Manna Dey: The singer who never got his due

Manna Dey did feel bad about missing out on awards but he had the last laugh, singing long beyond his contemporaries

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In his over half-a-century-long Hindi film career, he sang more than a thousand songs, but just three serve to demonstrate his position in the industry’s scheme of things – the madcap Ek Chatur Naar where Kishore Kumar beats him; the enchanting qawwali Na to karvaan ki talash hai where Mohammed Rafi emerges triumphant eventually; and the classical contest Ketaki gulab juhi, where he beats Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

This was part of the misfortune of Prabodh Chandra ‘Manna‘ Dey, born on May 1, 1919 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). His classical training, innate talent, and “masculine” voice made him perfect for all shades of songs – romantic (including those for the vintage-aged), folk ballads, philosophical musings, and more, but he was never deemed a top-notch singer.

A nephew of gifted blind singer-composer Krishna Chandra Dey, who paved his way into music and films, Manna Dey’s forte was challenging, classical-based songs, especially those that his contemporaries considered difficult, but, unfortunately, this talent led him to be typecast as a niche singer.

The trio of Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar were used to sing for heroes and went on to be identified with particular stars, or even multiple ones, but Manna Dey was rarely — and grudgingly — used, despite veteran Anil Biswas noting that he could sing any song of the three, but they could not sing any of his.

Manna Dey with Mohammad Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh and Talat Mehmood (Source: X)

Take the three songs listed above: In the first from Padosan (1968), he sang for Mehmood, a south Indian music guru, while Kishore Kumar gave playback singing a new dimension by appearing onscreen to sing for Sunil Dutt.

In the second from Barsaat ki Raat (1960), as the voice of bemedalled Ustad Chand Khan (played by character actor Balam), he owns the entire stately qawwali and its seamless segueing into energetic Yeh ishq ishq, before Bharat Bhushan, voiced by Rafi, joins in its last part and goes on to win.

In the third from Basant Bahar (1956), as the young classical singer played by Bharat Bhushan, he prevailed over the reigning champion, despite developing cold feet at having to face the music virtuoso.

Manna Dey was similarly placed in most of his signature songs. Consider Lapak jhapak tu aa te (Boot Polish, 1954), Tu pyar ka sagar hai (Seema, 1955), Kaun aya mere man ke dware (Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957), Ae mere pyare watan (Kabuliwala, 1961), Laga chunri mein daag (Dil Hi To Hai, 1963), Chalat musafir (Teesri Kasam, 1967), Chunri sambhal gori (Baharon Ke Sapne, 1967), Kasme vaade pyar wafa (Upkar, 1967), Bade miya diwane (Shagird, 1967), and Na mangu sona chandi (Bobby, 1973).

Can you recall who they were picturised on?

In the same order, it was character actor David Abraham, Balraj Sahni, Anoop Kumar (the middle Ganguly brother), Balraj Sahni again, Raj Kapoor (as a bearded old ustaad), character actor Krishan Dhawan, frequent villain Anwar Hussain, Pran (turning over a new leaf onscreen), comedian I.S, Johar, and veteran actor Premnath.

This was far from optimum use for a singer who sang for the only movie that Mahatma Gandhi watched — Ram Rajya (1943); for whom Rafi said that while the world listened to his songs, he listened to Manna Dey’s songs; and made Lata Mangeshkar break into tears at the depth he had put into Kasme vaade.

Yet, he did have his supporters in the film industry — many composers such as Shankar-Jaikishan chose him frequently — once even risking the wrath of a big-time South Indian film producer who flayed them for choosing him instead of Mukesh and insulted him publicly, telling him the recording was cancelled and he should go home.

Raj Kapoor, however, stood his ground, saying he wanted him only. The results were Aaja sanam and Yeh raat bheegi-bheegi (Chori Chori, 1956). The producer eventually acknowledged he was wrong!

Raj Kapoor understood Manna Dey’s talent perfectly well — having used him best in Dil ka haal sune dilwala and Mudh mudh ke na dekh (Shree 420) and Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo in his magnum opus Mera Naam Joker (1970), among others.

The then emerging superstar Rajesh Khanna was so taken in with his Zindagi kaisi pai paheli (Anand, 1971), that he insisted it be shot on him, rather than remaining a background melody, as intended. Manna Dey would go on to do Bhor baayi (Bawarchi, 1973) and Gori tori paijaniya (Mehbooba, 1976) for Khanna.

Manna Dey also sang Zindagi hai khel for Dharmendra (Seeta aur Geeta, 1972) and Yeh dosti ham nahi chhodenge for Amitabh Bachchan (Sholay, 1975).

Manna Dey did feel bad about missing out on awards for Ae meri zohra jabeen (Waqt, 1965), or Yaari hai imaan mera (Zanjeer, 1973), but he had the last laugh, singing long beyond his contemporaries and ending up with a Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and the Dadasahab Phalke Award, before passing away in 2013.

Read more:Dilip Kumar: The lion in winter

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