Manna Dey was one of the greatest legends in Indian popular music. Musicians like SD Burman and Anil Biswas were unanimous in their opinion that Manna Dey could sing any song of Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and Talat Mahmood, but they would not be able to render many of the technically perfect songs of Manna Dey.
Manna Dey was born on May 1, 1919, the third son of his parents. He was originally christened Probodh Chandra Dey but over time, the nickname Manna stuck. Among his two brothers Pranab was also a singer while Prakash was a doctor. His gift for music was in his genes, passed on from his father’s brother Sangeetacharya Sri Krishna Chandra Dey who lives in the same house within the extended family. Manna Dey’s boyhood interests however, were not into music. He was interested in wrestling and boxing and excelled in both sports. His love for cricket and football is well known, as is his habit of making 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 Ustad-ji 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 lesson in music. 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 ten sections such as Drupad, 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 along with gruelling training sessions under my uncle and from Ustad Dabir Khan,” recalled Mannada.
“In my formative years I was surrounded by music because of my uncle. He became blind at the age of 13 and turned to music to support himself. A benefactor took him under his wing because he thought my uncle was a musical genius, which he was, and made him learn at the feet of great ustads. My uncle in turn imparted that knowledge to my late brother and to me, but he made it clear that to deserve that kind of musical education, we had to work for it. I don’t really come from a family of musicians, though several legendary musicians like Allauddin Khan Sahib, Inayat Khan, the late Vilayat Khan’s father and many other maestros visited our house, since they were my uncle’s contemporaries.” remembered Mannada.
After he finished his under-graduation, Mannada had to choose between law and music. He chose music. His father was not very pleased but his mother’s consent and the tremendous support his uncle gave him was enough. He started learning from his uncle, a confirmed bachelor. To him, Manna Dey was the son he never had, and was instrumental in helping his nephew realise his dreams as long as the young man was prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. Till then, he had not had any formal training in music.
Krishna Chandra Dey was a hard taskmaster, Mannada recalls, but he was never unkind or cruel. The day Mannada decided to become a singer, his uncle handed him a tanpura, expecting rigorous practice every day. But the young boy did not take his riyaaz seriously. His uncle would scold him but more out of love than like a teacher. All he wanted from his gifted nephew was focus and the determination to succeed. Incidentally, few today in the music world know that Krishna Chandra Dey pioneered the genre of Sugam Sangeet (light, entertaining songs) in Indian music. According to Mannada, it was a masterstroke because his uncle had foreseen that the audience for classical music was rather limited and that simplifying the same classical music would attract a larger audience. He was right. Sugam Sangeet was something the common man could listen to and identify with. So, during his lifetime, Krishna Chandra Dey became a legend in music.
“When he began singing and working in Hindi films and theatre, his songs turned into a rage across the country. When he went to Karachi, I went with him and was stunned to find the entire audience singing along with him when he sang numbers like Baba Man ki Ankhen Khol and Teri Gathri Mein Laga Chor Musafir. 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. 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 tabla and sing with great precision.” elaborated Mannada.
“My late uncle would insist that melody is the only language a singer needs to gain command over. The language in which one sings is not important. The language of any song is just the language of music so you must never confine yourself within Bengali even if it your own language. He taught me that variety is the spice of life so I have sung in different tongues, in different styles, different voices and have sung different kinds of songs,” he informed. His repertoire of music includes songs sung in Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Malayalam and even Bhojpuri.
One day, in 1942, KC Dey asked Mannada to attend the shooting of a film to find out how a film song is shot, how music for a song to be picturised on screen is composed and how the playback singer must be able to express the emotions of the actor on screen with his voice, soft for romantic numbers, bass for robust songs, thick for chorus numbers and so on. The two took a train to Mumbai and Mannada became an assistant music director for five years under SD Burman as he too wanted to become a full-fledged music director. But this did not stop him from regular training and riyaaz under the guidance of Ustad Aman Ali Khan and Ustad Abdul Rahman Khan. He lived in a tiny Matunga flat close to where Prithviraj Kapoor lived with his family and also worked for Bombay Talkies. “Sometimes, I am overawed when I try to discover how a man can sing for so many years. But it has happened in my life in 1943 when I recorded my first song for Tamanna in Mumbai with a pretty little girl called Suraiya,” said Mannada. In 1950, he rendered the famous number, Upar Gagan Vishaal, for Bombay Talkies’ Mashal (1950), which became his breakthrough song, under the direction of SD Burman. In 1951, Manna Dey sang both for a Bengali and a Marathi film of the same name and storyline – Amar Bhoopali, and established himself as a Bengali playback singer.
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 Chale Radhe Rani Ankhiyon Mein Paani, Lapaka Jhapaka Tu Aare Badarwa, Puchho Na Kaise Maine Rain Bitaye, Sur Na Saje, Kya Gaoon Main, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, Mud Mud Ke Naa Dekh, Na To Karavan Ki Talash Hai, Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi, Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Mein Hum, Kasme Wade Pyar Wafa, Yaari Hai Iman Mera, Zindagi Kaisi Yeh Paheli Haay and Aao Twist Karein. 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.”
He always found it difficult to choose a handful of songs from the rest in his massive repertoire. “I have been honest in my work. Wherever I sang, I gave of my best. Perhaps I am the only singer who insists on rehearsals before recordings. I am particular about the text of the song be it a Bengali song or a Hindi number or a song in Urdu. Being a Bengali myself, singing in other languages has been quite a challenge. I had to depict the lyrics through my song, specially my private songs. For film songs, I have sung whatever I have been asked to sing,” he explained. His painstaking training in classical music helped him break through as a playback singer. Recalling one of his most memorable moments in Bollywood, Manna Dey says that the manner in which the song Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen from Waqt was rehearsed was unique. “A musician from Afghanistan was called for rehearsal. I first observed him playing on the Rhubab (a stringed musical instrument) and then tried to emulate him,” he summed up.
He recorded a legendary duet with Ustad Bhimsen Joshi – Ketaki Gulab Juhi. He sang completely different genres of duet songs with Kishore Kumar such as Yeh Dosti (Sholay (1975)) and Ek Chatur Naar (Padosan). Unlike Kishore Kumar, who is one of the most loved voices of all times, Manna Dey has a more niche following for his complex, classical songs. Manna Dey sang alongside Hemant Kumar in the world of Bengali music and also for other contemporary Bengali composers of the time offering unforgettable scores for modern Bengali songs. Mannada pioneered a new genre in Indian music where he infused Indian classical music within a pop music framework. While you come across clones of other legendary singers in the present day world of vocal music, Manna Dey remains as original and incomparable through the years. When he was 84 and as fit as a fiddle, Manna Dey sang for four hours to raise funds for the Robin Raina Foundation in Atlanta, USA, a charity to aid under privileged children worldwide, because he deeply believes in the cause.
Manna Dey is equally popular in Bangladesh. He has sung about 2500 songs in Bengali and composed the music for about 95% of them. Every single household inWest Bengal and Bangladesh know these songs. There are umpteen numbers like Aami Je Jolsha Ghore, Lal Pagudi Diye Mathe, O Amar Mon Jomunar Ongey Ongey, Lolita Okay Aaj Chole Jete Bolna, Ei Duniyae Bhai Shobi Hoy, Uthali Pathali Amar Book, Aami Agantuk, Aami Jamini Tumi Shoshi Hey, Ogo Tomaar Shesh Bicharer Ashaye, Chompa Chameli Golaperi Baage, Manush Khoon Hole Pawre, Hoyto Tomari Jonne, Lal Neel Shobujer, Ja Khushi Ora Boley Boluk, Baaje Go Beena, Aami Kone Pawthey Je Choli, Bachao ke Achho Morechhi Je Prem Korey and many other lilting and hummable numbers. Whenever he performs in these two places, if he forgets the lyrics, the audience hums it for him. He once sang for a 5000-strong audience in New York, which was 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 realise the power of your music, just begin.” He did and people stopped whatever they were doing to listen to him in complete silence.
The opening line of one of his famous Bengali song has been copied to name a chain of Bengali restaurants in Kolkata. The chain is called Bhojohori Manna from his song Aami Sri Sri Bhojohori Manna from a famous Bengali film. Another memorable number is Coffee House-er Shei Addata Aaj Aar Nei. This song has a special place in Mannada’s heart. The lyrics were by Gauriprasanna Majumdar set to music by Suparnokanti Ghosh. In all modesty, Mannada credited the lyricist for the song’s massive popularity. He then gave credit to Ghosh who set the lyrics to music and finally to his personal style of rendering the song. It is a song that vibrates with life and captures within itself, the pulsating culture of Kolkata’s legendary intellectual platform, the Coffee House. “The song carries the spirit of life and a sense of timelessness, a universality that transcends language, culture and people. That is why it is so famous,” said Mannada.
“He could have become a great classical singer if he had wanted to be one. But we are happy fact that he chose to do playback because Hindustani classical music’s loss has become a gain for Indian cinema,” said Basu Bhattacharya about Mannada once. When Sulochana, his wife, was asked what drew her to Mannada, she says, “I met him when he was 30. He was restless, lonely and frustrated. His soul-stirring songs made me an admirer, I used to sing too, and we had a common love in the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore.” Though Sulochana was not Bengali by birth (she was Kumaran before marriage, a Malayalee) Mannada’s conservative mother consented to the marriage. They got married in 1953. The Deys have two daughters, Surama and Sumita. His two daughters are trained in Hindustani classical music and sing very well but have not chosen it as a vocation.
On the occasion of his 75th birthday, documentary filmmaker Dinesh Lakhanpal made a biographical documentary on Manna Dey aptly titled Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hai, picking the opening line of one of his favourite numbers from Amiya Chakrabarty’s Seema (1955), lip-synced on screen by the late Balraj Sahni. His autobiography in Bengali Jiboner Jalsaghorey, was published in 2005. The English version Memories Come Alive, Hindi version Yaaden Jee Uthi and the Marathi version came out subsequently. Satarupa Sanyal has made a 72-minute documentary entitled Jiboner Jalshaghore. based on this autobiography. The film has been funded by the Manna Dey Sangeet Academy that has taken up the responsibility of archiving his recordings and will be distributed by Saregama. Sanyal shot the film over four months interviewing Dey as he shuttled between Kolkata and Bangalore and Mumbai.
Mannada lived in his original residence, 9 Madan Dutta Lane, sandwiched between Hedua and Central Avenue near Simla Street in North Kolkata, close to where the famous Bibekananda Sporting Club holds it Durga Pooja every year, on his visits to Kolkata. He never put up in a hotel. He had a small office room with a desk surrounded by chairs. One can see some framed photographs of the singer adorning the walls and quite a few trophies. He wore his regular, chosen’uniform’ of gray safari suit and the mandatory cap. His body language was ramrod straight, and he could still deliver a three-hour solo performance with his harmonium for company that he insisted on playing himself. Where and when was his next concert, how long will it go on was taken care of by wife Sulochana, his wife. Sulochana also decided where he would sit, what his diet would comprise of, whether he had eaten or not, what he had eaten, etc. Mannada was fond of watching television, reading the daily newspaper, discussing the topic of the day and holding forth on any subject under the sun with friends, fans, and youngsters who surround him all the time.
But perhaps the best tribute for this great singer came from another all-time great singer, Mohammed Rafi, who once told journalists: “You listen to my songs. But I listen to Manna Dey’s songs only” One of the many accolades to come Manna Dey’s way was the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian cinema.
Keeping unwell for some time, Mannada was in an out of hospital recently. He passed away in Bangalore on October 24, 2013.