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What Made Manna Dey A Legend

October 28, 2013 09:13 IST

What Made Manna Dey A Legend

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J. Kothari in Mumbai

After a prolonged illness, veteran playback singer Manna Dey breathed his last in the early hours of October 24.

The 94-year-old maestro has left behind a rich legacy in the form of an extraordinary repertoire of songs in several Indian languages. 

Manna Dey’s strong yet supple vocals had the gift of expression -- they could eloquently communicate a range of emotions -- from philosophical gravitas to comic rumbustiousness; and this talent won him legions of admirers.

Not To Be Underestimated

We can lament the fact that Manna could never quite attain the magnitude of fame enjoyed by Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar or Mukesh, each of whom had a long chain of super hits with acting superstars.

But let's not forget that the formidable reputation Manna carved out was no mean achievement. 

Manna sang at a time when several playback titans strode the recording studios (he also had Talat Mehmood, Hemant Kumar and Mahendra Kapoor to contend with), yet he enjoyed a 25-year-long successful career as a playback singer and sang thousands of songs. 

Manna Dey’s training in classical music formed the bedrock of his appeal, and this put him firmly in the major league.

There's no doubt that Manna Dey's name would be an ineluctable part of any discussion about the Golden era of Hindi film music.

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J Kothari is the co-author of The Hundred Luminaries Of Hindi Cinema and Indian Cinema, The Bollywood Saga.


Image: Manna Dey
Photographs: Image courtesy: mannadey.in

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A Range As Wide As The Himalayas

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I never met Manna Dey but I connected with him via his songs.

His command over classical-music-based songs was pitch perfect. Manna’s voice could soar to the skies in the most exquisite expression while singing Basant Bahar's Bhay bhanjana vandana sun hamari or Meri Soorat Teri Aankhen's Poocho na kaise maine rayen beetayi or Mere Huzoor's Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payaliya.

I admired the fact that Manna's vocals could imbue shades of interpretation into the most profound philosophy as in Laaga chunri mein daag chhupaoon kaise' from Dil Hi Toh Hai and in Dharti kahe pukar ke, beej bichha le pyar ke from Do Bigha Zameen.

Yet, fascinatingly, the virtuoso could also enthrall me with a light-headed, jocular song picturised on a prankster -- Aao twist karen from Bhoot Bangla or Na chahoon heera moti from Bobby.


Image: Manna Dey sung Aao twist karen from Bhoot Bangla.


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The Ascent

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Born as Prabodh Chandra Dey, Manna grew up in an atmosphere suffused with music.

His uncle was the blind actor-singer K C Dey, a major New Theatres film personality in the 1930s. Krishna Chandra Dey’s songs like Teri gathri mein laaga chor and Baba man ki ankhen khol remain well known till date. 

Manna became his uncle’s disciple and accompanied him when he shifted base from Kolkata to Mumbai.

Though Manna got playback assignments in the 1943 blockbuster Ram Rajya, he had to undergo a long apprenticeship during which he assisted his uncle and honed his knowledge of Hindustani classical music. 

After years of struggle in which he tried music direction too, Manna Dey’s breakthrough came when S D Burman employed his vocals for the Mashaal song Oopar gagan vishal in 1950. Manna sang the rousing lyrics by Pradeep with such fervour and imparted such depth to the words (Wah mere maalik tune kiya kamal) that the film industry and the public sat up in surprise and took notice.

He blazed a trail with his duet for Shankar-Jaikishen in Aawara (Tere bina aag yeh zindagi) and his songs for Salil Chowdhury from Do Bigha Zameen (Dharti kahe pukar ke and Hariyala sawan dhol bajata aaya) in 1953.

Manna Dey also got married the same year. The couple was blessed with two girls.  


Image: Manna Dey crooned for Raj Kapoor in Awara


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Romantic Singer

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In Hindi films the true efflorescence of a singer's fame takes place when he sings romantic songs for the leading man.

Manna enjoyed that phase of his career after he struck up a creative jugalbandi with the immensely successful music composing duo, Shankar-Jaikishen.

Manna’s intricately sung Lapak jhapak tu aare badariya picturised on character actor David in Shankar Jaikishen's Boot Polish (1954) was a complex masterpiece; and the enthused music composers next gave Manna the opportunity to sing for megastar Raj Kapoor in half of the songs from the 1955 blockbuster Shri 420.

Manna’s entry in the RK banner may have been paved by the fact that Kapoor’s regular singer, Mukesh, was taking time off to reignite his acting career. Be that as it may, RK’s Shri 420 established Manna Dey as a hero’s voice. A question had been put on Manna’s ability to be accepted as a singer of romantic songs.

The intensity with which Manna sang the anthemic Pyar hua iqrar hua hai sealed the argument in his favour. This song has gone on to become an enduring icon of a romantic era.

SJ chose Manna Dey to sing for Raj in all of his Chori Chori songs next (a string of fabulous duets including Yeh raat bheegi bheegi) and showcased his talents to advantage in Seema (Tu pyar ka sagar hai), Ujala (Jhoomta mausam mast mahina), and especially Basant Bahar (Sur na saje, Nayen mile chayen kahan, Bhay bhanjana) which cemented Manna's reputation as a master of songs based on Hindustani classical music.

With the help of music directors like Madan Mohan in Dekh Kabira Roya (Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare), Dattaram in Parvarish (Masti bhara hai sama), and C Ramchandra in Talaq (Mere jeevan mein kiran) and Navrang (Tu chhupi hai kahan), Manna soon built up an impressive oeuvre as the voice of the leading man.


Image: The famous song Pyaar hua iqrar hua hai pictured on Nargis Dutt and Raj Kapoor was song by Manna Dey


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For Comedians and Character Actors

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In the 1960s and 1970s, Manna acquired a reputation for erudite classical songs (Kalpana's, Tu hai mera prem devta) and for deep, reflective songs (Kabuliwala's Aye mere pyaare watan, Safar’s Tujhko chalna hoga, Saudagar’s Door hai kinara.)

But he refused to be typecast and sang light-hearted songs for popular comedian Mehmood (Pyar ki aag mein tan badan jal gaya, Jodi hamari jamega kaise, O meri maina, tu maan le mera kehna, and the ever-popular Ek chatur naar).

The kind of vocal gimmickry required in these light-hearted songs was looked askance at by some purists who admired Manna. But the singer did not seem to mind if the song he sang was eventually picturised on a comedian or a character actor.

In fact, some of Manna Dey’s biggest hits as a singer were picturised on character actors. He sang up a storm for Balraj Sahni in Aye meri zohra jabeen in Waqt and lent voice with gusto to Pran's antics in Yaari hai imaan mera in Zanjeer.

Arguably, these two Manna Dey songs were the biggest hits in the blockbuster soundtracks for Waqt and Zanjeer

I feel this versatility benefitted Manna's career tremendously as he got to sing a dazzling variety of songs. He sounded just right for the folksy rhythms of Chadh gayo paapi bichhua or Panchhi re ude gagan gagan or Umad ghumad kar aayi re ghata as he did for the occasional soft romantic hit which he continued to deliver (Na jaane kahan hum the, Bheegi chaandni, Sochi ke gagan jhoome, Har taraf ab yehi afsaane hai).

In this phase too, Manna sustained himself as a supple provider of playback support for the hero. Manna Dey got his first Filmfare award for Best Singer with Aye bhai zara dekh ke chalo in 1971 for Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. He also sang the smash hit Yeh dosti hum nahin chhodenge alongside Kishore Kumar in Sholay.

Manna had another major hit in the theme song from the Rajesh Khanna classic, Anand -- Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaey. Shot next to a seemingly horizonless sea had a bunch of balloons disappearing in the sky in tandem with Manna's voice intoning: Ek din sapno ka rahee ... Chala jaaye sapno ke aage kahan, the song seems even more poignant now.

Over the last 30 years, Manna had drastically cut down on his recordings for Hindi films and busied himself with concerts and shows -- he groomed singer Kavita Krishnamurthy. When accolades were piled onto him, Manna always had flattering things to say about his contemporaries. 

Even decades after the well-liked and much-admired singer stopped singing actively for Hindi films, his name stands synonymous with quality thanks to his incredible collection of songs. As Manna had prophesied in Pyar hua iqrar hua -- Hum na rahenge, Phir bhi rahegi nishaniyan.


Image: Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar sang the famous song Yeh Dosti from Sholay


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