Manna Dey’s genius continues to live on through his songs that were a celebration of his versatility, erudition and musicality. Carnatic vocalist Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma talks about his tryst with the singer and his music
Pain is one of the most universal of all human emotions. There are different kinds of pain. Each kind of pain is distinct and unique. Homesickness is a brand of pain that is usually experienced only by people who have lived far away from their country and their loved ones for a long time. In the 21st century, air travel and the internet have made this ordeal much less acute than it used to be earlier for many. But if one wishes to experience the total agony and the gut wrenching pain of being away from home, the intense nostalgia created by recollections of the motherland that one has left behind and the desperate longing to be back home again, without even stepping out of one’s bedroom, one simply has to play the poignant song ‘Aye Mere Pyare Watan…’, sung exquisitely by Sri Prabodh Chandra Dey (May 1, 1919 - October 24, 2013). Affectionately known as Manna Dey, he occupies a rare and special place in the history of Indian music that very few others do.
Equally adept at singing classical, raga based songs such as ‘Poocho Na Kaise’, ‘Laaga Chunri Me Daag’, ‘Lapak Jhapak’, ‘Tere Naina Talash Karoon’ and ‘Kaun Aya Mere Man Ke Dware’, modern songs with a Western tinge such as ‘Aao Twist Karen’ or Qawwalis such as ‘Yaari Hai Imaan’, Manna da was really and truly a multi faceted genius.
I had grown up listening to a great amount of Hindi film music and loved all the male voices a lot, be it Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar, Talat Mehmood or Manna Dey. The music created by these amazing artists was intimately interwoven with the actors on whom the songs were picturised on screen.
Thus Mohammed Rafi’s star shone bright with amazing songs picturised on stars like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Guru Dutt, Johnny Walker and Shammi Kapoor. Mukesh sang a lot for Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. Kishore Kumar started his journey singing only for himself and Dev Anand but went on to become the preferred voice of virtually all the male actors who came after 1968, starting with Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan.
The fate of artists like Hemant Kumar, Talat Mehmood and Manna Dey were different, for a lot of reasons.
Though Manna Dey could go toe to toe with the best of them, he did not have the good fortune to become the permanent voice of some mega star, unlike the ‘Big Three’ did. Because of this, he was often given only songs that were so difficult or raga based that the producers felt that only he could sing them. This typecast him as a “serious” singer, though he would belt out catchy numbers like ‘Dil Ka Haal Dune Dilwala’, when given a chance to do so.
Another tragedy was that many casual listeners didn’t actually know that HE was the one who had sung a song like say, ‘Zindagi’, from the film Anand. They would automatically presume that it was sung by Kishore Kumar, just because it was picturised on Rajesh Khanna! There are quite a few lovely Manna Da songs that are mistakenly attributed to Rafi and others too by many listeners.
By the mid 1980s, my contact with Hindi film music began to wane quite rapidly and I was content to listen to the recordings of songs that came before. The ‘Big Three’ passed away, leaving thousands of music lovers heart broken. I hadn’t heard much about the others who were still around and presumed that they must all have retired.
So imagine my surprise when I came to know that Manna Dey saab was going to give a live concert in Bombay. It was just my good fortune that I happened to be in town that day. The concert hall was less than 25 per cent full. A few others sang a few songs and the orchestra was very simple and basic.
After some time Manna Da himself appeared on stage. Without any pause, he plunged into the beautiful song ‘Tu Pyar Ka Saagar Hai’ from the film Seema. The effect was electric! I discovered the meaning of how a musical phrase could “go straight through one’s heart!” His voice had grown significantly richer and heavier during the 40 years that had elapsed between the original recording and this live performance that I was blessed to attend. By the time the first stanza had finished and he started the line ‘Khaayal man ka paagal panchhi, Udne ko beqaraar…’ I simply couldn’t hold back the gush of hot and unexpected tears that was streaming down my face. It wasn’t just nostalgia but something that the man had, which could get the audience to do whatever he wished, be it burst into tears, whoop with joy or tap one’s feet and clap happily along with him.
Even at that point I never imagined that I would get to meet the great man and spend some precious times together with him. After hunting for around six years, a friend finally got me his telephone number and I fixed an appointment and went and met him. He lived alone with his wife, Sulochana, whom he affectionately addressed as “Shulu”.
I have never come across another couple so completely and profoundly in love with each other as they were, even after five or six decades of marriage! With the demise of his wife, his life had virtually ended and I never managed to see him again.
But despite his physical absence, his genius continues to live on and his songs…..be it the philosophical ‘Zindagi’ from the film Anand or the playful ‘Mud Mudke Na Dekh’ from Shree 420 or his monumental rendition of Harivanshrai Bachchan’s ‘Madhushala’ … continue to add immeasurably to our lives. May his soul rest in peace.
Getting to know Manna Dey
I had the honour of organising a concert by him in Thiruvananthapuram when he was 85 years old. Afterwards, I attended several concerts by him in various cities all over India and used to keep in touch with him and his wife. I discovered that Tagore was one of his greatest heroes.
I discovered his mix of admiration and envy, where the admiration far outweighed the envy when it came to the brilliance of Hemant Kumar in composing the music for Rabindra Sangeet. I discovered that he liked milk chocolates more than dark chocolate and was quite fond of Kitkat! I had the pleasure of introducing him to the music of a few other greats whom he had missed, like Pandit Channulal Mishra of Banaras. Though he was quite gruff and abrupt on the outside, he was one of the finest men I have ever met, in reality....simple, direct and utterly straightforward.