Every song that I sang I never relented: Manna Dey

Sandip Roy

Oct,24 2013 16:50 45 IST

Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai
Kabhi toh hasaaye, kabhi to rulaye
Kabhi dekho man mein hi jaage
Peechhey peechhey sapnon ke bhaagey
Ek din sapnon ka raahi
Chala jaaye sapnon ke aagey kahan
- Anand

The man who sang those lines is gone. And those of us left to write about Manna Dey struggle with clichés – “legendary”, “versatile”, “veteran”, “irreparable loss”, “shadow of grief descends on the music world.”

I remember a more human Manna Dey - feisty, chatty, warm, one who wore his legend lightly but without false humility. Over a decade ago I had gone to interview him at his daughter’s home near San Francisco for the magazine India Currents. His wife Sulochana Dey made tea and he held forth, not like an old warhorse reliving the glory days endlessly but like a friend at an adda at the old coffee house.

Manna Dey never intended to be a singer. In his autobiography Jibaner Jalshagharey he confessed “In my youth when I ran around creating mischief with my friends from Simlepara, boxing or wrestling in akharas – there was no desire in any corner of my mind to be a singer.”

That combativeness of the young pugilist remained throughout his career. It had to. Now we salute him as the last of the legendary male voices of Indian films. But in his heyday Manna Dey had to fight for almost every song.

“Mostly I was chosen to sing songs others didn’t sing,” Dey said candidly. “I think I was in a field of music where there were giants. Any song that came to me was of utmost importance to me. If I had sung that any other way I would be replaced by them. So naturally I had to give my best. Every song that I sang I never never relented anywhere.”

Manna Dey. AFP.

Manna Dey. AFP.

Manna Dey had one thing going for him. His uncle, the blind singer Krishna Chandra Dey was already a legend famous for a full-throated voice that shattered microphones. Manna Dey accompanied his uncle to Bombay. Filmmaker Vijay Bhatt wanted Dey senior to sing for the sage Valmiki in the film Ram Rajya. K.C. Dey however only sang in films when he played the part himself. He told Bhatt “Why don’t you use my nephew? He can sing in that style.” Bhatt was dubious but gave in. At the age of 22, Manna Dey sang for the sage Valmiki and was paid 150 rupees.

But he was immediately typecast – as an old man. He remembered how happy he was to get a song in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta. “But when I saw the film, it was again an old man singing,” he rued. When Raj Kapoor chose him to sing for Boot Polish he was once again doing playback for an old man, David.

Yet as Manna Dey showed again and again he was just as happy to channel Chubby Checker and sing Aao chalo twist karen as he was to sing Aao kahaan se ghanashyam. But the industry kept trying to put him in a Manna Dey box – one he had to break again and again.

When he sang Ae mere pyaare watan for Bimal Roy’s Kabuliwala, he remembered the sound recordist complained “O Manna, teri awaaz aaj yeh phoos hai – koi dam hi nahin hai, kya ho gaya (Oh, Manna, your voice is so down today, there’s no energy in it. What happened?”) By then everyone expected him to sing only in his uncle’s full-throated style. Bimal Roy had to explain that the kabuliwala shared a single room with perhaps a dozen other men. The song was not a gaana(singing) as much as it was gungunana (humming).

Though Manna Dey’s voice became inextricably linked with Balraj Sahni’s Kabuliwala, many heroes were reluctant to work with him because they felt his voice only suited older character actors.

“Heroes like Dilip Kumar would always want Talat Mehmood. Likewise Rajesh Khanna would always ask for Kishore. Others like Shammi Kapoor would ask for Rafi. When would my turn come?” he recalled.

When HMV wanted to record Harivanshrai Bachchan’s Madhushala they had wanted Rafi. But Bachchan thought the Punjabi Rafi would not be able to pronounce all the words. Then they thought of Mukesh but the composer Jaidev was not keen. Ultimately Bachchan remembered that when he had first moved to Bombay and was living in a small rented house in Juhu his neighour was Manna Dey. Bachchan would always stop during his morning walk at his door and listen raptly to him doing riyaaz. “Mere kheyal se Manna Dey ko bula sakte hain(In my opinion you can call Manna Dey),” he told HMV.

“All things came to me, but somewhat delayed,” Dey said with a shrug. “It was good in a way – I had to work for it.”

Even in his native Kolkata, superstar Uttam Kumar’s voice was Hemanta Mukherjee. When the music director for the Uttam Kumar starrer Shankhabela wanted to use Manna Dey, everyone was aghast. “It was a calamity,” Dey smiled. “The producer and distributor said, ‘Impossible. It has to be Hemanta’.” But the music director was adamant. The songs were huge hits. Later in the film Stree, Manna Dey sang for Uttam Kumar while Hemanta Mukherjee was the voice of his co-star Soumitra Chatterjee.

Till the end of his career there were very few Hindi films where all the hero’s songs have been sung by Manna Dey. He got the reputation for singing old men’s songs, difficult songs, semi-classical songs. He bristled at those memories.

“Every song is classical,” he said sharply and sang a line from his famous Bengali song “Aaami je jalshagharey” and quickly segued to “Kaise kaatey raat” tracing the notes – re ga ma pa dha ma. “ People who have not learned what sa re ga ma pad dha ni sa is will not be able to sing this. Andaaz se kabtak gaatey rahogey ( how long will you sing by guesswork?) To be a singer you have to do your homework first.”

Now Manna Dey is part of the homework of aspiring singers all over India. His songs are a staple on singing contests. On Zee Bangla’s Sa Re Ga Ma - Little Champs, a little boy from Midnapore named Shreyan, seven years old, gets standing ovations week after week singing Dey’s songs. “Manna Dey won’t leave him,” joked the anchor Jishhu Sengupta when Shreyan announced he was singing yet another Manna Dey song last week. Perhaps it’s better the man lives on through these tributes than he finds new life, remixed and reheated.

In his autobiography he recalled a music producer once came to him with a request to redo some of his old songs in new style. For example, he could sing Chham chham baaje payelia but with western beats and keyboards and drum set. The man even sang a couple of lines to demonstrate what he meant. “To tell the truth, imagining that horrific scene, I shut my eyes in fear, “ wrote Dey. “I told the man with folded hands ‘Forgive me. But I cannot murder my beloved children like that.’” But when he heard DJ Sunny had remade his classic Ei mere zohra jabeen he shrugged and said “Let them earn their bread. At least he is making an effort. After all, to sing my songs he must be putting in his best.”

In death Manna Dey will get many accolades. His obituaries carry the string of awards he won for that is how we measure great lives – Filmfare (though only one) Padma Shri, Dadasaheb Phalke. But when I asked him about the greatest gift music had given him, he didn't hesitate.

“My wife,” he said gently placing his hand on hers. “We met while singing.”

Though she was from Kerala she had great love for Rabindrasangeet and he met her at a Rabindra Jayanti function. “He taught us Rabindrasangeet for that function,” laughed Sulochana Dey. “I was awed by how proficient he was. And when he sang that awe turned to worship.” Years later Manna Dey had to sing for the Malayalam film Chemmeen. The composer Salil Chowdhury taught him the song. “Salil was very bad in pronouncing every language except Bengali,” laughed Dey. “He taught it to me like a Bengali song." After the rehearsal his daughter said "Daddy, you sang all rubbish. Whenever Mummy and we speak Malayalam we don't speak it like that." It was Sulochana who patiently corrected his pronunciation. That song Manasa maine varu became an enormous hit in Kerala.

Sulochana Dey died last year. His friends say Manna Dey was heart-broken. Now he is gone as well. Music aficionados would like to think of a great reunion in the “field of giants” between Dey, Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore, Talat. I’d like to think that the Manna Dey is reunited with his Sulochana.

At the time I met him, like an eager beaver journalist, I wanted to double check and triple check all my facts with him. What about that Padma Shri award – when was that, I asked him.

“Who cares?” he smiled, still looking at Sulochana Dey.

Na kahi chanda, na kahi tare
Jyot ke pyase mere nayan bichare
Bhor bhi aas ki kiran na laayi
Poochho na kaise maine rahen bitai

- Meri Surat Teri Ankhen