THOSE were the early 1970s, when I first got exposed to Hindi film songs. At the age of seven or eight, I didn’t know what a music director or a lyricist did. But the names of Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh were mentioned regularly on Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon, and as such, they were the first playback singers I knew of.
No, I wasn’t aware who Manna Dey was. I would run to the radio set each time they played ‘Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo’ (from ‘Mera Naam Joker’), ‘Tujhe suraj kahoon ya chanda’ (‘Ek Phool Do Mali’) and ‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’ (‘Anand’), but I never knew or cared about who sang them. It didn’t matter, as long as I loved the songs.
The legendary singer’s name was registered in my mind only a couple of years later, when ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’ (‘Zanjeer’) became a rage. Even then, I never realised the same person had sang my three early favourites. Or that he had actually sung ‘Pyaar hua ikrar hua’ (‘Shree 420’) and ‘Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum’ (‘Chori Chori’), tunes which I then erroneously felt Mukesh had rendered because I thought Mukesh sang all Raj Kapoor songs. In the same year, 1973, Manna also featured on ‘Na maangoon sona chandi’ in ‘Bobby’, but I was more familiar with the name of the new find Shailendra Singh.
CUT to October 24, 2013, and these memories came immediately to mind when I heard of Manna Dey’s demise. I was in the middle of a family holiday in Nepal, and was just about to board a bus to visit the famous Fewa Lake at the picturesque town of Pokhara for a boat ride, when one of our tour members announced the news. My first thought was, “An era has ended.”
Truly, Manna Dey was the longest-living and last representative of the golden age of male playback singing. Despite competition from the likes of Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar and Mahendra Kapoor, he carved a niche of his own. He was equally adept at Bengali and other regional language songs, but sadly, I was never exposed to them, and will thus focus on Hindi cinema.
Much has been written about how Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore were at an advantage because they represented Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, the leading heroes of the day. On the other hand, Manna did hit songs for Balraj Sahni (‘Aye mere pyaare watan’ from ‘Kabuliwala’, ‘Aye meri zohra zabeen’ from’’Waqt’, ‘Tu pyaar ka saagar hai’ from ‘Seema’ and ‘Tujhe sooraj kahoon ya chanda’ from ‘Ek Phool Do Mali’), Mehmood (‘Aao twist karein’ from ‘Bhoot Bangla’ and ‘Ek chatur naar’ from ‘Padosan’) and Pran (‘Kasme vaade pyaar wafaa’ from ‘Upkaar’ and ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’ from ‘Zanjeer’). Yet, the other three singers invariably got the biggest stars.
Still, looking back at Manna’s immense and priceless contribution to Hindi film music, he had five qualities that put him on par with the others — technique, originality, versatility, consistency and song memorability. Let’s look at each of them.
Technique: With his intense classical training and mastery over the ragas, Manna could sing even the most difficult songs effortlessly. Add to that his pure and clear voice, and a god-gifted power of expression, and the end result was pure magic.
His classical brilliance was evident in ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’ from ‘Dil Hi To Hai’ (in raga Bhairavi), ‘Poocho na kaise’ from ‘Meri Surat Teri Aankhen’ (in Ahir Bhairav), ‘Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payaliya’ from ‘Mere huzoor’ (in Darbari Kanhada), ‘Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare’ from ‘Dekh Kabira Roya’ (in Rageshri) and ‘Sur na saje’ from ‘Basant Bahar’ (in Pilu).
Check out the ‘antara’ of ‘Tu pyaar ka saagar hai’ (‘Seema’, raga Darbari Kanhada) and notice how he made even the most complex passages seem like child’s play. And for sheer expression, ‘Kasme vaade pyaar wafaa’ (Upkaar’), ‘Aye mere pyaare watan’ (‘Kabuliwaala’) and ‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’ (‘Anand’) are the ultimate.
Originality: Though each male singer from that era had his own style, Manna’s distinct timbre and manner of delivery made him unique. One perfect example would be ‘Lapak jhapak tu aa re badarwa’ from ‘Boot Polish’. One simply can’t imagine anybody else doing justice to the song. Likewise with ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’ from ‘Dil Hi To Hai’, ‘Bhay bhanjana’ from ‘Basant Bahar’ and his cameo in the Lata-dominated ‘Chadh gayo paapi bichua’ from ‘Madhumati’. For that matter, even his private album rendition of poet Harivanshrai Bachchan’s ‘Madhushala’.
There is a theory that more aspiring musicians were inclined to imitate Rafi, Kishore and Mukesh, in comparison to Manna Dey. To that, his fans would react that Manna was so original that it would require real in-depth training and practice to blindly follow him. That assumption may not be totally off the mark.
Versatility: For some strange reason, many people have associated Manna Dey mainly with classical songs. Yes, he was a master at them, but if you really study his repertoire, the truth is that he could sing anything and everything under the sun.
For instance, he was equally fantastic with comic or lighter songs, examples being the unforgettable ‘Ek chatur naar’ (with Kishore in ‘Padosan’), ‘Aao twist karein’ (‘Bhoot bangla’), ‘Dil ka haal sune dilwala’ (‘Shree 420’), ‘Meri bhains ko danda kyon maara’ (‘Pagla Kahin Ka’), ‘Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo’ (‘Mera Naam Joker’) and ‘Na maangoon sona chandi’ (‘Bobby’).
Manna could sing straightforward and simple numbers like ‘Dil ki girah khol do’ (‘Raat Aur Din’), ‘Mud mud ken a dekh’ (with Asha Bhosle in ‘Shree 420’), ‘Chunari sambhaal gori’ (‘Baharon Ke Sapne’) and ‘Yeh dosti’ (with Kishore in ‘Sholay’). And when it came to romantic songs, there were these Raj Kapoor classics like ‘Pyaar hua ikraar hua hai’ (‘Shree 420’), ‘Yeh raat bheegi bheegi’ and ‘Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum’ (both ‘Chori Chori’), all duets with Lata Mangeshkar. And with Asha, he sang ‘Tu chupi hai kahaan’ in ‘Navrang’.
Of the singers from that era, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, Hemant Kumar and even SD Burman had their typical styles, whereas Mahendra Kapoor was used to represent only certain stars. When it came to versatility, Manna was on the same level as Rafi and Kishore.
Consistency: From the 1950s right up to the mid-1970s, Manna Dey regularly came up with hit numbers. There were times when he sang only one song in a film whereas other singers got three or four songs, but that one song made its own mark.
When you think of ‘Waqt’, for instance, the first tune that comes to mind is ‘Aye meri zohra zabeen’. Talk of ‘Zanjeer’, and you immediately think of ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’.
All singers have their share of hits and flops. With Manna Dey, the successes clearly outweighed the ones that didn’t make a mark. Though some felt he was offered fewer songs than the others (or that he himself was more selective), the relatively high hit ratio was enough proof of his consistency.
Song memorability: This point doesn’t require elaboration. Just look at the songs mentioned above, and there’s no denying that each of them is memorable in its own way. Even 40 or 50 years after they were first rendered, they move you with their sheer melody and meaning. And while the music directors, lyricists and co-singers had a major role to play, Manna Dey made them special by adding his own touch.
YES, an era has ended. Over the past four days or so, so many other memories have been revived, some in colour, some in black ‘n’ white. I thought of whether I first heard the songs on the radio, or saw them in the cinema halls, or on television programmes like Chitrahaar in Delhi or Chaaya Geet in Mumbai. I remembered songs I actually began to appreciate only much later ― like ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’ and ‘Tu chhupi hai kahaan’. Each memory has been special.
Still, as a music journalist who came on the beat in 1995, I have one personal regret. I never met the legend even once, not even casually at a music industry party. It was always a dream to interview him, but that sadly remained unfulfilled.
Thank you for the timeless music, Manna Dey. Your voice lives on forever.