musings The high and low notes in Manna Dey’s career opened a window to the working of the Hindi film industry and changing tastes.Anuj Kumar

In the past few days, after the demise of Manna Dey, a few questions have gone a begging. Why would a singer who could have made it as a classical artist strive to make a name in film music where he always remained the second choice for top stars and first choice for songs which required vocal dexterity or even vocal gymnastics in songs like “Lapak Jhapak Tu” (“Boot Polish”)? Today connoisseurs swoon over “Kaun Aya Mere Man Ke Dware” (“Dekh Kabira Roya”) but forget that the Madan Mohan number was picturised on Anoop Kumar in the film.

In the pursuit to find answers, one discovered that his urge to make classical music accessible to the common man stemmed from his close association with his uncle K.C. Dey, a prominent film composer who had mastery over different forms of classical music. Manna Dey was able to tell good music from bad at a very early stage. He appreciated the rigours of a raga but didn’t want to sing it for two hours.

Enamoured of S.D. Burman, who was his uncle’s student, he copied him for a while before finding his voice in Vijay Bhatt’s “Ram Rajya” where he was asked to sing “Gayee Tu Gayee Seeta Sati” in his uncle’s style. It was Kavi Pradeep’s song “Oopar Gagan Vishal” (“Mashal”, 1950) that brought him popularity. It is said when Burman failed to come up with the tune of the song, Pradeep had to take charge with Manna Dey. Years later Gopaldas Neeraj did the same when Shanker found his blank verse in “Aye Bhai Dekh Ke Chalo” (“Mera Naam Joker”) beyond him. “The moment I wrote it I was sure that only Manna Dey could do justice to the song,” says Neeraj.

Unfortunately, Naushad, arguably the greatest purveyor of classical music in Hindi cinema, found his voice “dry” and it limited Manna Dey’s options when he was at his prime. Raju Bharatan, film historian says the composer felt Manna Dey’s voice had classical flexibility but it lacked the romantic fluidity of Rafi. Interestingly, O.P. Nayyar felt something similar.

Philosophical Bengali

It could be because by the time Naushad emerged on the scene Manna Dey had sung for established names of the 1940s such as Anil Biswas and Khemchand Prakash and had even assisted them. Bharatan also hints at earthy Punjabi camaraderie that kept this philosophical Bengali out of the inner coterie of Bollywood bigwigs. Perhaps that’s why despite singing for Raj Kapoor in “Shree 420” with hits such as “Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua” and “Dil Ka Haal Sune Dilwala” and the musical success of “Chori Chori”, Raj Kapoor returned to Mukesh as soon as he was available.

Manna Dey bonded well with Salil Chowdhury, and one can feel it in “Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke” (“Do Bigha Zamin”). “The atmosphere at Manna Dey’s home was markedly different from Rafi’s. He moved among intellectuals many of whom had leftist leanings. You can imagine what he would have gone through when on the morning walk one of his friends would ask does he really want to be Mehmood’s voice. He could not explain to his friends that singing ‘Ek Chatur Naar’ is no mean task. He kept on trying to find space between the two stools and ultimately fell between them,” says Bharatan underlining the fact that film industry works on symbols and Manna Dey kept on providing voice to the atmospherics. But what a mood maker he was! From “Tu Pyaar ka Saagar Hai” (“Seema”) and “Aye Bhai Dekh Ke Chalo” (“Mera Naam Joker”) to “Kasme Waade Pyaar Wafa Sab” (“Upkar”) and “Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli Hai” (“Anand”), he gave voice to the vision of the director, the message of the film.

Critics also feel that his voice aged with time, something Manna Dey also realised when he said “O Meri Zohrajabi” was given to him and not Rafi because it required restraint and sweetness and not power.

Did he lack ambition? If he did, why did he sing “Aao Twist Karen” (“Bhoot Bangla”)? Was it not to prove that given a chance he could adapt his voice to a western tune as well? In an interview to Ganesh Ananthraman, author of “Bollywood Melodies”, Manna Dey said Shanker gave him only the outlines of “Sur Na Saje” (“Basant Bahar”) and that not even Rafi could improvise like him. However, some feel that many composers took it as interference in their work. Not so Burman, who stood by him. In Khagesh Dev Burman’s biography of S.D. Burman, Bengali lyricist Pulok Bandhopadhyay cites an instance when a peeved Manna Dey shared with him what he went through at the recording of “Tere Naina Talash Karen” (“Talash”, 1969). Apparently, in the presence of Manna Dey, director O.P. Ralhan asked S.D. Burman why Mukesh can’t sing this song. When Burman said that only Manna can sing this tune, Ralhan argued why he made such a tune which Mukesh can’t sing. Burman put his foot down and saved the day for Manna Dey but the singer realised his worth in an industry which respects only those singers which become voice of the stars. When Kishore Kumar broke through with “Aradhana” (1969), Manna Dey settled down as the voice of supporting actors and gradually mellowed with age. Still, when it comes to making classical popular the only other singer who could stand up to Manna Dey is perhaps Yesudas. When Manna Dey sang his only Malayalam number in “Chemeen”, the album was dominated by Yesudas but the director Ramu Kariat, perhaps spurred by composer Salil Chowdhury's faith in his friend, felt that only Manna could do justice to “Manasa maine varu”. He was right for the song has withstood the test of time. And the fighter that he was, Manna Dey kept conquering new frontiers.