organized by the Bengal Club of Shivaji Park.

Why Manna Dey refused to sing with Bhimsen Joshi

I found Manna-da to be an extremely grounded and modest man ready to sing after his programmed songs in response to slips from the audience. But I was quite scared because I was only 10 or 12 at the time and he was rather brisk with me.

Later, I felt he did not care for a little girl coming backstage. He did not know I was there because I had to perform a dance number on one of his famous Bengali records — 'Lal Paguri Diye Mathe Raja Holem Mathura Te', a very different interpretation of the frolics of Krishna.

When he saw me perform on his own song on stage, surprised, he patted me on the back, but said, “Do focus on your academics. That is more important.” Each time after that when we met backstage, he would always say, “I hope you are not neglecting your studies!” I would be deeply disappointed because he never commented on my performance.

Ironically, Manna Dey himself chose music over law, giving up on his father’s dream of a lawyer among his three sons. The third son of his parents, he was christened Prabodh Chandra Dey but over time the nickname 'Manna' stuck. Among his two brothers, Pranab was also a singer while Prakash was a doctor.

Manna Dey, the man who lived for music

Many years later, I was in the audience at a public recital by Manna Dey in a Mulund, suburban Mumbai, hall where a very young Kavita Krishnamurthy sang many duets with him. Manna-da held fort, commanding the harmonium as if to the manner born. A photographer climbed on to the proscenium to click pictures. Manna-da stopped singing and scolded the photographer roundly for spoiling the function. We were shocked! But that was Manna Dey for you — responding organically, never pretentious, never a false note, just like his music.

Manna Dey remained forever grateful to his uncle, the blind Sangeetacharya Krishna Chandra Dey, who instilled in him the love of music and was his first music teacher. This uncle lived in the same house in Madan Dutta Lane in Calcutta.

Not many even know of KC Dey in today’s world of music. He pioneered the genre of sugam sangeet (light, entertaining songs) in Indian music. According to Manna-da, it was a masterstroke because his uncle had foreseen that the audience for classical music was rather limited and that simplifying the same music would attract a larger audience.

Manna Dey's 5 most iconic songs

KC Dey was right, of course. Sugam sangeet was something the common man could listen to and identify with. So, during his lifetime, KC Dey became a legend in music.

Manna Dey would often recall how his uncle began singing and working in Hindi films and theatre, his songs becoming a rage across the country. When he went to Karachi (this was in pre-Partition India), Manna Dey went along to listen to immortal numbers like 'Baba Mann Ki Ankhen Khol' and 'Teri Gathri Mein Laga Chor Musafir', from the film Dhoop Chhaon (1935).

“For me, it was not just a discovery of my uncle’s tremendous fame. It was an eye-opener about how good music and good songs can mesmerize an audience," Manna-da would explain. "KC Dey was the greatest influence in my life. My style of singing is in complete alignment with his style from the beginning. I could reproduce what my uncle played on the tabla and sing with great precision.”

Music, however, was not Manna Dey’s boyhood interest. He was more keen on wrestling and boxing and excelled in both sports. His love for cricket and football is well known, as was his habit of playing practical jokes on close friends.

As a child, he would listen in when his uncle rehearsed under the tutelage of Ustad Badal Khan saheb. “I would often be asked to fetch paan for Ustadji from the corner shop. One day, he heard me belting out a few notes from one of his taans and he was so pleased that he called me back. That, perhaps, was my first music lesson,” he would say.

Among his closest friends in Kolkata was the noted lyricist Pulak Bandyopadhyay and he sang many of his songs in Bengali which became big hits. When Pulak Bandyopadhyay passed away in 1999, Manna Dey was devastated and it took time for him to get away from the pain of that loss.

Tabla player Dipankar Acharya revisits fond memories of Manna Dey

Among the many anecdotes he told, one is directly linked to his music. In his words, “while studying for my Intermediate at Kolkata’s Scottish Church Collegiate School, during recess, I would entertain my friends in class with songs sung loudly, keeping time by beating on the desks. Soon, the news reached the principal, a Scotsman. He penned a letter to my uncle asking him to allow me to take part in a music competition to be held in the college. The competition had 10 sections such as dhrupad, khayal, tappa, thumri, bhatiali, baul, keertan and ghazal and I stood first in every single section. This feat was repeated for the next two years with gruelling training sessions under my uncle and from Ustad Dabir Khan.”

Though Manna Dey’s field of musical work was mainly in Hindi cinema, he sang in many Indian languages. He has sung about 2,500 songs in Bengali, composing the music for about 95% of them.

Every household in West Bengal and Bangladesh knows these songs. There are umpteen numbers like 'Ami Je Jalsaghare', 'Lal Paguri Diye Mathe', 'O Amar Mon Jamunar Angey Angey', 'Lolita Go Oke Aaj Chale Jete Bolna', 'Ei Duniyay Bhai Shobi Hoy', 'Uthali Pathali Amar Buk', 'Ami Agantuk', 'Ami Jamini Tumi Shashi Hey', 'Ogo Tomar Sesh Bicharer Ashaye', 'Champa Chameli Golaperi Baage', 'Manush Khoon Hole Porey', 'Hoyto Tomar-e Jonno', 'Lal Neel Sobujer', 'Ja Khushi Ora Boley Boluk', 'Baaje Go Beena', 'Ami Kon Pathey Je Choli', 'Bachao Ke Achho Morechhi Je Prem Korey', and many other lilting, hummable numbers.

A classic example of his popularity among Bengalis was to be found in a film jointly directed by Sudeshna Roy and Abhijit Guha in 2008. The film, which was never released or exhibited, is Pagol Tomar Jonne Je (Crazy For You) and talks about a fan whose life revolves around Manna Dey and his music.

Bishu Chakraborty, one of the two producers of the film, the other being Indra Kumar Ghosh, was close to Manna Dey. Chakraborty’s association with the singer was incorporated in the film's story. The script was built around the fan, but the film also capitalized on the great singer’s frequent visits to the city to capture him on camera.

Pagol Tomar Jonne Je follows the antics of a man whose life revolves around Manna Dey, combining the tragedy of a wife whose husband is fonder of his idol than of his family. Two of his office colleagues boost him while the third tries to poke fun at him in different ways.

The film traces the man’s journey towards his only goal, to meet his hero in flesh and blood. A bumbling clerk, he makes no secret of his adoration for the great singer.

His wife does not like it but tries to adjust and hold the family together. He chose her over other prospective brides because her name is Lolita, which occurs in one of Manna Dey's biggest hits, 'Lolita Go Oke Aaj Chale Jete Bolna'. His daughter is named Chameli, for the famous song 'Champa Chameli Golaperi Baage' from Anthony Firingee (1967), a duet in which Manna Dey sang for Uttam Kumar.

This fan’s living room is choc-a-bloc with Manna Dey paraphernalia such as photographs, gramophone records, audiocassettes, albums, CDs, the works. There is a chair that is sacrosanct and no one is allowed to sit on. Why? Because Manna Dey is believed to have sat in it once!

The craziness of fans for their idols is well known. But films focusing on crazy fans are not. Pagol Tomar Jonne Je was a strikingly original way of putting cinematic ingenuity to work.

Manna Dey once sang for a 5,000-strong audience in New York at a kind of fair he felt was not suited to his kind of music. When he voiced his doubts, the organizers said, “You do not realize the power of your music. Just begin.” He did and people stopped whatever they were doing to listen in complete silence.

When he was 84 and fit as a fiddle, Manna Dey sang for four hours to raise funds for the Robin Raina Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, a charity to aid poor children worldwide, because he believed deeply in the cause.

10 classical film compositions in Manna Dey's voice

He was a musical genius whose mellifluous and unique voice was never stereotyped or associated with any one actor. It was both a boon and a bane for Manna Dey, who has enthralled generations with his timeless renditions of varied compositions such as 'Chali Radhe Rani Ankhiyon Mein Paani' from Parineeta (1953), 'Lapaka Jhapaka Tu Aa Re Badarwa' from Boot Polish (1954), 'Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh' from Shri 420 (1955), 'Sur Na Saje, Kya Gaoon Main' from Basant Bahar (1956), 'Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi' from Chori Chori (1956), 'Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Mein Hum', also from Chori Chori, 'Na To Carvaan Ki Talash Hai' from Barsät Ki Rät (1960), 'Puchho Na Kaise Maine Rayn Bitayi' from Meri Surat Teri Ankhen (1963), 'Laga Chunari Mein Daag' from Dil Hi To Hai (1963), 'Aao Twist Karein' from Bhoot Bungla (1965), 'Kasme Vaade Pyaar Wafa Sab' from Upkar (1967), 'Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli' from Anand (1971), and 'Yaari Hai Imaan Mera' from Zanjeer (1973).

In his autobiography, Manna Dey said, “The multifaceted personality of music, my beloved, held me enthralled. I dedicated myself to the delineation of its many moods and manifestations by falling back on those seven notes in the scale and their myriad variations. And I ended up triumphant.”

On Manna-da's 75th birthday, documentary filmmaker Dinesh Lakhanpal made a biographical documentary aptly titled Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hai, picking up the opening line of one of his favourite numbers from Amiya Chakrabarty’s Seema (1955), lip-synced on screen by the late Balraj Sahni.

Dey's autobiography in Bengali, Jiboner Jalsagharey, was published in 2005. The English version Memories Come Alive, Hindi version Yaadein Jee Utthi and the Marathi version came out subsequently.

Satarupa Sanyal made a 72-minute documentary titled Jiboner Jalshaghare based on the autobiography. The film was funded by the Manna Dey Sangeet Academy, which has taken up the responsibility of archiving his recordings. Sanyal shot the film over four months, interviewing Dey as he shuttled among Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai.

Awards made no difference to Manna Dey's lifestyle or to his music, and he collected many, including a couple of Padma awards, the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement award and the Dadasaheb Phalke award. But he remained a home-bird all his life and did the marketing himself almost on a daily basis. He also stuck to his riyaz every day, never mind how many recording sessions he had on the day.

He also stuck to a fitness regime until a few years before his death on 24 October 2013 at the ripe old age of 94.

Once, while going to the airport to take a flight to Kolkata, Manna Dey was stabbed by a petty thief trying to snatch his bag. When the incident was discovered, it was revealed that he was carrying only Rs5,000 in the bag. He was admitted to hospital but recovered quickly, given his sturdy health.

Though his two daughters are trained in music, they never took up music as a profession. Alas! They don’t make singers or human beings like this any more.