“Laaga, chunari mein dhaag”, “Poochcho na kaise meine rain bitayee”, “Tu Pyaar ka sagar hai”, “Aiy mere pyaare watan,” “Kasme vaadey pyaar wafa,” “Jhanak jhanak,” “Ai bhai, zara dekhkhe chalo…”
The mellifluous voice of Manna Dey has filled the airwaves all over the country for over 70 years now — he began singing for films in 1942. Born Prabodh Chandra Dey in Calcutta in 1920, ‘Manna’ was the nickname given to him by his illustrious uncle, another great singer of that era — K C Dey.
Many great teachers taught K C Dey music in the large 14-roomed mansion at 9, Madan Ghosh Lane in Calcutta, and so young Manna, who stayed there, was exposed to fine classical music from the time he was a child. “I listened to all these ustaads, like Inayat Khan and others. I came to know all the intricacies of Indian classical music. I was not taught ‘sa re ga ma’ and all that, I just knew it,” Manna had told me in a chat with him at his house in North Bangalore in 2005 for Sunday Herald.
Manna’s father wanted him to be a lawyer. But his uncle, K C Dey, had spotted the young man’s potential, and upon his persuasion, he was allowed to pursue music.
When K C Dey moved to Bombay at the end of 1942, the young Manna accompanied him. Manna began by assisting reputed music directors like Anil Biswas, Khemchand Prakash, and K C Dey himself. Manna knew Sachin Dev Burman from childhood, as K C Dey had taught him music. “When Burman came to Bombay in 1946-47, I also worked as his assistant!” he had told me with childish delight.
But the singer Manna Dey only emerged when he sang for Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya, when he was just 22. But the turning point came in 1950 with “Upar Gagan Vishaal” for Naushad in the film Mashaal. There was no turning back after that.
A memorable story that has now become part of film folklore is the instance when Manna was asked to sing a duet with Hindustani maestro Bhimsen Joshi (Ketaki Gulab) for the film Basant Bahar by Shankar-Jaikishan. Manna was told that the film had a music competition, where the hero (for whom he was singing) would win against his rival (for whom Joshi was singing).
Manna was overcome with panic at the thought of singing with Joshi. He had wanted to “abscond from Bombay for some time and come back after the recording was over.” He was persuaded by his wife to give it a shot, which he did after obtaining extra time from Shankar-Jaikishan to prepare. I remember the pleasure on Mannada’s face, when he told me how Joshi had complimented him.
Manna met his wife Sulochana when they were practising for a Tagore function in 1942, and fell head over heels in love with her. He had often described her as his pillar of strength, and his daughter Shumita has said that his songs were sung with Sulochana in mind. Perhaps that’s what made his songs so special! Especially “Aye meri zohra jabeen...”
The process of setting up that memorable chat in 2005 showed how considerate he could be. I had called a couple of times and left messages for him with his wife. Mannada had gone out. A few hours later, he called. I was more than a bit tongue-tied, because I was a great admirer of his singing.
“This is Manna Dey here,” he said, “why do you want to interview me?” I blabbered something about the Padma Bhushan award that had been bestowed upon him that year. He was quiet for a few seconds, and then told me to come at 8 am the next day to his residence. I lived nearly 35 km on the other side of the city, and would have to leave very early. I was still thinking about the early departure when the phone rang again.
“This is Manna Dey here again. Where do you stay?” And when I told him, he was taken aback. “Which means you will have to leave early! You please come at a more convenient time, maybe 11 am?” I accepted gratefully. I was also very touched that the great singer had thought it fit to consider my difficulties. Unfortunately, a road repair on Double Road delayed me, and I kept calling his residence to update his wife. When I was still stuck in traffic about 15 km from his house, he called me, a trifle irritated, and pushed the interview to the evening. “But please be on time, sharp 4 pm. And I will only speak for 20 minutes.” I was still digesting this bit, when he called again.
“Where will you wait till evening?” I told him that my brother’s house was nearby. The next query completely floored me, and showed me the child-like facet of his personality. “He will give you lunch, no? I hope somebody will be there in the house? Otherwise you can wait here.”
I assured him that my brother would indeed feed me, and rung off, a little dazed. It was another matter that the promised 20-minute interview turned into three-and-a-half hours, and I ran out of tapes. But it is still one of the most memorable interviews of my life. I shall cherish the autographed cassette that he signed for me.
The memory of his excitedly calling his wife to show her the tape is still fresh. “This is one of my first albums on tape, you know!” he had exclaimed with a huge smile on his face. I cannot play that tape since my recorder is acting up.
But, like millions of Indians across the world, I shall certainly pull out a CD of Manna Dey and listen to him singing in a way that only he can. And he will always be around through his music. Thank you for the music, Mannada, although we feel like saying, “Tum bin jeevan, kaisa jeevan…”