Manna Dey traversed a range of music with amazing ease.
I have never met or spoken to Manna Dey but the news of his death left me with an incredible sense of loss. I spent the day moving from one radio station to another just to hear the Manna Dey songs they played.
His songs are inextricably linked to my growing-up years when programmes like Chhaya Geet on Doordarshan, Bhule Bisre Geet and Jaimala on Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon brought the best of Hindi film music to listeners. My earliest recollection of his songs were ‘Yeh raat bheegi’ and ‘Aaja sanam’ (Chori Chori), ‘Chali radhe rani’ (Parineeta) and ‘Babu, samjho ishaare’ (a hilarious duet with Kishore Kumar from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi). But the one song that moves me deeply even today is ‘Ae mere pyare watan’ (Kabuliwala). During the recording, music director Salil Chowdhury was surprised to find Dey singing in a softer tone and asked him to sing in his regular full-throated voice. Manna asked him to wait for the end result and then decide.
His time in the Hindi film industry was no cakewalk yet, in an interview, he remarked that each singer had his forte and that he shared an easy camaraderie with his peers. In another interview, he spoke of how he almost refused to sing ‘Ketaki gulab joohi’ (Basant Bahar). The song was picturised as a competition between rivals. While Manna Dey provided playback for the hero, he was embarrassed to find that Bhimsen Joshi was singing for the rival’s character. Finally it was his wife who persuaded him to record the song.
While his classical numbers like ‘Kaun aaya mere man ke dware’ (Dekh Kabira Roya) and ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’ (Dil Hi To Hai) are unforgettable, Manna Dey was also the voice behind the playful “Ae meri zohra jabeen” (Waqt), and the foot-tapping ‘Aao twist karen’ (Bhoot Bangla) in which Dey steals a march over the Chubby Checker original!
On the day of his death, one radio station chose to air an interview that had been recorded earlier. Manna da sounded warm and communicative but sadly apologised for his live singing. Clearly, age and ill-health had taken its toll but the Manna Dey magic had not faded.
My top ten
Ae mere pyare watan
Poocho na kaise
Phir kahin koi phool khila
Yeh raat bheegi bheegi
Hasne ki chah ne
Laaga chunari mein daag
Sur na saje
Jhanak jhanak tori
Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare
Zindagi kaisi hai paheli