Manna Dey …..


At 94, Prabodh Chandra Dey aka Manna Dey had seen it all.
Even though he had a rich baritone and a solid classical training, he was never the first choice of either the hero or the director in the commercial Hindi films of the 50-s and 60-s; that good fortune almost always went to Mohammed Rafi or Kishore Kumar, and sometimes to Mukesh.
But whenever someone somewhere composed a really difficult song, it would gravitate naturally to Manna.
S.D. Burman’s “Poochho na kaise mein ne reyn bitaaaye” from the film “Meri Soorat Teri Aankhein” set to raga Ahir Bhairav is perhaps the best example of his prowess in the classical arena.
Roshan’s “Laaga chunri mein daag” in Bhairavi is another excellent song which comes to mind almost immediately.
“Sur Na Saje” from Basant Bahar was another brilliant example of what he was capable of.
You have to listen to this song to understand the how effortlessly his voice could soar to sublime heights.
However it was Shankar Jaiksihan’s “Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payaliya” in the raga Darbari Kanada from the film Mere Huzoor that fetched him the National Award in 1969.
He got the National Award again the next year for “Ja khushi ora bole boluk” composed by Nachiketa Ghosh for the Bengali film Nishi Padma.
The irony was that when this film was remade as Amar Prem in Hindi two years later, he didn’t even get to sing a single song in this film, which was one of the biggest musical hits of that decade – R.D. Burman chose Kishore Kumar to sing all the songs in the film, each of which had a strong classical base.

Of course, Basant Bahar is more famous for his memorable duet “Ketaki Gulab Juhi” with the incomparable Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.
I have heard Manna Dey saying in an interview that he fled to Pune when he heard that not only was he to be pitted against Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in Basant Bahar, but that in the film, Pandit-ji would lose to him!
However Shankar-Jaikishan were in no mood to give in so easily.
Manna Dey said that they literally dragged him by the scruff of his neck back to Bombay for the recording, where he acquitted himself pretty well.
Mind you, this was in 1956 when Pandit-ji at 34 years was at the peak of his powers.
Manna Dey said that the wheel came full circle more than a decade later when he had to lose to Kishore Kumar (of all people!) in Padosan.
I am referring to “Ek chatur naar karke singaar” here.

“Aye Mere Zohra Jabeen” composed by Ravi for the film Waqt is another song which is a great favourite even today, Everyone, and that includes the entire gamut from bright eyed teenagers to maudlin senior citizens, loves to sing this at parties.

“Maanasa Maine Varu” in the immortal Malayalam film Chemmeen was another song where he sang his heart out – you can sense the controlled power and the soul stirring depth when you listen to this.
One must remember Salil Chowdhury with gratitude here.
All his (Salil da’s) tricks can be seen in this song – the background score in this song is the tune of that coquettish little number by Asha – “Baag Mein Kali Khilein”.

No less grand was Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s duet “Tum Gagan Ke Chandrama Ho Mein Dhara Ki Dhool Hoon” from the film Sati Savitri which he sang with Lata Mangeshkar. Madan Mohan’s “Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ke Dwaare” in the raga Rageshree from the film Dekh Kabira Roya is a haunting piece that embeds itself in your consciousness long after the melody has died down.

His wife Sulochana who predeceased him last year was from Kerala, but she had studied in Santiniketan.
I think it was in the same interview which I mentioned above that Manna Dey said that his family was apprehensive about him marrying a non Bengali. It seems the lady settled the issue by singing a Rabindrasangeet or three, and those who came to scoff stayed to pray!

Manna Dey was the seniormost in age among all his contemporaries in that golden era – Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh and Talat, not to mention Lata and Asha.
Now only the nightingales remain!

(Many thanks Ramdas Menon)

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