He is a musical genius whose mellifluous and unique voice was never stereotyped or associated with any one actor. It was both a boon and a bane for Manna Dey, who has enthralled generations with his timeless renditions of varied compositions such as Sur Na Saje, Kya Gaaoon Main, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, Mud Mud Ke Naa Dekh, Naa Toh Kaarvan Ki Talaash Hai and Aao Twist Karein. Here’s Manna Dey, reminiscing about the era bygone, in a conversation with Anuradha SenGupta.
Anuradha SenGupta: In his autobiography Manna Dey says and I quote, “the multifaceted personality of music, my beloved, held me enthralled. I dedicated myself to the delineation of its many moods and manifestations by falling back on those seven notes in the scale and their myriad variations. And I ended up triumphant.” If I were to go through your Hindi film songs and say that which song best sums up this emotion, would it be Sur Na Saje, Kya Gaaoon Main from Basant Bahar or Mera Sab Kuch Mere Geet re from Zindagi Zindagi?
Manna Dey: It’s very hard to say but then I had been very honest with my work. Wherever I have sung a song, I have given my very best. I am perhaps the only sung who insisted on going for rehearsals before recordings. I am very particular about the text of the song – whatever I am supposed to sing. Being a Bengali and to sing in Hindustani or in Urdu was quite a challenge. Whenever a song is sung, it’s only the expression of words. Whatever the lyricist wrote, I had to depict by singing. I chose carefully. Of course I am talking of my private songs not the film songs. I sang whatever film songs they wanted me to. I sang umpteen number of songs for Mehmood. So I sang whatever they asked me to.
Anuradha SenGupta: Some bhains something…
Manna Dey: Meri Bhains Ko Danda Kyun Maara was the one I sang for Shammi (Kapoor).
Anuradha SenGupta: I don’t think most people know that Manna Dey – when he was a young man – contemplated becoming a wrestler!
Manna Dey: Yes. I had a friend in school and college. He was a son of the great wrestler Jatinder Charan Goho and Manik was his name. He was my pal. He was instrumental in getting me to the akhada (wrestling ring). I was a footballer and played well. But I put behind everything when I took up singing and became a very ardent and a sincere student of good music.
Giving Manna Dey a good grounding in music was his paternal uncle K C Dey. Thanks to this self-taught singer, actor and composer, the otherwise conventional Dey household in Kolkata became the setting for magnificent jalsas. Some of the most famous singers and musicians of the time dropped in regularly. Though he didn’t know it then, Manna Dey imbibed it all.
Manna Dey: My uncle was like father to me. He brought us up and he was friend, philosopher and guide to us. I would definitely say he was a pioneer in the field of music. He taught people how to sing. Burman saab and Pankaj Malik used to learn from him. He (uncle) became blind at the age of 13 and at the age of 18, he became a full-fledged singer in Bengal. What a genius he was! You see, I have seen my uncle singing kirtan and people wiping their tears. I felt why I could not have this kind of involvement in singing.
In 1942, Manna Dey moved to Mumbai as K C Dey’s second assistant. His job was to get rehearsals going and to train singers before a recording. His first break as a playback singer came by chance with one of his uncle’s films. But it was a log time before he got his next chance. Even then he was called mainly to sing for mythological and religious films.
Manna Dey: The other singers who were in the running were better than me, definitely. Oh yes, they were better singers than me. Even at the height of my career I would say Mohammad Rafi was a better singer than me. He was such a great singer and I used to listen to him, awestruck. His rendering of certain things – I could never do it.
Anuradha SenGupta: I never thought you would be a modest man. I don’t know why.
Manna Dey: It’s not modesty, you see. It’s bare facts I am talking about. Whenever I sang a song with Lata (Mangeshkar) in her heydays, I used to forget my lines. I used to marvel at her expertise. How could she sing like that! Asha (Bhonsle) – what a versatile singer, what a great singer she is! I have the greatest regard for my compatriots of yesteryears. Even Kishore (Kumar) – what a great artist he is.
Today, Manna Dey is stoic about the early days. He says his painstaking training in classical music helped him break through as a playback singer. Unlike Kishore Kumar, who is easily one of the most loved voices of all times, Manna Dey has a more niche following for his complex, classical songs. But the duets that the two have sung together have transcended both their styles.
Manna Dey: Pancham made Ye Dosti (from Sholay) and then Ek Chatur Naar (from Padosan).
Anuradha SenGupta: It took you 12 hours to record that song!
Manna Dey: Yes. That’s a fact. That’s why the song will be there till the end of time.
Anuradha SenGupta: It must have been a crazy situation. There was you, there was Kishore Da and then Mehmood who continued the dialogue pieces in the song with his Tamil accent.
Manna Dey: Yes
Anuradha SenGupta: Can you describe to us what happened that day?
Manna Dey: I remember Pancham telephoned me to say, ‘Dada, gaana (song0 is ready. Come’. So I went to Pancham’s music room. I asked, ‘Where is Kishore?’ Someone said, ‘Dada there’s a telephone call for you’. I took the call. ‘Manna Da, I am Kishore’. I said, ‘What are you doing there? You are supposed to be here. I am waiting for you.’ He said, ‘No I am waiting for you. My mother is waiting for you, talk to her’. She said, ‘Manna, how are you baba? You have not come to our house for a long time. Why don’t you come? I have made lutchi and aaloo dum for you. And rasogullas too. Come’. So we had to make that trip from Pancham’s house to Kishore’s house. We rehearsed the song for six hours, made it and broke it god knows how many times. After the recording, the way the song turned out was mind boggling. Before we went for recording, we did not know it would turn out to be so hilarious. But it did because of Kishore. What a great artist he is!
Anuradha SenGupta: Does it bother you that you had to work so hard and someone else got it so easily?
Manna Dey: No. I have accepted that there were better talents. Kishore and Rafi had other kind of talents which I was not a recipient of.
Anuradha SenGupta: Would you have liked to have that kind of a talent?
Manna Dey: I think with my aim in life, if I had that kind of a talent, I could have surpassed everything.
Though Manna Dey has sung some of Raj Kapoor’s most famous songs (Mud Mud Ke Naa Dekh), he did not become Kapoor’s voice. In fact, he did not become anybody’s voice. Manna Dey’s songs stand on their own without any help from star power. It’s perhaps a testimony to his voice that those songs sound better when you hear them rather than when you see them.
Manna Dey: I used to always think the music director was the master. If he thinks I can sing it, give it to me, I’ll do my best. If he thinks someone else can do justice to it, go ahead. Songs are an integral part of filmmaking so heroes used to insist on particular singers to sing for them. Naturally, who would take my side because I sang classical songs? How many classical songs would one put in a film?
Manna Dey has worked with all the composers of his time. He believes Shankar-Jaikishan and Madan Mohan gave him some of his most memorable songs. He is proud that he’s a versatile singer and managed to lend his voice to folk songs, bhajans, breezy pop songs, Rabindra sangeet and even qawwalis.
Manna Dey: When I sang Naa Toh Karvaan Ki Talaash Hai, there were lot of controversies as to why Manna Dey and why not a qawwal. So Roshan ji said, ‘The way Manna sings is different from qawwals. And I want that’.
Anuradha SenGupta: I think the fact that your voice did not get associated with any one star or actor is a blessing in disguise. Because, I remember your songs for the emotions they bring out. I don’t remember them a star singing them at all. Lagaa Chunari Mein Daag - I don’t remember Raj Kapoor in that song at all. I remember the feeling your voice managed to evoke.
Manna Dey: Absolutely, I was doing justice to the composition. The way Roshan composed it…
Anuradha SenGupta: And suddenly in the middle you sang Aao Twist Karein.
Manna Dey: Why not?
Anuradha SenGupta: In you heart of hearts lies a breezy, fun style of singing. Isn’t it?
Manna Dey: Absolutely. I am that type. In Ram Rajya, I sang as a playback singer and to my utter surprise, I found I was singing for an old man. And all dhaarmic (religious) films and I was typecast as a singer for bhajans(Hindu hymns) being sung by beggars or old men. That was sick. So much so that I wanted to leave Bombay. No one asked me to sing a romantic song. I have gone through all this. I steeled myself as I had to prove a point. Which is why I took up classical singing so seriously.
Anuradha SenGupta: Even in Bengal when you tried to establish yourself as a playback singer (in Antony Firangi). It seemed Uttam Kumar at one point didn’t want you to sing for him. Such has been a struggle for you to lend your voice to the stars. Why is that?
Manna Dey: Absolutely. It was because other singers were great. It was people’s choice and to some extent the economy of the business. They associated one particular voice with one artist. Hemant Kumar was Uttam’s voice. Why should they change it all of a sudden? When you produce a film, you can’t go on doing whatever you want. You have to use proved things. What were they spending so much money on? I understood this from the beginning. That’s why I hold no malice towards anybody.
Anuradha SenGupta: Have you done the best you could with the talent, the opportunities and the circumstances life has given you?
Manna Dey: I have done my best. But then, that’s fallen short of many thing.
Anuradha SenGupta: Of your own expectations.
Manna Dey: That’s right. I could definitely be a better singer that what I am.
Anuradha SenGupta: Manna Dey, you don’t mince your words and neither will I mince mine. I think you are being too hard on yourself and there are lots of people who think you are one of the best singers they have had the pleasure to listen to.
Manna Dey: Because this is the standard that’s been laid down. But it could be much better.
Anuradha SenGupta: We hope you continue with your riyaaz and keep finding that little improvement that you keep looking for.
Manna Dey: It’s late in the day. I am 88. With age, voice also gets aged.
Anuradha SenGupta: We just wish you all the best.
Manna Dey: Thank you. I will do my best again.