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It was a longstanding grouse of singer Manna Dey that he rarely got an opportunity to sing for the hero in Hindi films. It was not as if he was not as good as his peers such as Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar or that music directors did not acknowledge his excellent, tuneful singing. But they could only think of him for songs sung on screen by the comedian, or for classical, raga-based compositions, or those anonymous, background songs, usually with a philosophical content.

The singer breathed his last at Bangalore’s Narayana Hrudayalaya in the wee hours of Thursday morning after a prolonged lung infection. He was 94, and is survived by his daughters Suroma and Samhita.

During his long career—he began singing for films in 1942—Manna Dey did give us some incomparable romantic numbers lip-synced by the top stars of the day. Shankar-Jaikishen used him in Chori Chori for unforgettable songs like Aa jaa sanam madhur chandni mein hum and Yeh raat bheegi bheegi and earlier, in Shri 420, for Pyar hua ikraar hua hai, all of them sung on screen by Raj Kapoor. He even sang for Dev Anand in Kala Bazaar (Saanjh dhali…).

But most of the time his voice was used for Mehmood or whenever a singer was required for a difficult classical piece. Think, Pucho na meine kaise rain beetayi and Gori tori baanki. And when he got to give his voice to the reigning star of the day, Rajesh Khanna, it was for Zindagi, kaisi hai paheli (Anand) composed by Salil Chowdhury and Bhor aayi gaya andhiyara (Bawarchi) composed by Madan Mohan.

His deep classical training could have been the reason for this anomaly. Manna Dey (his real name was Prabodh Chandra Dey) began his musical learning under his uncle, the well-known, visually impaired singer K.C. Dey, who was among the earliest singers after talkies began. Music lovers will remember Duniya rang rangili baba with Uma Shashi and K.L. Saigal.

After his move to Bombay, Manna Dey continued to learn classical singing from his uncle and Ustad Dabir Khan. The 1940s were dominated by Saigal and newcomers such as Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi were heavily influenced by him. But both soon found their own métier and most important, were backed by musical godfathers, Shankar-Jaikishen and Naushad. Naushad felt Manna Dey’s voice was too “dry". Mohammed Rafi was also the singer of choice for S.D. Burman. Manna Dey’s greatest backer was Salil Chowdhury, but he was a niche music director.

The advent of peppier songs gave both these singers a fillip and a young newcomer Kishore Kumar was a natural addition to the ranks. Manna Dey, while outstanding as a singer, was thought to be good but limited. His strengths were obvious—he could hold high and low notes, he could handle complex arrangements and he always sang clearly, with each word carefully enunciated. But he was thought, unfairly perhaps, to lack oomph and flair, especially when compared with Rafi and Kishore Kumar.

This, despite the abandon with which he sang Aao twist karein (Bhoot Bangla) and much later Yaari hai imaan (Zanjeer) and such like. Many of his best and most energetic songs have been sung on screen by Mehmood, from Pyar ki aag mein tan badan jal gaya (Ziddi) and Ek chatur naar kar ke singaar (Padosan), in which he, improbably, loses a classical singing contest to Kishore Kumar. Manna Dey is said to have had a hearty laugh at this.

Some of his greatest songs are non-filmi. He recorded selections from Harivanshrai Bachchan’s Madhushala and his songs such as Nathni se toota moti re and Yeh awaara se din has loyal fans. In Bengali, Coffee Houser sei adda, is a favourite among youngsters for its nostalgic evocation of leisurely times in Calcutta.

Seeing that the film industry was not fully giving him his due, Manna Dey began doing public shows, here and abroad, and these were hugely popular. It was clear that he had a tremendous following among those who loved good singing. Even though he has sung a fraction of those rendered by Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey holds his own as one of the pillars of the golden age of Hindi music.

Sidharth Bhatia is the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, and Amar Akbar Anthony, a book on the making of the Bollywood classic.

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