Even if you are an artiste of supremely protean talent, life can throw unexpected challenges at you. For Manna Dey, whose birth centenary falls on May 1, that moment came when he was asked to do Ketaki Gulab Juhi with Bhimsen Joshi for the 1956 film Basant Bahar. Problem was, he had to defeat Bhimsen! He could not stomach that—how could he, a mere playback singer, win over a full-fledged khayal maestro? It took all the persuasive powers of Shankar Jaikishan to move him. Bhimsen himself told Manna Dey, with gentle wit, “I’ll teach you how to defeat me!” The song was finally recorded in five takes, and ended with Bhimsen complimenting Manna. Even for someone who became an iconic figure in playback singing, that would have been a most cherished ketaki-gulab in his bouquet. A mark of his proverbial versatility, which he acquired with great effort, as a kind of compensation for not being the typical “hero’s voice” in Hindi films (like, say, Rafi, the only male singer who could match his vocal range). What helped him was early classical training. He was the nephew of singer-composer K.C. Dey—‘Kaana Keshto’—who was S.D. Burman’s mentor. Listen to KC’s soaring melodies in the original Devdas (1936) and you know which heaven Manna came from!
While most of India knows his Hindi oeuvre, Manna Dey created his niche in the golden era of Bengali songs, with distinctive singer-composers like Satinath Mukherjee, Shyamal Mitra and Hemanta Mukherjee (aka Hemant Kumar). But it was Manna Dey who could bridge the gap between a plaintive Tumi Aar Deko Na, the breezy Ami Tar Thikana and the classical-based Ami Je Jalshagharer with balletic ease. His rendering of raga-based songs could make them sound simple—till you tried singing them! No wonder, everyone from SD to Salil Chowdhury and Nachiketa Ghosh chose Manna Dey for their difficult compositions (even if, tragically, Naushad and O.P. Nayyar never experimented with him). But then, he could rock too. When Sudhin Dasgupta conceived of the rockabilly-style classic Jibane Ki Pabo Na in 1969, it was Manna Dey he turned to. Eight years before, Manna Dey had done Aao Twist Karein for R.D. Burman. But understanding that Sudhin was a harder taskmaster than RD, Manna Dey incorporated a kind of romantic flow on the second mukhra, Bhalo Aar Mander. The groove and the melodic delicacy together…that was the magic.
There’s a common misconception that Manna Dey was proud and didn’t think highly about others. In reality, Manna Dey was always easy to approach, always attending to phone calls himself. At recording studios, he was punctual and minus any tantrums. To co-artists, friendly. To juniors, a guardian-like figure. Far from being narcissistic and smug, Manna Dey saw Rafi as India’s greatest playback singer, and Hemant Kumar as the true symbol of Bengali progressive culture. Lata and Asha were maharanis of melody for him, and Geeta Dutt a romantic diva. With Kishore Kumar, a very different kettle of fish musically, he enjoyed a sibling-like bond. Once Kishore even rebuked son Amit Kumar for trying to sing the songs of Manna Dey and Hemant (something Kishore admitted was impossible for him). Behind the comic duel between the two in Ek Chatur Naar—where Manna Dey had to pull off a gamaka-laden Carnatic vibe—there was friendly synergy, neither trying to outdo the other.
Manna Dey was very particular about lyrics (and shunned vulgarity). In Bangla, Pulak Bandopadhyay, Gouriprasana Majumdar and Sudhin Dasgupta appealed to him. In Hindi, he was fond of the creations of Shailendra (the desi Chalat Musafir), Hasrat Jaipuri (the clown’s Ai Bhai Zara Dekhke Chalo), Majrooh Sultanpuri (the superb comic-Bhairavi Banao Batiya) and Sahir Ludhianvi (the qawwali classic Na Toh Karvaan Ki Talash Hai). His immersion was total. As he sang Kaifi Azmi’s lines in Hoke Majboor Mujhe, in Madan Mohan’s music, he was moved to tears. The others in this many-voiced song, Rafi, Talat Mehmood and Bhupendra (in his debut), had a moment of hushed awe.
The curious thing with playback singing is how voices get attached to faces—here, his thick, fluttering voice kept him a bit off-centre and gave him a kind of floating role. In Bangla, of course, he did Uttam Kumar (Hazaar Taka’r) and Soumitra Chatterjee (Hoyto Tomari Jonno). In Hindi, though, he was often an alternate textural choice—occasionally displacing Mukesh for Raj Kapoor (Ai Bhai, Aaja Sanam, and the superb Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, where Raj is in disguise as an old man), or Kishore for Rajesh Khanna (Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli). Yet, it was a vast canvas: Balraj Sahni (Tu Pyaar Ka Sagar, Ay Meri Zohrazabeen), Pran (Kasme Vaade, Yaari Hai Imaan), Shammi Kapoor (Meri Bhains ko Danda), even Anoop Kumar (the memorable Kaun Aaya Mere). He also spanned languages, pulling in a haunting Manasa Maine Varoo in Malayalam. In his last, unhappy days, the lingering ache of music is what must have sustained him.(The writer is a senior journalist)