Manna Dey’s expertise in complex classical renditions helped him excel in a variety of genres of Hindi film music and modern “adhunik” songs, creating everlasting songs.
Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaye,
kabhi toh hansaaye, kabhi yeh rulaaye…
Words that have become proverbial, a song that continues to charm music lovers across generations and the singer who has set benchmarks in playback music that are hard to surpass.
When we think of the male golden voices of the 50s, 60s and 70s, Manna Dey along with his contemporaries Mohd Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar and Talat Mahmood is one of the sextet who took Hindi film music to the heights of excellence. Such was his impact that music directors created songs keeping him in mind, with the trust that only he could deliver those intricate murkis with ease.
Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaye (Anand, 1971) Salil Chowdhury / Yogesh
Born Prabodh Chandra Dey in Kolkata 1919 and known by his nickname Manna, this versatile singer became synonymous with classical songs and humorous songs in Hindi and Bengali film music and also “adhunik” Bengali songs. When it came to classical rendition of purely “raag-based” classical/semi-classical songs, music composers would straightaway look for Manna Dey.
Remember the intricate tarana that comes with “Laaga chunri mein daag chhupaaun kaise” (Dil Hi To Hai) based on Raag Bhairavi, or the hidden pathos in “Poochho na kaise maine raain bitai” (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen) based on Raag Ahir Bhairav, the romance in Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payelia (Mere Huzoor) based on Raag Darbari Kanada, or the proverbial Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare, payal ki jhankar liye (Dekh Kabira Roya), based on Raag Raageshri?
Manna Dey’s songs became superhits not only because of the remarkable music but also because of the ease with which he sang those difficult classical compositions. He brought the elite “classical” music into the popular domain, making these songs hummable by anyone who loved to croon.
Laaga chunri mein daag chhupaun kaise (Dil Hi To Hai, 1963) Roshan / Sahir Ludhianvi
Those first songs
Recipient of Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2009, the Padma Bhushan in 2005, the Padma Shri in 1971 and the National Award twice, Dey began his career in playback singing with a duet with Suraiya “Jaago jaago aayee usha” in the film Tamanna in 1942, under the music direction of well known composer K C Dey, his uncle, tutor and mentor.
But it was only in 1943 that he got his first solo break with Ram Rajya. Incidentally, the producer of the film Vijay Bhatt and its composer Shankar Rao Vyas had approached K C Dey with an offer for playback in the film. When K C Dey refused the offer on the grounds that he would not lend his voice to other actors, they spotted Manna Dey sitting in the corner of the room and offered him the opportunity.
Shankar Rao Vyas taught Manna Dey the songs and he chose to sing them in his uncle’s distinct style. And thus started the illustrious career with the first song “Gayi tu gayi Seeta sati“(Ram Rajya, 1943).Though he sang quite a few songs after this, his first hit song was Kavi Pradeep’s “Oopar gagan vishal” for the film Mashal (1950).
He lived in a large, joint family “in an atmosphere drenched in music.” His immense control over his voice was due to his intense tutelage under stalwarts of classical music who visited his home and his uncle K C Dey, who was a well-known Bengali actor, singer, music composer and teacher.
Poocho na kaise maine rain bitai (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen , 1963) SD Burman / Shailendra
A Powerful Classical Base
K C Dey mentored him and introduced him into a career which would eventually become legendary. “I was drawn towards my uncle’s ability to modify classical music to make it appealing to the layperson,” Manna Dey recalled in an insightful interview in Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song, the authoritative book by Ganesh Anantharaman.
The classical training set Manna Dey in a genre of his own but that did not any way affect his extensive repertoire of love songs, humorous songs and songs that could move you to tears.
Think of a romantic, moonlit night and “Yeh raat bheegi bheegi, yeh mast fizaayein, utha dheere dheere woh chand pyaara pyaara…” (the Manna Dey-Lata Mangeshkar duet from Chori Chori) sets the mood. Shankar Jaikishan picked him for Raj Kapoor at a time when Mukesh was known as the actor’s voice. The songs and the actors set the screen on fire.
Yeh raat bheegi bheegi (Chori Chori, 1956) Shankar Jaikishan / Shailendra
Well, romance need not be just the young people’s domain in the cine world. The passion Manna Dey injected in “Aye meri zohra zabeen” (from Waqt) proved that middle aged people can be just as romantic and fun as the youth and even today this song is played as a popular DJ track in parties.
“Aao twist karein, jaag utha mausam” (Bhoot Bungla) connected with the youth with it Rock n’ Roll beats while “Tu pyaar ka saagar hai” (Seema) became one of the most popular bhajans of Hindi film music.
The lyrics of “Kasme vaade pyar wafa sab, baatein hain baaton ka kya…” (Upkar) along with Manna Dey’s undeniably soulful rendition made this song a proverbial one, synonymous with broken promises and lost love.
“Ek chatur naar”, Manna Dey’s hilarious duet with Kishore Kumar, which he sang with a deliberate accent, set a whole new standard in fun songs where the rendition had to be playful, yet intricately classical and not slip into slapstick.
Ek Chatur Naar (Padosan, 1968) RD Burman / Rajinder Krishan
Manna Dey, the composer
Unknown to many, Manna Dey was an extraordinary composer as well, making music for a few films and non-film albums. In the 1952-made Tamasha, five out of eight songs were his tunes.
Says Manek Premchand, renowned author of several books on cinema including Romancing the Song and the biography Talat Mahmood – The Velvet Voice, “Among the many reasons he was great was his refusal to take short cuts at recordings, at his interviews, at whatever he did. Restlessly searching for excellence and often getting it. In Tamasha he made three singers playback for a young Meena Kumari, Asha, Lata and Geeta, producing unimaginable footprints of sweet melody.”
Referring to one such example, ‘Thi jinse palbhar ki pehchaan‘, Manek Premchand adds, “Do notice that all three stanzas are composed differently from each other, another instance of this man wanting to take the long route.”
Thi jinse palbhar ki pehchaan (Tamasha, 1952) – Manna Dey / Bharat Vyas / Asha Bhosle
Inimitable Niche in Bangla Music
Manna Dey not only set high standards in Hindi film playback, his repertoire of Bengali songs is just as outstanding. Bengali popular music has basically two genres – film music and modern “adhunik” songs and Manna Dey came up with superhit numbers in both.
“Coffee houser shei adda ta aaj aar neyi” reminiscenced the lost era of Kolkata’s famous coffee house gatherings or “adda” while the classical gems “Ami je jalsaghare” and “Aami jamini tumi shashi hey” (Antony Firingi) brought back the era of the 19th century music. “Ami shri shri bhajohori manna” is a fun song about cooking, “Bado aika laage” (Chowringhee) creates the mood of loneliness while “Jodi Himalay Alps er shomosto jaumat baraf” spells everlasting love. Manna Dey became the playback voice of Bengal’s King of Hearts Uttam Kumar when the star’s legendary partnership with Hemant Kumar faded out.
Coffee Houser sei addata aaj aar neyi (an iconic non-film song) Suparnakanti Ghosh / Gauriprashanna Majumder
These are just a few gems from a treasure of finest music that Manna Dey has left behind. In the south, one of his most famous songs is the iconic “Manasa Maiyne Varu…” in the Malayalam classic Chemeen.
Manna Dey recorded more than 3,500 songs from 1942-2013. Apart from Hindi and Bengali, he also sang in Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Magadhi, Maithilee, Konkani, Sindhri and Chattisgarghi.
Manna Dey’s Personal Favourites
Out of his large repertoire, Manna Dey’s had his own favorite Hindi film songs and for particular reasons. Read about them here (the songs and quotes are sourced from: Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song)
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A great legend did not get the accolades he deserved, yet he carved a niche for himself.
At a show in Delhi, organised by my wife, he wanted to sing only for 90 mins. Dada held the audience spell bound for 3 hours non stop.
This was followed by Dinner at our place, he was very happy and said good night at 1 am.
He had a flight next morning at 6am.
Great person to know and an excellent human being.
Among the new breed of singers which emerged after 1956, Manna Dey’s duets with Suman Kalyanpur were popular making them a celebrated team. Their first duet was “Prem Bada Balwan Jagat” from