In a career spanning 60 years, Manna Dey excelled across a variety of genres – film songs, ghazals, bhajans, classical and pop – he regaled generations of listeners with his romantic ballads, zany rock and roll numbers, playful qawwalis and intricate raga-based songs. Bipin Parekh presents a detailed study of Manna Dey’s musical life and discography to understand and appreciate his massive repertoire and career graph.
‘I am a singer and my entire life has been dedicated to music alone. To me music is God—the sole source of inspiration and knowledge. I live for music. However, in my childhood music never appealed to me as I spent a large part of my childhood playing games, wrestling with my friends and picking up fights. The musical ambience of our ancestral house was instrumental in effecting the turnaround from a mischief monger to a music maker. It inculcated the desire in me to excel in music’. (Manna Dey in his autobiography)
Not surprisingly then, Manna Dey decided to undertake an arduous and extensive musical training from his expert uncle Krishna Chandra Dey (KC Dey, fondly called Babu Kaka) to become a singer and master the art of song making.
Born in Calcutta on May 1, 1919, to parents Purna Chandra and Mahamaya, Manna Dey (Prabodh Chandra Dey) was brought up in the Dey’s joint family that lived in the ancestral house built by his grandfather around the close of the nineteenth century. Manna Dey’s father completed college education and worked for Chartered Bank, his older uncle Hem Chandra pursued engineering and the younger uncle Krishna Chandra followed his passion and became a singer/composer.
A cursory review of the published literature does not show any explicit mention of Manna Dey being a child prodigy. His genetic legacy and the musical ambiance in which he grew up might have planted a ‘musical parag’ in his psyche that later enabled him to blossom into a great musical artist.
However, his early childhood days shenanigans were in stark contrast to the expectations of a future artist. He was part of a notorious gang playing pranks on neighbours, involved in deliberate brawls, and stealing from confectioners. Flying kites (falling from compound wall and getting a thorough thrashing from an infuriated uncle), playing football and cricket consumed most of the leisure time. At this time music did not appeal to him. In fact, his older uncle Hem Chandra wanted him to become a barrister and steer clear of music as a vocation, even though the younger uncle KC Dey had become a famous singer/composer.
Manna Dey’s inborn talent for music was amply conspicuous very early in his childhood. Despite his apparent lack of interest, music must have been in his blood as loitering near the uncle and other Ustads’ music room, he would pick up at once a rather complex combination of notes and sing it out loud to the amazement of the Ustads. The musical notes and scales, as well as rhythmic beats on tabla came to him naturally.
Since his uncle KC Dey was blind, Manna Dey’s assignments were to help him with not just the routine chores and errands but also to get his music book and read aloud the words of a particular song, or note down the tune of his compositions and jotting down the musical notes. Most of his Babu Kaka’s memorable songs were composed in this manner. These musical sessions that he sat through served as the stepping stone for Manna Dey’s growth as a singer.
Manna Dey kept learning from his uncle KC Dey, his first teacher, the “musical alphabet” and the basic grammar of music. He also started learning to play musical instruments – tanpura and harmonium.
Learning music was never a chore with a patient, sympathetic and enterprising teacher like KC Dey, an expert with a vast knowledge of the art. Exposure to ragas and rhythms formed the basis of his learning.
Manna Dey learned very early on that attention to the intonation (accuracy of pitch/the melodic pattern of utterance) and articulation of words was key to enhancing the meaning of lyrics and emotive power of performance. A song is born from a perfect synchronization of melody, rhythm and lyrics.
Manna Dey’s introduction to ‘English numbers’ in college was a real revelation for him. He appreciated the ingenious tunes, beat and lyrics of Western numbers; he called it love at first hearing.
Manna Dey recalls that a fateful event, inter-collegiate singing competition, constituted the turning point in his life. Thanks to the rigorous training from his uncle, Manna Dey won the singing competition in all nine categories: dhrupad, dhamar, khayal, bhajan, kirtan, baul, bhatiyali, tappa and ghazal. He managed a second place in the categories of modern songs and thumri. However, he was determined to win all categories in the following years by mastering the needed techniques, and he did achieve the goal by winning the next three years.
How good a singer was Manna Dey? Well, Mohammad Rafi once mentioned to a group of journalists, “You listen to my songs. I listen to Manna Dey songs only.” Is there a better endorsement of Manna Dey’s proficiency as a singer?
During his active years as a singer Manna Dey had been synonymous with music and melody. He excelled across a variety of genres – film songs, ghazals, bhajans, classical and pop – he regaled generations of listeners with his romantic ballads, zany rock and roll numbers, playful qawwalis and intricate raga-based songs. Even as an accomplished singer, as part of his daily routine, Manna Dey religiously followed the music practice regimen of morning and evening sessions, 2-3 hours each. The morning session starting off with classical ragas, focusing on individual notes. Beginning with bass, gradually moving on to baritone and close with tenor. Then reverse the order.
‘Seven musical notes in the scale stimulate and transform my very being, transporting me to those mysterious realms of bliss that are impossible to describe in mere words. Could I call it nirvana?’ Manna Dey said. The evening sessions also included light classical genre.
In Mumbai, 1942 KC Dey was signed up to compose music for the film Tamanna. Manna Dey was his uncle’s second assistant at a salary of Rs.150/month for a job that entailed noting down the music of the song, helping singers to pick up the tunes, arranging the music and composing the background score. The film needed a duet by the romantic lead, but the KC Dey could not find the suitable male singer for the number.
‘All right, then,’ he announced. ‘Manna is to be the male singer for this film. Now get me a suitable female singer whose voice will go well with his.’
Manna Dey could not believe his ears as he was about to become a professional playback singer. After a frantic search a beautiful girl, Suraiya, arrived at the studio who KC Dey thought (after the test) to be fit to perform the duet. Manna Dey very seriously took the responsibility of training her. The duet was recorded after the second trial. Thus, was born the first song, a duet with Suraiya, 1942 Tamanna.
Following this, in 1943 he sang four songs in the film Ramrajya, establishing him as playback singer. The producers of Ramrajya, Bhatt brothers, wanted KC Dey to sing the songs that would be lip-synched by the lead actor Jha as Valmiki. KC Dey politely declined and suggested to try his nephew Manna as he was capable of reproducing the bass appropriate for Valmiki’s voice. Manna Dey sang for both Hindi and Marathi versions of songs for the film, composed by Shankar Rao Vyas.
First song of Manna Dey
Jago jago jago aayee usha (Tamanna, 1942) KC Dey / Manna Dey & Suraiya
Ajab vidhi ka lekh (Ramrajya, 1943) Shankar Rao Vyas / Manna Dey
He did get more singing assignments in the subsequent years, but some of these were to sing for ‘older’ characters in many mythological films. After toiling for another seven years, (36 films and more than seventy songs) he had his first popular hit in the 1950 film Mashaal, composed by SD Burman who insisted that Manna Dey sing it in his uncle’s distinctive style.
His last rendition was a Qawwali, Duniyawaalon ko nahin kuchh bhi khabar, film Umar in 2006 at age 87 with Sonu Nigam, Kavita Krishnamurthy, and Shabab Shabri.
Oopar gagan vishal (Mashaal, 1950) SD Burman / Manna Dey
In Mumbai, Manna Dey needed to master the singing technique that his competitors were not experts in: their comprehension of classical music. Manna Dey’s sound training in Hindustani classical music was a valuable asset when it came to picking up tunes, however complex. He made up his mind to use it to impress music directors.
To brush up on his skills he learned under Ustad Aman Ali Khan various ragas and the Noom – a novel exercise peculiar to classical music of correctly pronouncing vowels to enhance aesthetic appeal. Ustad ji would insist to articulate every word clearly and pronounce it correctly. A song is actually a judicious blend of words (correct distribution of the words in a song) and melody.
As a regular classical vocalist at AIR Mumbai Manna Dey came in contact with the legendary Ustad Abdul Rahman Khan (Suresh Kumar) of the Patiala Gharana, who taught him perfect enunciation of words and their intonation and intricate modulation of voice essential to enhance melody. This basic training in classical training was essential to sing Light music which was Manna Dey’s forte.
Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan advised Manna Dey to be more flexible with his scales as it enables one to glide down the notes with great ease. This technique helped Manna Dey overcome a minor issue in that he felt more comfortable singing bass than tenor. Rafi was impressed with the variation of range in Manna Dey’s voice and once asked: ‘Dada, how do you manage to let your voice soar with such ease?’
After having received rigorous training from KC Dey and subsequently from other Ustads, Manna Dey chose to devote exclusively to ‘light classical music’. Manna Dey found classical music rather monotonous and the very long recitals did not appeal to him. Also, being very keenly aware of the ‘cash flow’ aspects, he found that barring the rare exceptions, most classical singers were reduced to abject penury once they stopped performing. His renditions were more of a light-classical types. Here’s a short medley of classical based songs by Manna Dey.
Classical Songs of Manna Dey – a collection
In addition to mastering the art of (playback) singing – that was the key to Manna Dey becoming a great versatile singer – he benefitted from having learned many other essential skills of song making. He worked as second assistant music director (1942, salary of Rs. 150/mo.), assistant music director, notation writer, arranger, trainer for singers to pick up tunes, classical singer at AIR, and composer.
The devotional side
Over his career of six decades Manna Dey had the opportunity to sing a fairly large number of devotional/bhajans tunes. Manna Dey considered the experience of singing for the character of Valmiki in the film Ramrajya and subsequent films extremely valuable in play-backing for this genre of singing. The melodious renditions of devotional tunes in the next medley segment speaks highly of his versatility as well.
Devotional Songs of Manna Dey – a collection
(Medley videos created by Monica Kar)
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