It has been a long wait but the veteran playback singer Manna Dey finally gets his due. I am grateful to Shankarji. He gave me a wide range of songs to sing and establish myself. His judgment was crucial in my success as a versatile singer.
You can begin the day with ‘Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hai’ and end it with it ‘Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Mein…’ Intersperse these gems with ‘Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ke Dware’ or ‘Har Taraf Ab Yahi Afsane Hain’ to understand the amazing range that Prabodh Chandra De, also known as Manna Dey, commanded. He could leave you in a trance with ‘Ae Meri Zohrajabeen Tujhe Maaloom Nahi’ and also send you to the dance floor with his ‘Aao Twist Karen Gaa Uthaa Mausam…’
The Dadasaheb Phalke Award is too late a recognition for Mannada’s contribution to film music. His fans have been paying him tributes for close to six decades. He is 90 now but continues to get a packed house for his live concerts. When the Phalke Award was announced, the maestro was in the United States for well-attended concerts. Unfortunately, Mannada had to cut short his U.S. tour due to his wife, Sulochana’s illness. The two live in Bangalore.
Mannada could sing only difficult songs. This is what Sachin Dev Burman is said to have remarked once. Can there be a greater compliment? Even Mannada had once asked Sachinda in exasperation, “Why do I get all the tough ones?” The beauty of Mannada’s singing lay in the ease with which he rendered a difficult composition. Listen to his evergreen ‘Upar Gagan Vishaal’ from the 1950 movie ‘Mashaal,’ which propelled him into national recognition or ‘Laga Chunari Mein Daag’ or ‘Aye Mere Pyare Watan, Aye Mere Bichhde Chaman.’
He must be the most under-rated singer. From bhajans to romantic songs, Mannada was melody personified. He recorded his first song in 1942 and went on to match the best in the business. What if he could not become the voice of a particular actor? Mannada’s appeal was universal. And that is the reason why he believes that his greatest reward is “recognition by my fans.” He does not aspire for awards because he does not find them “inspiring.” He was hugely “disappointed” when he did not win the 1968 national award for his ‘Kasme Wade Pyaar Wafa Sab’ from ‘Upkaar.’ In fact, Mannada was close to migrating when sports scribe Rupayan Bhattacharya’s story in a Kolkata daily compelled the legendary singer to change his mind.
The versatile Mannada belonged to the golden period of film music. Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Talat Mehmood were his contemporaries when a rich array of songs lit up the film industry. He was part of most of the musical hits of that era. It was Raj Kapoor’s musical sense that gave Mannada the platform to grow as a singer. He had struggled for a long time to showcase his style. He is an amazingly self-made man with absolute respect for his predecessors.
There is this instance of Mannada refusing to sing a duet with the legendary Bhimsen Joshi in Basant Bahar. The song, ‘Ketki Gulab Juhi’ was a classical beauty and ended with Bharat Bhushan, who was lent Mannada voice, winning the competition. Now he would not accept Bhimsen Joshi losing. He relented only after much persuasion by music directors Shankar-Jaikishan and Bhimsen Joshi himself.
The pair of Shankar-Jaikishan is dear to him. Mannada has always acknowledged their contribution publicly. “I am grateful to Shankarji. He gave me a wide range of songs to sing and establish myself. His judgment was crucial in my success as a versatile singer,” he had said a few years ago. Mannada rates Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar above him in terms of range and adaptability. Mannada also remembers the days when he would indulge Rafi in kite duels. “Those were glorious days.”
His songs have appealed to music lovers of different generations. His voice never lost its softness and pitch, whether rendering a qawwali (‘Na To Caravan Ki Talaash Hai’) or an emotional offering (‘Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli’). Some of his greatest numbers are non-filmi – ‘Sawan Ke Rimjhim Mein,’ ‘Naach Re Mayura’ and ‘Ye Aawara Raatein Ye Khoi Si Baaten,’ Mannada was always the one to conform to the demands of the composers, whether it was ‘Kasme Waade Pyar Wafa’ from ‘Upkaar’ or ‘Chalat Musafir Moh Liya Re’ from ‘Teesri Kasam.’
Mannada has been equally comfortable at the recording studio and at public concerts. He takes three-four songs to warm up and then leaves the audience spellbound. How many singers would have cut a disc at 90? Mannada has just recorded one that is scheduled for a Deepavali release. Critics had just one complaint against him. Why did he not indulge in ghazals? “There were better ghazal singers than me,” was his modest submission. Pakistan is one of the few countries he has not visited.
Age has never been a deterrent for this veteran who remains young at heart. He prefers to wash his clothes, buy his grocery or step out on his own, even for minor repair of his specs. He loves visiting the Anand Restaurant in Central Kolkata for his favourite idlis and dahi vadas. He just loves meeting people, especially youngsters.
A sports fan, Mannada can discuss with great passion and intensity a football club or a player – from Rooney to Kaka, from Dhoni to Ponting. His love for cricket is unflinching. In 2003, on landing in Kolkata he headed, not home, but to the Eden Gardens – for signing a huge bat and thus pledging his support to Sourav Ganguly’s World Cup-bound team. Football and cricket are very dear to him.
“I want to sing until my last breath” is the maestro’s mantra. No wonder his personal favourite is ‘Mera Sab Kuch Mere Geet Re, Geet Bina Kaun Mera Meet Re’ from ‘Zindagi Zindagi’. You can never be alone and music can never be old when Manna Dey sings.