Irony was the constant refrain of Manna Dey’s life. A world happy to sway to jingles could not always appreciate the steeped-in-classicism kalaam of Manna Da. Not blessed with the rare yodelling skills of
Kishore Kumar or the soaked-in-romance style of Mohammed Rafi, there were a few things Manna Dey could do which his contemporaries could not aspire to. He could whip up a Lagi chunari mein daag, or Aayo kahan se Ghanshyam with such ease that he made a mockery of all predictions of the songs being difficult or challenging. Music directors Shankar-Jaikishen, indeed Mohammed Rafi too, felt he was the best choice when it came to songs with classical leanings.
Manna Da though wanted to break the stereotype, ready at a moment’s notice to improvise, to innovate. He could dish out Aao twist karein too but the Hindi film world gave him only occasional opportunities to show his range, always keen to tap into his classical reservoir. In some ways, he remained an under-valued genius, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award notwithstanding. His voice was never associated with any hero, his name never doing the rounds of any music director’s camp for all songs of a movie; he charted his own path.
A man most humble who did his own grocery purchases, he, however, was not happy about being the voice of Mahmood in Padosan. The song, Ek chatur naar, a kind of a singing contest in which he shared the baton with Kishore Kumar, was filmed on Sunil Dutt and Mahmood with Manna Da’s voice being used for the comedian. It left him unimpressed and he had to be persuaded to allow the song to be used in the film. Yet the same Manna Da once refused to sing with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi out of reverence for Pandit ji. The song in question, Ketki gulab juhi had Bhimsen’s character losing to Manna Da’s character in the film Basant Bahar. So Manna Da lost to Kishore Kumar in Padosan and defeated Bhimsen Joshi a decade before that! Ketki gulab juhi, however, was the not the biggest hit from Basant Bahar. That honour went to Sur na saje kya gaoon main”, where again only Manna Da could have done justice to all the ebbs and crests of music. Sur na… was picturised on Bharat Bhushan, a fine case of Manna Da singing for the hero, otherwise though his voice continued to be used for non-heroes.
Another memorable case being Yaari hai imaan mera in Zanjeer, which was lip-synced by Pran, not the hero Amitabh Bachchan.
The ironies did not leave Manna Da there. Mukesh was generally regarded as the voice of RK Films. Yet Manna Da gave some of his best songs for Raj Kapoor in films like Chori Chori, Shree 420 and even Bobby. In Chori Chori he gave us superhits like Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum and Ye raat bheegi bheegi while Rafi had to make do with the now forgotten “All line clear”.
Born in 1919, he started as a music assistant in 1942. The following year he got his first whiff of public appreciation with songs of Ramrajya. It was, however, not until Upar gagan vishal in Mashaal (1950) that he began to be taken seriously as a solo singer. By the time he left youth, he was an accomplished performer, a diligent artiste who toiled endlessly yet never compromised on his music. In a delicious irony of life, Manna Da, who was never taken to be voice of any romantic hero of the era – the likes of Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna used Kishore Kumar and Rafi’s voice – managed to give us two ultimate romantic songs for people young, and those young at heart. His Pyar hua iqrar hua hai pyar se phir kyun darta hai dil from Shree 420 (1955) was used in an advertisement campaign to promote contraceptives some 40 years after it became a chartbuster.
If this song was an ode to love young and fearless, his number in Waqt was all about love that has withstood the test of tide and time. The song Ae meri Zohra Jabeen under the baton of music director Ravi, was a mischievous blend of seasoned love with innocent pranks with both Balraj Sahni and Achala Sachdev doing a wonderful job on the screen.
Little appreciated, but Manna Da was a constant factor in the films of V. Shantaram; his songs of Do Ankhen Barah Haath and Navrang have scarcely been forgotten.
His voice which could encapsulate almost all shades of life was used for patriotic as well as devotional songs. The irony could not have been greater – at one time Manna Da was ready to quit the country when an article by Rupayan Bhattacharya in a Kolkata daily compelled him to change his mind. And in the industry cine-goers hardly thought beyond Rafi or Mahendra Kapoor when it came to patriotic songs. Yet Manna Da gave us Ae mere pyare watan in Kabuliwala.
Similarly, he lent his voice to the ever soothing Tu pyar ka sagar hai, a song from Seema, which the faithful play in praise of the Almighty. His voice had the haunting quality of a companion left behind. It could also have a tinge of a friend extolling you to march on. The two examples being provided by songs of Safar and Shor, where he sang Nadiya chale chale re dhara and Jeevan chalne ka naam — the latter being one of the few songs he sang with Mahendra Kapoor. Interestingly, he sang more than 50 songs with Rafi and 100 songs each with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle.
Memorable as his songs were in Hindi cinema, Manna Da, who, for all his accomplishments, lived a humble life, sang in many Indian languages — notably Bengali, Assamese, Gujrati and Malayalam. His non-film albums too made a mark in the market, Yeh Awaara Raatein being truly remarkable. In ‘live’ shows too, he was peerless. Always holding the audience captive with his mastery over the medium. For many years, he confined himself to his residence in Bangalore, venturing out but rarely. Old age did not allow him to grace Kolkata on the opening day of IPL-VI, which was a disappointment for all, notably for Manna Da too as he was a keen student of the game. He had deep interest in soccer as well, being among a handful of artistes in cinema whose interests went beyond movies. His departure leaves a vacuum nobody will dare attempt to fill. But as Manna Da himself sang Chalat musafir, it is time for the second innings of the journey called life. History might appreciate him better.