Manna Dey wins Dadasaheb Phalke Award as the 55th recipient for his lifetime contribution towards Indian Cinema. Join CalcuttaTube in paying tribute to Manna Dey, the legendary singer who will always be in our hearts. Shoma A. Chatterjee presents the EXCLUSIVE feature. Congratulations Manna Dey.
Manna Dey is 90 years old. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, which rarely goes to a playback singer, is not a surprise for this great singer who has around 3500 songs archived in the memory of those who have passed yonder, those who are now in their mid-sixties and grew up on his music, and those who are fond of listening to him even today. But the recognition has come a bit late in the day for the Padmabhushan (2005) who began his career in playback singing 60+ years ago and is still going strong, putting in two hours of riyaaz everyday and sticking to a regimen that keeps him as fit as a 30-year-old young man. He has been bestowed with a Hon. D. Lit. by the Rabindra Bharati University (2004) and the Burdwan University (2005.) He has won the National Award for the Best Male Playback Singer both for Hindi and Bengali songs. The string of awards do not weigh on the excellence of his performance.
Instituted in 1969, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award is bestowed annually by the National Film Awards under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to an eminent artist for his/her lifelong contribution towards enriching the texture of Indian cinema. Dey is the 55th recipient of the award. Over these 55 years, it has gone to the world of music not many times. The eminent music masters who have won them earlier are R.C. Boral, Pankaj Mullick, Pradeep, Bhupen Hazarika, Naushad Ali, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsale.
As a young boy, Manna Dey was skilled in two traditional arts of combat – boxing and wrestling. He was very good in football and cricket too and is a diehard fan of both games till today. He was also fond of flying kites so when his uncle, the Late Krishna Chandra Dey (1893-1962), asked him to practice music, his attitude to his riyaaz was casual, like most young boys. “After my graduation, I had two choices, one was to pursue law, a profession my father wanted me to, the other was music, something my uncle, his brother, urged me to. Much against my father’s wishes, I chose the latter and I cannot forget my uncle’s contribution to my music ever,” says Manna-da. His mother backed him all the way. He comes to Kolkata very often from his base in Bangalore to live in the old ancestral home at 9 Madan Dutta Lane. The house stands between Hedua and Central Avenue near Simla Street in north Kolkata.
“My uncle, who turned blind when he was 13, became a full-fledged singer at 18 and his songs, specially his bhajans and keertans, both in Bengali and in Hindi, are unforgettable gems in music. He was like a father. He brought us up He was a pioneer in music. He taught people how to sing. Burman saab and Pankaj Mullick used to learn from him. I have seen my uncle singing kirtan and people wiping their tears. I felt why I could not have this kind of involvement in singing. He was also an actor in theatre and films and directed music for many films. He once set up his own production company to produce films. He modeled his music in a way that the common man could listen and identify with. But he migrated to Mumbai and soon after, pulled me there, marking a turning point in my life and career,” says Manna-da. Around 1942-43, Manna Dey moved to Mumbai as K C Dey’s second assistant. His job was to get rehearsals going and to train singers before a recording. His first break as a playback singer came by chance. But it was a long time before he got his next chance.
Manna Dey is perhaps the most versatile singer alive in the country. He recorded a legendary duet with classicist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi– Ketaki Gulab Juhi. He also sang completely different genres of duet songs with Kishore Kumar such as Yeh Dosti Hum Nehi Torenge (Sholay) and Ek Chatur Naar (Padosan). He says that when Shankar (Shankar-Jaikishen) asked him to sing with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, he was terrified and wanted to run away from Mumbai till they found a replacement for him. But his wife derided him for his cowardice and he had to give up the idea of running away! The rest, as the cliché saying goes, is history.
The Chatura Naar song in Padosan, Manna Dey says, took 12 hours to record but he is very happy about the results. About the events before the recording, he says, “Pancham (R.D. Burman) called me up to tell me that the song was ready and that I should go to his house. I went only to discover that Kishore who was to sing with me, was missing. When I asked Pancham where Kishore was, someone butted in to say that there was a call for me. I took the call. It was Kishore. When I asked him why he had not come, he said, “No! I am waiting for you. My mother is waiting for you, talk to her’. His mother said, ‘Manna, how are you baba? You have not come to our house for a long time. Why don’t you come? I have made luchi and aaloor dum for you and rasogullas too. Come’. We went from Pancham’s house to Kishore’s house. We rehearsed the song for six hours, made it and broke many times. After the recording, the way the song turned out was mind boggling. Before we went for recording, we did not know it would turn out to be so hilarious. But it did because of Kishore.”
Manna Dey has captivated music lovers across generations with his timeless renditions of compositions such as Lapaka Jhapaka Tu Aarey Bhadharwa, Sur Na Saje, Kya Gaaoon Main, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, Pyar Hua Iqraar Hua Hai, Tu Pyar Ka Saagar Hai, Puccho Naa Kaise Maine Raina Bithaye, Naa Toh Kaarvan Ki Talaash Hai and Aao Twist Karein. “I am perhaps the only singer to have insisted on going for rehearsals before recordings. I am very particular about the text of the song, never mind what it is about. To sing in Hindustani or in Urdu was a challenge for me because I was a Bengali born and brought up in Kolkata. The music of a song expresses the emotion and the mood of the lyrics. My work as a singer was to bring alive the words the lyricist had composed. I am talking about my private songs not just film songs,” he details.
“I got my break when I was around 22-23, with a duet with Suraiya in Tamanna in 1943. My first solo was Upar Gagan Vishal for Ram Rajya in 1950 which branded me at once as a singer of devotional songs. I was always asked to sing for old bearded characters. It was frustrating. I sang Chali Radhey Rani Akhiyon Main Pani for Bimal Roy’s Parineeta. It was a big hit. Bimal Roy asked me “Manna, have you seen the song on screen?” I said no. He told me to see for myself how deeply it moved the audience. I went only to see an old man with a beard singing the song. I was so mad that I felt like giving up and returning to Kolkata,” he recalls. Lip-synched on screen by a beggar, this remains one of the best situational songs in Hindi cinema. In 1952, Manna Dey sang both for a Bengali and a Marathi film of the same name and storyline – Amar Bhupali, and established himself as a Bengali playback singer.
Last year, filmmakers Sudeshna Roy and Abhijit Guha made a short film called Pagol Tomaar Jonne Je. Pagol Tomaar Jonne Je. The film follows the antics of man whose whole life revolves around Manna Dey. It combines the tragedy of a wife whose husband is fonder of his idol than of his family. Two of his office colleagues boost him up while the third tries to poke fun at him. Does he meet Manna Dey in flesh and blood? The film traces the man’s journey towards his only goal, to meet his hero. He is a bumbling clerk who makes no secret of his adoration for the great singer. His wife does not like it but tries to adjust by holding the family together. He chose her over more prospective young girls because her name is Lolita, a name that occurs in one of the biggest Bengali hits of Manna De. His daughter’s name is Chameli, another name from a very popular duet with Manna De as the male voice. His living room is choc-a-bloc with Manna De paraphernalia such as photographs, gramophone records, audiocassettes, albums, CDs, the works. There is a chair that is sacro sanct and no one is allowed to sit on it. Why? The flashback tells it all.
“Learning classical music is essential for a strong foundation, but I was not cut out for classical singing. I don’t appreciate sitting in one place and singing the same raaga for 2-3 hours. It is too repetitive and tries the patience of the listener. Mu uncle K.C. Dey was the greatest influence in my life and my style of singing has been aligned with his right from the beginning. I also seem to have the ability to grasp things quickly. I could reproduce what my uncle played on tabla and sang with great accuracy. My uncle was particular about the company he kept and wanted me to keep. He did not want me around unsavory people. Good influences and wholesome friendships were crucial. I follow that to this day,” says Manna-da. Manna Dey stood first for three consecutive years in three different categories of inter-collegiate singing competitions as a student.
Manna-da is a hit in Bangladesh. He has sung about 2500 songs in Bengali and composed the music for about 95% of them. Every single household in Bangladesh knows these songs almost by heart. Numbers like aami je jolsha ghore, Lal Pagudi Diye Mathe, o amaar mon jomunar ongey ongey, Lolita okay aaj chole jete bolnaa, ei duniyae bhai shobi hoy, uthali pathali amaar book, aami agantuk, aami jamini tuumi shoshi hey, ogo tomaar shesh bichaarer aashaye, chompa chameli golaperi baage, manush khoon hole pawre, hoyto tomaari jonne, lal neel shobujer, jaa khushi ora boley boluk, baaje go beena, aami kone pawthey je choli, bachao ke aachho morechhi je prem korey keep the audience mesmerized whenever he visits Bangladesh. “When I sing anywhere in India and Bangladesh, if I forget a line, the audience prompts me at once,” he says happily. He once sang for a 5000-strong audience in New York, part of a fun-fair. “I felt the ambience did not fit into my kind of songs. But when I voiced this to the organizers, they dispelled my doubts ‘You do not realise the power of your music, just begin, and watch.’ When I began to sing, people stopped whatever they were doing to listen to me in pin-drop silence,” he sums up.
Article by: Shoma A. Chatterji