A tribute to "The classical Titan", a week after he physically left our universe

Raju Bharatan, among the most authoritative voices on Hindi film music, has chronicled his musical memories in a book titled Journey down the melody lane. Its front cover has a vinyl disc, with the book’s title embedded. The disc is sandwiched between eight faces - four above and four below - perhaps to indicate the most prominent names to have shaped Hindi film music so far. The faces include those of: Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bhonsle, Kishore Kumar above the disc and Gulzar, R. D. Burman, Javed Akhtar and A. R. Rahman below it.

One face is conspicuous by its absence, that of a singer whose experience, proficiency and repertoire rivalled only that of Lataji. He is one who Bharatan himself goes on, in the same book, to crown with the sobriquet “The classical titan”. The missing face is that of Prabodh Chandra Dey, popularly known as Manna Dey.

This omission may not have been unintentional. For, being overlooked for the equally versatile Rafi or the more flamboyant Kishore was a predicament that haunted Mannada’s film career for more than two decades. Yet, he understood the ephemeral nature of fame in the show business so well that he took this in his stride and moved on. This explains his resilience, his ability to bounce back while his contemporaries faded away after spells at the peak.

He could have emerged as the voice of Raj Kapoor - of the trimurti of Raj, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar - in the 1940s and the 1950s. His voice suited the socialist-secularist themes the combination of Raj Kapoor and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas was scripting those days. In Shree 420, he had pyaar hua iqraar hua and dil ka haal sune dilwala, coming at a time when Mukesh was establishing himself as a major element in Raj Kapoor films.

Destiny or Providence had it otherwise. Mannada had to be content with an occasional raga-based laaga chunari mein daag while Mukesh - after a brief, failed attempt at becoming an actor - made sure that Raj Kapoor would not have to look elsewhere, either in films under RK banner or the ones in which he was playing lead role.

However, in the album of chori chori - released in 1956, when Mukesh was trying his hand at acting - Mannada totally dominated with three duets with Lata ji: ye raat bheegi-bheegi; aaja sanam madhur chaandni mein hum; and jahan main jaati hoon vahin chale aate ho.

Mukesh emerging as voice of Raj Kapoor did not deter Mannada from establishing his mark. Much later, in Mera naam joker, an album which didn’t have RK production’s lucky mascot Lataji and therefore gave Mukesh all the more opportunity to waltz his way through, Mannada struck it rich with the song - infused with Neeraj’s poetry that reminded us of the Bard’s All the world’s a stage - “ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo".

When it came to classical raga-based songs, composers knew that they could safely bank on Mannada. In the 40s and the early 50s, composers - be it Naushad, C Ramachandra, S D Burman or Shankar-Jaikishan - experimented with different singers, depending on each one’s hold over the nuances, much before one singer got identified with any particular actor.

They looked toward Rafi for melody; Mukesh for pathos; Talat Mehmood for Ghazals but when it came to classical, Manna Dey emerged as a clear favourite.

But while Mukesh’s voice got identified with Raj Kapoor and Rafi’s with Dilip Kumar first and romantic heroes like Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee and Biswajeet next, Mannada’s was a voice which skillfully mastered the art of singing uncompromisingly. Rather than tailoring himself to suit the lead actor’s image, he made the lead actor do the hard work to adjust to his style.

This ensured that he never got typecast, though he was sidelined at times. This also enabled him to earn musical spells of varying brilliance and perhaps also contributed to the longevity of his career, unlike Rafi and Kishore whose popularity peaked, plateaued and dipped, never to recover completely.

Another factor that lent his songs a healthy dash of immortality is the poetry in them. Not being identified as the “voice” of any lead gave the lyricist the luxury to experiment. It also acted as a blessing to the playback. So, though Raju in awara gains his happy-go-lucky image with awara hoon and in Shree-420 with mera joota hai japani, to infuse his character with the pathos required, SJ and Shailendra-Hasrat Jaipuri needed tere bina aag ye chandni and dil ka haal sune dilwala.

The same can be said for the Sharada number, duniya ne mujhko chchod diya, which had Raj Kapoor philosophising while being drunk, bringing memories of Mukesh-Motilal’s zindagi khwab hai from jaagte raho. Incidentally, a YouTube search tells me that Mannada also sang a version of the number.

In Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s Char din char rahein, the only film with both Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor in lead roles, we had him singing for Raj Kapoor qadam-qadam se dil se dil milaa rahein hain hum. This when Mukesh was also used in the song. Manna Dey's voice was perhaps considered more suitable, considering the song’s radical overtones.

These and many more examples only show that philosophy in lyrics blended with the depth in his voice well. So did burlesque: We can listen to his songs picturised on Mehmood. Speaking of lighter shades, he even sang two songs for Kishoreda in Krorepati, including pahle murgi banee thi ki anda.

Lending aesthetic depth

These little spells of brilliance resulted in him getting the meatier poems later on, getting to capture the lyricism in a film’s album, adding a certain aesthetic depth to both the album and the movie.

Manna Dey was perhaps the most skilled of the quartet of Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh Dey. Yet, though not entirely happy, he remained content to be in the background, playing the role of a sheet anchor. He was one the composer could rely on when he/she needed a skilled fix. If Rafi provided versatility and Kishore eccentricity, Manna Dey provided stability to film music; his songs laid the foundation one which the structure of an album could be built - whether it had a Raj Kapoor, a Balraj Sahni or a Manoj Kumar.

However, his article of faith remained classical music.

When I do a fan’s sampling of some of the best of his earliest songs - all from the 50s - a few attributes strike me.

One, his voice sounding as if it was recorded just yesterday. ‘Timeless’ is a word we associate with the voices of Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhonsle as well, no doubt. But in many cases, their voices were tailored to a particular actor on the screen. In the case of Manna Dey, it was the other way. That apart, the euphony in his voice lent a certain dulcet feel to it, even with minimal use of musical instruments. Take mausam beeta jaaye or oopar gagan vishal. They make you feel rhapsodic - the lyrics, the music and the voice combining to create a certain musical transcendence. Even when I watch this on screen - whether it is picturised on Bharat Bhushan, Balraj Sahni or David - it is Manna Dey playing in my mind and not the actor. No doubt his classical grounding had a major role to play in this.

Coming to the lyrics part, I don’t think it is mere coincidence that the best of lyrics of an album went to the handful of gems Manna Dey had in it. We can feel the rustic touch in dharti kahe pukaar ke; the spirit of complete surrender in tu pyar ka sagar hai; and a certain sense of fulfillment in kaun aaya mere man ke dware. The poetry is taken to a new level that doesn’t necessarily have to be pigeon-holed into the confines of the screen-space. So listening to these songs need not require having the particular situation in the film in mind. So while kaun aaya mere man ke dware looks having a tinge of romance on screen, while listening as a standalone, we can take it as a bhajan. And while tu pyar ka sagar hai is a bhajan on screen and dharti kahe pukar ke a harvest song, we can read other themes while listening to them.

Shaant ras

His voice focused on a melange of karuna ras (pathos) and shaant ras (peace and tranquillity) even when the situation required other rasas to dominate. So, as my friend Divya Solgama says, even in the songs he sung for Mehmood, which required haasya ras (humour) he infused these two rasas, adding a certain classicism to the numbers there. We can feel that in songs like meree patni mujhe sataati hai from pati patni; hato kaahe ko jhoothi banao batiyan from manzil; and later on, the more famous ek chatur naar from padosan.

If Kishore Kumar was an actor’s singer and Mohammed Rafi a musician’s singer, we can say that Manna Dey was a singer’s singer, an aesthete’s aesthete, someone other singers and those with trained ears would like to listen, when they wished/wish to withdraw away from the deluge of film music - a lot of it cacophonous - to the bliss of inner solitude. In other words, his songs would prompt trained singers to do some serious soul searching.

And what could explain the fact that while parvenus modeling themselves on Rafi and Kishore have emerged quickly kept emerging, there could not be anyone following Manna Dey's style? My friend Divya tells me that Suresh Wadekar in the 80s and Shankar Mahadevan at present could be among a handful who could be considered belonging to Manna Dey's school due to their grounding in classical music.

"Singer’s singers" are rare these days. One voice that comes to my mind is that of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan. His is on whichstands out in any album, irrespective of if the song is to be used on Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan or Naseeruddin Shah. And it also gets the best lyrics.

Perhaps Rafi sa’ab telling his his fans: “You listen to my songs, I listen to Manna Dey songs only.” was due to Manna da being singer’s singer.

I can picturise, one week after Manna Dey’s departure from our gloomy universe, Rafi sitting in his riyaaz room, listening to a “Best of Manna Dey” record to add depth to his melodious voice while preparing to do a jugalbandi with his newly-arrived neighbour, in their own alternate musical universe.