Home » News » Music » Remembering Manna Dey: The singer's journey in Bombay

Remembering Manna Dey: The singer's journey in Bombay

Remembering Manna Dey: The singer's journey in Bombay

Why didn't the film industry ever award Manna Dey the prime top draw slot in Hindi playback in his career?

The best way to pay a tribute is to give a person the status he deserves while he is still active. The tributes that gushed rapidly a few days ago through social, print and electronic media pipelines eulogized his greatness as a singer. One topic that shall be discussed to death is why the industry never awarded Manna Dey the prime top draw slot in Hindi playback ever in his career.


We observe scribes' and musicians' unequivocal coronation of Manna as a connoisseur of "classical songs". 'Classical' implies a systemic unfolding of events - build up, a central piece and an end - and the definition cuts across all genres - literature, music and cinema. It does not take much digging to infer that the tag attached to Manna was inappropriate. Manna was primarily a singer of light scores, maybe some light classical songs as well ; the classicality probably got attached to Manna as his musical "taiyari " was much stronger that his peers. Maybe Yesudas could be in the same league, and it not surprising that he too, in spite of his phenomenal talent - (Salil Chowdhury labelled him as someone who had the good qualities of all the singers) - was not commercially a great success in Hindi film music either. The familiar problem with popular Hindi cinema and music has been - purity is not easy to digest. Our comfort zones are blends, garnishes and masala.

Coming to Manna's musical journey in Bombay, the song which brought him public recognition after seven full years of fruitless toil in was (Upar gagan vishal (Mashal, 1950). It was essentially a light song scored by S D Burman. Burman Dada, whom Manna assisted for some time must have sensed that Manna had in him to sing in an open throated manner, like his uncle K C Dey. Before Mashal lit up, Manna had sung in inconsequential in films like Tamanna, Ram Rajya (one of the two films seen by Mahatma Gandhi), Jwar Bhata (Dilip Kumar's first film), Kadambari, Kavita, Mahakavi Kalidas, and many more).

Manna Dey's first playback for Raj Kapoor which followed within a year - Tere bina aag yeh chandni (Awara, 1951, Shankar Jaikishan) - again was an example of his open throated singing. It was not until Hamdard (Anil Biswas' raagmala) and Boot Polish (S-J's Adana based Lapak Jhapak), two years later that the word 'classical' got tagged to Probodh Chandra (Manna) Dey's repertoire. Cometh Basant Bahar in 1956, and his duel with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi earned him public endorsement by Panditji himself.

But classical style of singing, even when it was for the hero, was not what the stock romantic solo/duet was about. Heroes were not supposed to sing bandishes to their beloveds. The heroes which did, like Anup Kumar with Kaun aaya mere man ke swaare (Dekh kabira roye, 1957) ended up being comedians.

Meanwhile Manna had, by that time, become one of the voices of Raj Kapoor. However, this was not bought by film producers who associated Mukesh much more with Raj's tramp persona, courtesy his hits in Awara (1951) and some superlative songs in Aah (1953). The one film that promised Manna the equalizer with Mukesh was Chori Chori. It was told to us by the Late Bhaskar Rao, a music connoisseur who worked for a daily in Calcutta, that Manna Dey, after having sung most of the key numbers in Shree 420 (1954), wanted to sing the title song too, which he was denied. Shankar then promised him Chori Chori (1956). For Chettiyar, the producer, Manna was an intrusion into his Mukesh scheme of things and it needed a Raj Kapoor and Shankar to smoothen out things. Chori Chori and its three Manna Lata duets further built up the momentum of Pyar hua ikraar hua hai (Shree 420). These four compelling Raj-Nargis romantic duets tilted the scale in his favour when SJ's assistant Dattaram used him for Na jane kahan tum they (with Suman Kalyanpur in Zindagi aur Khwab, 1961). Add to these an extremely passionate Tu chupi hai kahan (with Asha Bhonsle in Navrang, 1959) composed by C. Ramachandra....

....and Manna had proved his capability in the genre of light romantic songs - a genre that comprises the core of Hindi film music.

So, despite all this, why was Manna not a ready choice like Rafi, Talat Mukesh or Kishore in the 1950s ? One needs to remember that playback, by definition means that you have to be someone else' voice - preferably a star face. Mukesh was still Raj's signature voice for solos. S D Burman had gone on record mentioning that he had no one except Kishore in mind when deciding for Dev's playback, and went to Rafi or others only when Kishore was not available. His use of Manna for Dev in films like Manzil (1960) was not a success during its time. Talat, Dilip Kumar's preferred singer, was gradually getting sidelined as Naushad, the default composer for most of his films had only Rafi in mind. Rafi's stakes were safely spread over Dilip Kumar, partly Dev Anand, newcomers Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt and the emerging Shammi Kapoor. Naushad's logic for not using Manna for majority of his songs was summed up with a remark - his voice was dry. A fiercely debatable point of view, as Manna's association with deep, soulful songs had reached a pinnacle with songs like SJ's Tu pyaar ka sagar hai (Seema, 1955) , Ab kahan jayen hum (Ujala, 1959), or Salil's Aai mere pyaare watan (Kabuliwala, 1961). Especially in the last mentioned number, Manna negotiated a lot of quarter tones (shrutis ,notes within notes) even when singing in a soft voice, almost in the manner of crooning. Devoid of any jerks, his voice radiated a feeling of eternal peace in spite of the extreme passion embedded in the rendition.

However, Manna Dey was not usually the 'solo' voice of any hero. And therefore not the 'first choice' for any composer who had to compose for a medium which mandated a good looking (at times middle aged too) hero singing sweet nothings to his sweetheart. The songs needed to be simple and hummable by the common man. Else, popularity was not guaranteed, marring the economic prospects of the films.

One does suspect that Manna's classical and associated genres were too distinctive and unique. The success of these songs was linked strongly to the inimitable talent of Manna Dey. These put him on a pedestal that he himself found difficult to get off from. For example, would anyone dare approach Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to sing an around-the-trees duet?

The 1960s further changed the concept of a Hindi film hero. With the ushering in of colour, picture post card romances replaced common man stories. Songs became friskier. The emphasis on beats and pace had increased. . The adhesive underneath Manna's 'classical' label was still stubborn. . The duets continued; some were classics though not well known - Tum jo aao to pyar aa jaye (Robin Banjeree, Sakhi Robin, 1962), Tum gagan ke chandrama (Laxmikant Pyarelal, Sati Savitri, 1964), Bheegi chandni (Madan Mohan, Suhaagan, 1964), or Sham dhale jamuna kinare (Laxmikant Pyarelel, Pushpanjali, 1970) etc, - but save for the occasional solo, he was singing more for comic heroes. So while Rafi crooned Mehfil se uth jaane walon (Roshan, Dooj ta chand, 1964) softly for Bharat Bhooshan, Manna had to be satisfied with singing for Agha's comical playacting with Phool gendua na maro in the same film. The solitary solos he sang, like S D Burman's version of Mushtaq Hussein Khan's Ahir Bhairav bandish Poocho na kaise (Meri surat teri aankhen, 1963) were mostly in the voices of an elderly person, in this case, Ashok Kumar, who was the star but not the romantic hero of the film. The romantic duet featured on Pradip Kumar in the same film was sung by Mukesh, something which Burman was not willing, but had to concede to the whims of the producer.

Rahul, the junior Burman did rope in Manna for quite a few songs in the mid and late 1960s. Quite a few of Rahul-Manna- Mahmood songs in films from Bhoot Bangla (1965), Chandan ka palna (1967), Pati Patni (1966) or Padosan (1968) have been discussed to death, both for their comical and musical import. Kalyanji Anandji's supreme creation Kasme vade pyar wafa sab (Upkaar, 1967) came to Manna on the rebound when Kishore, the original choice, suggested that only Manna had in him to bring forth the fierce soulfulness the song mandated. It was billed as the best song in the past five years (as claimed by Manna Dey in his autobiography). He also received a congratulatory note by Lata. .

But these did not further his broader cause. Manna got typecast again as the voice of the character artiste. Even Lata Mangeshkar once mentioned that Manna' s voice did sound like that of an elderly person.

Not surprising then that from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, his faces on the screen were Pran, Om Prakash, Shammi Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Premnath et al, all elderly people and character actors. S D Burman did try to use him for romantic as well as soulful songs - Soch ke yeh gagan jhoome (Jyoti, 1969) , Mera sab kuch mere geet re (Zindagi Zindagi, 1972) or Piya maine kya kiya (Us Paar, 1974). Sporadic attempt by Hrishikesh Mukherjee to use him as the voice of Rajesh Khanna - with Zindagi kaisi hai paheli (Salil Chowdhury, Anand, 1970) and Tum bin jeevan kaisa jeevan and Bhor aaye gaya andhiyara (Madan Mohan, Bawarchi, 1972) - was critically applauded by all and sundry, but by that time Kishore Kumar's impact as the voice of Rajesh Khanna was so huge that it needed more than a monumental effort to dislodge him. Only when the song mandated vocal calisthenics on account of a strong 'taiyari', Manna's expertise was summoned, like in Gori tori paijaniya (Mehbooba, 1976). Rahul had tried to establish him as the voice of Dharmendra, and not to forget, pitted 'head to head' against a ravaging Kishore Kumar at his peak, Manna cornered glory for the street-circus Zindagi hai khel and the slurred Abhi to haath me jaam hai in Seeta aur Geeta (1972). Manna was also the voice of Amitabh in Bansi Birju (composed by Vijay Raghav Rao, 1972) and Sholay (1975), but then, that was for a very short period. Kishore Kumar gradually became the de facto voice of Amitabh as well. Manna need not have despaired. Because Kishore had taken the top three slots of male playback in 1970s.

Kishore Kumar, extremely appreciative of Manna's greatness as a singer, had used him for Door gagan ki chaon mein (1964) and Door ka rahi (1971). But neither these films nor these songs had the commercial escape velocity to escalate Manna to the top position in the pecking order. Being the voice of Raj Kumar in Mere Huzoor (1968) - which brought him his first National Award - or in Hindustan ki kasam (1973) too was counted among sporadic bursts of success. Shankar, the composer for whom Manna had the greatest regards, did continue to use him. Ramkrishan hari from the film Chanda aur Bijli (1969) was a very popular song of the year, but the Aradhana tidal wave washed away anything in its path. Ai bhi zara dekh ke chalo, the following year, (Mera Naam Joker,) was a colossal hit, but Raj Kapoor, the hero, was no more saleable. Re man sur mein ga, his Yaman based duet with Asha in Laal Pathar (1971) was well received, but Kishore Kumar walked way with the honours with Geet gata hun main. Even Yaari hai (Kalyanji Anandji, Zanjeer, 1973), the song which topped the long running radio show Binaca geetmala, only helped bracket him more pronouncedly in the niche slot, in as much, he even had to sing for Joginder in a non-descript film like Do Chattane (1974). In Sanjay Khan's Abdullah (1980), Manna, probably inspired by the fact that he was once again the voice of Raj Kapoor after some time, delivered the lullaby-in-Arabic- essence Lalla allah tera nigeban with stunning pathos. Abdullah flopped, and the song failed to reach the common man. Manna's proximity to the filmi dunia was also limited, to the extent that even for Raj Kapoor, Manna remained "Manna Babu" and not "Manna Da". Luck too played its unfavourable part. Yeh dosti, from as mammoth a film as Sholay, and that too picturised on Amitabh Bachchan, won no rewards for Manna. Manna was the first choice for Mehbooba Mehbooba in the same film (as per his own admission), but the song was subsequently sung by Pancham himself. Kanu Roy's melodies in Anubhav (1971) (Phir kahin koi phool khila) and Aviskaar (1975) (Hasne ki chah nein and Mere laal) came with their silky cadence. But these were never the darling of paan shops or chai addas. Manna masterpieces probably were for the black tie, chiffon and black label evenings - a minority. Even their appreciation was washed down by pretence. Gradually, Manna Dey the star faded away, Manna Dey the artist remained.

Maybe Balraj Sahni is the face with which Manna would be most associated for posterity. Dharti kahe pukar ke , Tu pyar ka sagar hai, Ai meri zohra jabeen , Tujhe suraj kahun ya chanda, or Ai mere pyaare watan (not featured on him, but it does connect with his character in the film) it was an artist complementing the serenity of the other. None of them were ever at the top, but continue to receive compliments that are top class.

This stop-start journey in Bombay sharply contrasts with his dazzling soar in Bengali playback. Manna's Bengali non-film numbers, most of which were his compositions, were solidly popular since the early 1950s. Success in Bengali films which had eluded him till then, took off with films like Shankhabela (1966), Antony Firingi (1967), Chowringee (1968), Chirodiner (1969), Teen Bhubaner Parey (1969), Bilombito Loy (1970), Duti Mon (1970), Nishi Padma (1970), Prothom Kadam phool (1970), Chadmabeshi (1971), Picnic (1972), Stree (1972), Alo amar alo (1972), Natun diner alo (1973),

Jibon Rahashya (1974), Mouchak (1974), Sanyasi Raja (1975), etc. Manna's breezy intonation throbbed with the confidence of 25 year old whose start-up firm got valued at a billion dollars. He internalized the essence like he was made for it. He was the voice behind Soumitro Chatterjee's romanticism with unemployment and the changing Bengal in the 1960s. He was the factor that transformed Uttam Kumar's image from a docile, good natured and humble human being to an urbane gent, even a charmer with intentions not entirely honourable, at times painting him with colours bordering on the cavalier.

Manna's impeccably clean, emotional, at times brutally honest and non-controversial image helped add to the image of a 'classical' artist. History will chronicle him as a niche singer who was an indisputable master of what he did best. His was not exactly a car driven by his individual choice, but he took whatever came to him as destiny and gave his best. He did not reach the apex of all-round playback glory. But he made others follow him to where he preferred to go i.e. where commerce played second fiddle to art.

Curiously, what gave him that additional respect were his occasional bursts of temper, conveying a sense of no-nonsense, businesslike approach. His businesslike approach was peripheral; scratch the skin and you had an emotional child beneath. The authors know of stories where Manna came down to sing for shows simply because he loved to sing. Money mattered little. Probably the neglect doled out to him by the Bombay film fraternity pained him all his life and he felt that he needed to go on showcasing his skill, as it had not been appreciated by the majority. In an informal discussion with Kausik Maitra, a friend of the authors, he had mentioned - "I too have fans. But unlike Rafi or Kishore fans, they are not fanatics. Let me give an example. If I mention that Kishore was slightly off on the 'Sa', the Kishore fan might turn back and say - 'Kishore could do anything. Hence he has done it on purpose'. Rafi had fans who might have said - 'The 'Sa' Rafi saab has used is the actual 'Sa'. The 'Sa' you are mentioning is incorrect'. With due respect to Kishore and Rafi, both were fantastic artistes, unfortunately, I never had such fans".

Appreciating the subtleties of Manna's songs probably needed a certain level of musical erudition. In a country which unfortunately breeds and worships glamour and not art, mass hysteria when the subject is Manna Dey highly improbable. There was not much glamour quotient associated with his name.

In a short discussion with singer Haimainti Shukla in Bankura, a small town in West Bengal in 1982/3, the authors recall her mentioning " Jibone onek dukkho peyechen. Uni tai gaan e shob kichu dhele dyan. Onar shilpi moner kono tulona hoye na ". (Roughly translated- Life has not been very kind to him. Hence, he pours every ounce of emotion into his songs. His artistry is of the highest order and hardly has any peer)

Maybe that is how we would like to remember Manna.

As an artist. Not exactly an artiste.

Just as well. The other path was crowded.

About the authors:
Bhattacharjee and Balaji are winners of the President's Gold Medal National award for Best book on cinema in 2011 for
"RD Burman : The man, The music".

Bhattacharjee can be contacted on
Twitter : @anibhat123
Facebook : anirudha.bhattacharjee@facebook.com

Balaji can be contacted at
Twitter : @vittalbalaji
Facebook : balaji.vittal@facebook.com

first published:November 04, 2013, 14:17 IST