He’s gone – the last of the singing titans of cinema – and inarguably one of the finest singers as well as human beings among them.
Dadasaheb Phalke laureate and Padma Bhushan awardee Manna Dey aka Prabodh Chandra Dey lived a full life of 93. He is survived by a daughter. It is widely known that the legendary singer, who had shifted from Mumbai to Bangalore many years ago, seemed to lose his will to live after the demise of his wife Sulochana in January 2012.
The Deys had also lost a daughter to cancer some years ago. The singer even treated the eminent Kavita Krishnamurthi Subramaniam (also settled in the city) as a daughter after a long association with her that dated back to the 1970s.
Born in a joint family in Kolkata on May 1, 1920, (he celebrated 75 years in 1995) with veteran singer-composer K C Dey as his youngest paternal uncle, Manna grew up in the rich musical atmosphere of his home, training in classical music and spontaneously picking up singing as well as mastering the harmonium and the sitar. Manna (a pet name given by his uncle that meant “the little one”) would even sing English songs at Scottish Church, his college in Kolkata.
He understood that playback singing was more than about classical intricacies, which explains his brilliance in his chosen field and his score of over 3500 film and non-film songs. His film innings began with the 1942 Tamanna, though Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya (1943) was his major break. But it took him seven years for the breakthrough, that came only with S D Burman’s Mashal perennial, “Oopar gagan vishal”.
His peak period lasted till the ’70s, after which he was quite disillusioned by the decline in music and the quality of songs he was getting. Though his last Hindi song was for Umar in 2005, the singer always considered his haunting solo Hamari hi mutthi mein akash saara, the theme song of Nana Patekar’s Prahaar (1991) that was composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal as his last significant song.
Predominantly a singer in Hindi and Bengali cinema, Manna Dey sang in most other Indian languages, with over 75 songs recorded in Marathi and Gujarati each, and was much awarded by film and non-film bodies including state governments. In Hindi films, he was best associated with Raj Kapoor (Shree 420, Chori Chori, Mera Naam Joker), Pran (Upkar, Zanjeer, Karz) and Mehmood (Bhoot Bungla, Pyar Kiye Jaa, Aulad), three actors with completely different images.
Nothing was difficult for this giant singer – if he was a master at comic songs like “Jodi hamari” (Aulad) and “O meri maina” (Pyar Kiye Jaa), he excelled in romance in “Tum gagan ki chandrama ho” (Sati Savitri) and “O meri zohra jabeen” (Waqt) and was brilliant in philosophical songs like “Ae bhai zaraa dekhke chalo” (Mera Naam Joker) and “Zindagi kaisi hai paheli” (Anand).
Qawwali (“Na to caravan ki talash hai” from Barsaat Ki Raat), lullaby (“Muskura laadle muskura” from Zindagi), patriotic numbers (“Ae mere pyare watan” from Kabuliwala) or devotionals (“Bhay bhanjana” from Basant Bahar) – nothing was impossible for this legend.
His Teesri Kasam hit “Chalat musafir” showed his expertise in folk. And Western styles saw him as equally comfortable “Aao twist karen” from Bhoot Bungla) as his superlative renditions of raag-based numbers, considered his core expertise, like “Ek chatur naar” (Padosan) or “Pooncho na kaise maine rain bitayi” (Meri Surat Teri Ankhen).
Despite all his glories, Manna Dey remained a humble and forthright man, lavishing praise on composers, actors and other genuine talents. When this writer had once asked him why he was sidelined despite being more classically accomplished than most singers, he had stated that this was a misconception, though in the ‘40s when he was young he had sung for an 80 year-old artiste in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta!
“You have to understand that every singer is talented, but only Rafi and I are called for all kinds of songs because we can sing everything.” That was Mannada being frank as usual, not arrogant, because when asked why he only sang a fraction of Rafi’s quantum, the legend said quietly, “Young man, Rafi was a better singer than I am. Don’t ask why I say it. You have to take it as a fact!”
Legends do go down, but only in history. We can only feel blessed that he did live this long, singing immaculately as ever at private gatherings till his health failed him.